This article was first published in Dietetics Today, March 2021.
Two years of dietetic practice had left me with a growing list of questions about clinical practice, a spirit of curiosity, and an inkling that I wanted to start pursuing a research aspect to my clinical career. The problem was where to start when I felt that I lacked the necessary experience and did not have time in my clinical role to explore research. Through a local Council for Allied Health Professions Research (CAHPR) meeting I discovered The National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) internship scheme. This internship is a short (around six months) programme for those with little or no research experience and provides an opportunity to experience the clinical academic research environment and develop research skills alongside your clinical role. It is a great starting place if you are considering a clinical academic career.
The scheme is managed regionally by Health Education England (HEE) and varies according to locality. Some areas provide a set programme with a cohort of other interns. In the South West area the internship involves a grant of up to £10,000. Through the application process you propose a budget which includes formal training in research, costs for the part-time backfill of your clinical role and academic supervision. If this is the case in your area, be specific about what you plan to do with your time. For example I included research shadowing, training, supervision and private study. I sketched out a timetable and added it to my budget; this shows you have thought through what you need to develop your skills and how you can achieve your objectives.
At one point I was hesitant about applying for the internship as I felt that I needed a developed research proposal, but the internship is really a starting point. You do need an area of research interest that you wish to develop further, and this forms part of your application and is discussed at interview. This should be an area where possible changes could impact patient care and the NHS. The internship provides time to further explore your chosen topic area and work towards a proposal of research for further funding.
“Dietetics needs clinical academics to lead research that will inform best practice”
Patient and public involvement (PPI) is crucial to clinical research and even the application process provided a good learning curve in this area. PPI is all about having patient and public input at every level of the research process, from prioritising what research is important to planning practical aspects of clinical trials. As part of the application, state how you intend to weave PPI into the internship; this may be further discussed at interview. Think this through and see it as crucial to your proposed area of research if you want a strong application. Take a look at the NIHR's INVOLVE site for further information on PPI.
The internship is the beginning of a possible clinical academic career, although it is competitive and the future uncertain, you need to show that you are interested in progressing through to becoming a clinical academic. Show that you are interested in doing a PhD and beyond that using the training to benefit patients. Find out about the vision for clinical academic careers with the NHS.