This page provides information for people who are interested in leading their own research.
What is a clinical academic GP?
A clinical academic is a clinician who spends a significant proportion of their time doing academic work, usually employed by a university. A typical clinical academic might split their time 60/40 between academic and clinical work, although in general practice this is often 80/20.
Academic work may include some teaching, but these notes apply specifically to careers which focus upon research. Careers in medical education are addressed in a separate document.
What type of research do they do?
Clinical academic GPs do research which covers the full range of work in general practice. Some academic GPs focus on clinical research. This might include disease-specific research (for example, diabetes or asthma) or it might include more general topics such as frailty, aging or multimorbidity.
Others do research which focuses on the way services are organised, researching things like continuity of care, access to services or health inequalities.
Research in general practice is cross-disciplinary. This means researchers use all sorts of approaches, from clinical trials to social science and everything in between, using both numerical (quantitative) and non-numerical (qualitative) methods. Clinical academic GPs work alongside highly qualified non-clinical researchers with a very wide variety of backgrounds.
What does a typical academic role involve?
The core of an academic research job is to design research projects, bring in money to support them, lead the projects and write up the results as reports and academic papers.
A typical clinical academic professor will lead a team of researchers, manage projects, supervise PhDs and engage with national and international colleagues to set the research agenda in their field. This might involve serving on funding panels, NICE guideline groups or Royal College working groups.
As you develop your academic career you become known for a particular area of research and take on more roles as your research evolves. Clinical academics get the chance to shape the way care is delivered at a national or even international scale, and it can be very rewarding, although it is also very demanding.
What qualifications do you need for a clinical academic role?
It is important to understand research involves a whole new set of skills in addition to those you learned at medical school. Whilst your medical school experience gives you a good grounding in things like critical appraisal of research, there are many things not taught at medical school that you will need to learn. For most people this starts with a Master’s degree in research methods. Some people will have intercalated while at medical school and may already have an additional qualification.
In terms of getting into research, what matters is how much training you have in research methods. Some intercalated degrees contain a significant amount of training in research methods, but others don’t, so exactly what additional training you need will depend on what you have done before.
Master’s in research methods (an example) can often be done part time and as online courses. They give you a thorough grounding in a wide variety of research methods, and are invaluable as a first step.
Once you have a Master’s degree, you will then need to do a PhD. PhDs take three years (or up to six years part time) and involve you doing your own supervised research project. Once you have a PhD, then there are a range of possible job opportunities, including NIHR clinical lectureships. These involve you working 50/50 in academic work and general practice, and can be the stepping stone into a permanent academic career.
How can I get started as a clinical academic?
Some people get into an academic role via an Academic Clinical Fellowship (ACF). This is an academic GP training track, which involves doing the research training alongside GP training. Most ACFs do a Master’s in research methods, and work towards an application for funding to do a PhD.
If you haven’t been an ACF there are other routes in. The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) oversees clinical academic training and funds a variety of fellowships to get people started and then to support them along the way. GPs with no previous formal academic training can apply for an In-Practice Fellowship. These fund you 50 per cent for two years, and will fund things like Master’s degree fees. To apply for the fellowship, you propose a project and a training programme, with a view to applying for a Doctoral Fellowship (DRF). These fund you for a PhD, including your salary, fees and the costs of your research. You can take them up part time, continuing your clinical work at the same time. Other bodies also fund PhDs, including the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and various charities.
What makes a successful application?
In order to be successful in applying for one of these types of fellowships you need to show you understand research and have some sort of track record. This might sound daunting, but you can include things like audits you have undertaken, things you did as a medical student etc. It is also important your proposals for training and for a project are sensible and achievable. The Centre for Primary Care and Health Services Research at the University of Manchester has a track record of success in this area and can help you both gain experience and develop a good application.
The Centre for Primary Care and Health Services Research at the University of Manchester welcomes informal approaches from GPs or GP trainees who are interested in an academic career. They can talk to you about their work, introduce you to researchers in different fields and support you in developing a competitive fellowship application. They also sometimes have small amounts of ‘seedcorn’ funding which you may be able to access to support you for a day a week whilst you build up some research experience and develop your ideas.