Who is a Clinical Academic?
A clinical academic is someone who is qualified and trained in both medicine and science. We spend our lives balancing direct clinical care, original scientific research, and teaching and training the next generation in varying proportions.
This balance differs enormously across individuals, and usually changes throughout a career. For some, the ability to work in a scientific laboratory and conduct original research unencumbered by administrative or bureaucratic responsibilities is the main attraction. For others, it's the ability to go - both intellectually and practically in the course of a working day - from the lab bench to the bedside and back again. Still others will excel in clinical academic leadership and training and developing the next generation.
Every clinical academic has different motivations and enjoys different aspects of their work. But all are brought together by their tripartite commitment to clinical medicine, academic research plus teaching and training.
How do I become a Clinical Academic?
Becoming a clinical academic, self-evidently, requires some training in research. Most medical students will have been exposed to some aspects of clinical and perhaps pre-clinical ('basic science') research at medical school, perhaps through an intercalated degree or other undergraduate project.
This sort of experience is nothing more than a 'taster'; but like clinical 'tasters' in Foundation, this sort of experience can be incredibly helpful in enthusing people and often seeding the very first idea that an academic career might be for them.
The academic component of clinical academic training consists of three stages:
The first 'predoctoral' stage consists of finding an interesting area of research and getting some early 'taster' experience in this area, perhaps acquiring preliminary data or even maybe publishing a paper or two. Undergraduate and Masters research projects and clinical research projects undertaken during the early stages of training are common examples of this type of predoctoral work.
The second stage consists of undertaking a research degree (PhD or less commonly these days MD). The challenges include finding a supportive PhD supervisor, effective time and project management during the course of the PhD, and successfully reintegrating into clinical training at the end of the PhD. See below for useful advice.
The third and final stage of clinical academic training is postdoctoral work, sometimes known as 'clinician scientist training'. Often this involves moving away from the laboratory where you did your PhD, and sometimes involves overseas training.
- Selecting Your Supervisor
Selecting your supervisor is one of the most important things you will do in your academic career, so you need to take your time and do your homework! Finding a supervisor is not hard, but many excellent supervisors will not be immediately obvious and you should carefully research each potential supervisor as well as meet with them, and most importantly with the members of their research group. Ask around, use the UCL website and PubMed to draw up a short list. You can approach anyone on your short list easily; all supervisors receive many potential applications by email and so an email out of the blue is completely normal. Make sure you write a short but compelling email summarising your current position, your specific interest in a PhD with potential starting times, thoughts about potential funding sources (if you know of any) and attach a CV. If the supervisor is interested in meeting with you then they will set up a short meeting. Don't panic - you are not being interviewed and this is generally a friendly chat to establish interest. You should have some ideas about what you might like to do, but do not need a fully developed project at this stage.
Remember three golden rules that should guide your search for a supervisor:
- Your potential research supervisor should have a track record of internationally competitive research, with high quality publications commensurate with their career to date. Look at their PubMed entry and check that you can discern a clear theme to their research and/or methodology; check their research group website for further details of associated publications and citations. You want to be able to work in the research group of a world leader, or potential world leader.
- Regardless of your potential supervisor's publication track record and/or general fame in the field, you must meet them before making any decisions. The professional relationship between supervisor and supervisee will last several years, and for many people this will be the longest they have ever spent in one place. So you should meet with your potential supervisor, chat and get an idea about what sort of a supervisor they will be and whether you like them. Gut feelings are very important here; you need to be able to get on with your supervisor, but also be inspired and guided by them.
- When you meet your potential supervisor, you should also meet existing students in the research group. If there aren't any, this is generally a bad sign. Even research groups starting off usually have one or two members, although they may not be clinical fellows but basic scientists. That doesn't matter; the purpose of meeting the research group members is to find out what the research group is like and how the group leader (your potential supervisor) treats them. It goes without saying that you need such a meeting to take place without the group leader being present, so you can get an honest opinion!
- Finding Your Funding
Sometimes your supervisor will have access to funding that can support you in your research, but it is more common to apply for a personal Fellowship. UCL has one of the largest portfolios of clinical research training fellowships from major funders such as the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research (UK), the MRC, and the Wellcome Trust; as well as many of the smaller charities. There are a wide variety of Fellowships available and they vary in the stage of training for which they are appropriate, the length of support offered and the type of support. Some are specific to particular academic topics or clinical disciplines. You need to make sure that you have discussed potential funding sources with your supervisor. It will take time to develop a Fellowship proposal, and after submitting a proposal it will take several months for the funder to make a decision on whether to shortlist and interview you, so you need to leave enough time for this lengthy process. Remember you will also need to contact the postgraduate Deanery to plan your 'Out of Programme Research Experience', which should be done when you apply for a Fellowship and not when you finally secure one! The list below includes most of the charities and research councils that offer clinical academic training fellowships, with links to their websites where you can find details of the eligibility criteria and application deadlines.
- Developing Your Project
Many people who approach a potential supervisor do not have a fully developed and detailed description of the project they wish to undertake. This is absolutely fine, in fact, having a very detailed project can present difficulties for potential PhD students or clinical fellows as this project might not fit well within an academic environment, the specific supervisors available or to a three year project timeframe. But equally, it is best not to search for a supervisor and a project without any idea at all of what you want to do in terms of your research. Developing a project therefore should be approached as a flexible, iterative affair where the trainee identifies a potential supervisor, discusses potential projects of mutual interest and then works up a specific project into a Fellowship application. This process can take several weeks or months and so it is important you leave enough time for this part of the application stage. Getting it right is important because a successful project with an outstanding supervisor is the foundation upon which you will build your future academic career. A good research project is one that addresses a clearly articulated scientific hypothesis of basic or clinical importance, that is achievable in a three year time frame, and which has challenging but realistic goals.
- Useful Funding Links
UCL is a large research-intensive university of global standing and has central London facilities that are amongst the best in the world. Our in-house facilities are complemented by our proximity to and close working relationship with national resources such as the Francis Crick Institute. UCL is part of UCL Partners, an Academic Health Science Centre (AHSC) covering a population of approximately six million people living and working in London. At UCL, trainees have access to an exceptional research environment that maps onto identified national skills gap including:
UCL Research Centres
- UCL Human Tissue Biobanks.
- Biosciences Electron Microscopy Facility.
- Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging (CABI).
- Centre for Medical Image Computin (CMIC).
- UCL Transgenic Service.
- UCL Genomics.
- Proteomics Research Core Facility (PRCF).
- Zebrafish Facility.
Collaborations with UCL
- Birkbeck-UCL Centre for Neuroimaging.
- Francis Crick Institute.
- Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging.
- Wellcome/Gatsby Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour.