The Fear of Next Steps: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I think that it’s only natural during a stressful time like a pandemic that we feel the need to reflect and re-evaluate the direction of our lives and careers. For me this has been very much about the next stage of my career and how or when I should take the leap to trying to secure a consultant grade post.

For those of you who are less familiar with Healthcare Science career paths, when I joined in 2004 I was told I was on an 9 – 11 year pathway to Consultant grade (equivalent to my medical colleagues). In reality that pathway is anything other than transparent or straight forward.

The stages were due to be:

  • Train for three years and complete Clinical Scientist training
  • Take MRCPath part 1 in medical microbiology and, after 4th anniversary, gain Health and Care Professionals Council registration
  • Spend five years doing a part time PhD whilst in clinical service to become research accredited
  • Years 9-11 take FRCPath in medical microbiology and become clinically qualified, equivalent to medical colleagues
  • Get consultant post

Sounds Straightforward. Right?

For the main part, the pathway for me worked out OK. Mostly because I was awarded fellowship money from the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), which brought me out time to do both FRCPath by exam and attain a PhD. I completed my PhD and passed FRCPath in 2015,11 years after starting my training.

Five Years Later and I Don’t Have a Consultant Post. Why is that?

Partly, it’s not that simple. Consultant Clinical Scientist posts are just not that common. It’s also because from 2016 – 2019 I was undertaking another fellowship from the NIHR, a Clinical Lectureship, and so was continuing my training as I didn’t feel ready. Since finishing that I’ve been somewhat held up by a global pandemic but also, and I’m being honest here, by deciding what the right step forward was for me.

What Does Success Mean to Me?

When we talk about pathways it always appears clear-cut: after a certain number of years of service and training we should step up. Success is about getting acknowledged at the right banding and in the right job. In the last couple of years I’ve been forced to realise that it’s so much more complicated than that. Our professional careers do not live in isolation outside of our lives. For me I’ve been forced to realise that I’m not Superwoman. I have some physical health issues that mean, these days, I can only push myself so hard without paying the consequences. When I was doing (simultaneously) a PGCert, PhD and FRCPath I didn’t have a weekend off in three years. I developed alopecia and lost sections of hair and exacerbated my autoimmune condition. I’ve been made to realise that I clearly cannot keep up that pace. There are also costs I’m no longer willing to pay in terms of my family life. My husband and family have put up with missed birthdays, anniversaries and just being absent. My husband has taken the majority of the load in keeping our lives together and, at some point, I have to take back my share of the load. My sister and niece also died during this time and reminded me how short the time we have with people is. I suppose my point is that I realised I didn’t want a consultant post ‘at any cost’. It had to be the right consultant post, one that I could balance with my family and health commitments and also one that was professionally satisfying.

By the time I felt that I was psychologically ready to take up a consultant post I became increasingly aware that, although the situation was changing, it really wasn’t like they were sitting around waiting for me, at least in the areas that I could currently make work with all the considerations I talked about above. Once you have defined what your version of success looks like, you then have to go about starting to fight to make it happen. I’ve been pretty lucky in terms of having advocates and mentors to support me, but it has been a deliberate effort to go and find both. There’s no getting around the fact that even when you’ve decided what your end point looks like you won’t be able to get there on your own. That said, no one else can make it happen for you. You need to drive the process and seize upon the opportunities presented to you. Sometimes that means sticking to your boundaries and making a space for yourself at the table that works for you. As women we often feel uncomfortable negotiating and setting expectations, but if you want to achieve your version of success there’s no way of getting around the fact that you will have to be prepared to lead and embody the senior position you wish to attain.

So I’ve decided I’m ready now, ready to go, ready to take the leap from where I am now to a consultant post. Now I just need to find the one that is right for me. I’m working on it, but only time will tell if I will succeed. Even thinking about taking that next step makes me feel fear. It makes me question whether I am good enough. Whether people will respect me. Whether I will succeed as a scientist in the world of medics. You know what? That doesn’t matter. I feel the fear, I acknowledge it, and then when my moment comes I intend to do it anyway!

So, if you too are reflecting on next steps, be that because of the pandemic or for other reasons, my thoughts are these: don’t let others peoples definition of success define yours, spend time working out what your success criteria look like, but once you know what they are don’t let fear stop you. Find the people who will help lift you up and rationalise that fear. Look over that cliff edge and jump.

All thoughts in this blog are my own

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