Peter Hartley , Physiotherapist

Dunhill Medical Trust Doctoral Fellow & Physiotherapist

Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge & Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust

How would you describe your current role as clinical academic?

I currently feel more like an academic than a clinician due to being a full time PhD student, though I get to spend some of my time being clinical as part of the research studies I am completing. I’m very conscious of trying to keep a foot in both camps during my studies and regularly try to attend meetings and teaching sessions.

My PhD is funded by a Dunhill Medical Trust Research Training Fellowship, and titled: Investigating and Preventing the Loss of Muscle Strength and Physical Function in Frail Older Adults Who Experience an Unplanned Period of Hospitalisation. This is very closely linked to my previous clinical role as a physiotherapist working in the Department of Medicine for the Elderly, and I continue to work with the same group of colleagues as I worked with before starting my PhD.

How did you get here?

A little bit by accident. A few years after qualifying as a physiotherapist I replied to an email expressing interest in an NIHR MSc in research methodology at the University of Hertfordshire, and a very short time later I was back in a lecture theatre. I continued to work part time during my MSc, and by the end I was hooked on the idea of a clinical academic career.

The physiotherapy department at Cambridge University NHS Foundation Trust was incredibly supportive from the start, as were academics at local universities, particularly UEA and Cambridge. Getting funding for my PhD took a few years and a couple of applications, and I think I learnt as much about research in this time as I did in my MSc. A big turning point for me was when I was fortunate enough to receive a bridging fellowship from the Cambridge BRC and Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust giving me the time to write a successful application.

What difference has your research training and experience made to your career?

It has opened up so many more opportunities and career options. However, the biggest difference is in re-instilling job satisfaction. My clinical work had become a little less fulfilling, as due to growing bed pressures within the NHS I felt our work was becoming more about assessment and discharging than about delivering rehabilitation. I was increasingly concerned about hospital-associated deconditioning but felt somewhat powerless to make real changes. Being given the opportunity by the Dunhill Medical Trust to study for a PhD, conduct my research, and work with so many inspiring people has provided huge motivation. It has not only made me feel that making real change in clinical practice is possible, but also enabled me to have a clinical academic career.

What are your top tips for anyone wanting to become a clinical academic?

  • Although it is undoubtedly going to be a struggle at times, it is very much worth it!
  • The most important step in my opinion is finding a good mentor/supervisor, or even better, a whole team of them!