Julie Ferguson

Research and Education Coordinator, NHS Education for Scotland.

Former research staff at Queen Margaret University and the University of York, UK.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Research staff experience

My background is in health psychology and I have five years’ research staff experience.

I moved from my native Scotland to take up a post as a psychology research assistant at the Centre for Cardiac Care and Education at the University of York. My main research area was self-management of cardiac conditions, and my main achievement a self-management manual I developed for patients with heart failure and their carers. I also analysed various research questionnaires, carried out literature searches and reviews. It was only a year’s post (2005-06) but was my first research position in higher education.

Next I moved back to Scotland, and took up post as a research assistant at Queen Margaret University, Centre for the Older Persons Agenda (COPA). It was a research centre within the university that focussed on older people’s issues. I was mainly involved in the evaluation of various services, including a digital inclusion project. I worked there for four years, from 2006 to 2009.

The decision to leave higher education research was not my own. The centre I worked for (COPA) was not able to secure any more funding, and I was made redundant.

At the time I was also part way through completing my doctorate.

Transition to new career

On being made redundant from my research assistant post, I did look for other jobs within higher education, however I did not manage to secure a research position within a university. The post I’m in now came up and I applied for it. I felt that, although the job was not based within a university, it was still an academic research post and I would be able to utilise the skills I had gained by working as a research assistant and through my doctorate. 

When I was offered the position I asked my doctoral supervisor for her view; she also felt that I would be able to make use of my research skills and that the post would be sufficiently challenging. 

Another main reason for accepting the job was that, unlike the majority of posts within the university sector, the position was permanent, which offered me job security. As it was a brand new post it also gave me the opportunity to develop it - within reason - in the way I wanted. 

I did find the move from higher education to the health sector quite challenging, as in academia I was in a more ‘relaxed’, less structured environment. In my previous roles I worked more or less autonomously and was able to organise my work time in the way that was best for me (while still working a 37.5 hour week). Although I was accountable to my line managers, I basically managed my own work load. In the health sector, while I have some autonomy, the hours are more structured, giving less flexibility than before.

Current job and how it compares

My current job is research and education coordinator for NHS Education for Scotland (NES). As the first and sole research and education coordinator for NES I have enjoyed developing the job I began in 2009. 

My role is an incredibly varied one. I carry out both qualitative and quantitative research and evaluation, both leading and assisting with research projects in the areas of patient safety, training GPs (community doctors), GP continuing professional development (CPD), practice nurse CPD and staff appraisal. I plan, implement and analyse interviews and focus groups, develop, distribute and analyse questionnaires and write up the findings in reports and journal articles for publication. I also carry out literature reviews, including systematic literature reviews. I plan and deliver research workshops. I also evaluate - and sometimes deliver - education courses.

My main achievement in this post is being the first author on a number of journal articles, and having one of my articles mentioned in the journal’s editorial. I have also presented the findings of a number of studies at various conferences.

While I work for the NHS, I feel that there are many similarities with research in higher education. However, unlike my previous work based in a research centre, I now work in an open plan office, where the majority of people are not researchers. Also, when I was in higher education I worked in project teams with a number of colleagues whose main role was carrying out research. In my current job the majority of the professionals do not have research as their main role. I work with doctors and other health professionals, many of whom either still work as GPs and/or are involved in delivering training.

Competencies old and new

I’m lucky in that I’m able to use a lot of the skills I gained as a research assistant, including qualitative and quantitative research methods, presentation skills and various interprofessional skills.

I don’t think I have had to gain any completely new skills to work outside higher education. I have, however, had to learn to adapt to a somewhat different environment.

While I’m pleased to be using a number of skills from my doctorate and my previous research posts, I regret that I’m not utilising many of my health psychology skills. I completed my doctorate 18 months ago and am now a qualified health psychologist, and in a way I feel that this training is being wasted. 

Reflecting on my career path

My career has had variety, and the path it has taken is not the one I envisaged when I started out. I enjoy the work I do but I would love to actually work as a Health Psychologist, either practising within the NHS, or in higher education carrying out research in a health psychology-related field.

I’m not sure what ­- if anything - I would have done differently. Perhaps not take so long to finish my doctorate. I let it slide for a few years and it was really difficult to pick it back up again and finish it. I would also have asked for help/advice sooner about the direction my thesis was taking and the methodology I was employing. 

Suggestions and advice

Attend and present at conferences – even if it is just a poster. Use the time at the conference to network. As an introvert I find networking really difficult, but it is a way of meeting other researchers in the field you are working in and learning about what work is currently being done in your research area.

Speak to other researchers about your research. If you are developing a research proposal, or having trouble with some aspect of your research, ask other researchers for advice. In research, peer support is invaluable: make use of existing networks within the university or build your own network. Don’t try to struggle along alone.  I made the mistake of trying to struggle along myself during my doctorate and probably delayed finishing by a year because of this.