Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was a Trainee: My top ten tips for making the most of your journey

It’s an exciting time for a lot of people right now, a lot of people are planning new phases of study starting in September/October. In the world of Healthcare Science we have people starting PhDs as part of HSST (people training towards becoming Consultants) and new STPs (people training to be become Healthcare Scientists) all beginning their new journeys. It feels like a really good time to talk about all the things I wish I’d known when I started out in order to make people feel less alone, as well as encouraging them to make the most of every part of this next stage.

It’s never about being the smartest person in the room

When I first started in my role as a trainee Clinical Scientist, and then as a PhD student, I just remember being over awed by everyone is the room. Everyone had amazing titles, years of experience and just an aura that suggested competence and knowledge. Even all these years later I sometimes feel that way, especially in rooms I haven’t been in before. It took me a long time to understand that my contribution wasn’t about being smarter than anyone else, I’ve never been the smartest person in any room. Your contribution will be about offering a new perspective that is unique to you. Sometimes that’s from a technical scientific point of view. Sometimes that will be by who you can connect the people in the room with. Sometimes that will be by offering a different lens through which the situation can be seen, being new to an environment means you will be able to review things without historical bias.

Manage your training officer/supervisor

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve been the PhD student who couldn’t get time with their supervisor and the Clinical Scientist trainee who just wanted to be included. I am now the PhD supervisor/training officer whose diary looks like a train wreck and who feels constantly guilty about not having enough time to devote to those who she’s training. One of the key skills that I had to develop as a trainee, and now encourage in those I supervise, is to develop skills in supervisor management. This includes things like understanding what your own needs are: do you like micromanagement/close support, or are you more interested in a light touch. Ask how your supervisor works: are they someone who likes drop ins, or are they like me i.e. if it isn’t in the diary it won’t happen. Learn how to support the process by keeping notes of the meetings and emailing them for record keeping/prompts. Finally, spend the time to think about what you want from each face to face to make sure you maximise your time. Also, don’t repeatedly stand them up – it sends out ALL the wrong signals and if you don’t value my time I will value our meetings less.

We all fail, frequently

No one really talks about it but we all fail, I fail all the time. Now sometimes those failures are big and sometimes they are small and minor, like not having a conversation well. I wasted a lot of time at the start of my training by trying to be perfect and as a consequence I feel I didn’t maximise the learning in those first few years. If I discovered an error I quickly (and safely) corrected it, but I had such anxiety over it I didn’t really reflect on it, I wanted to fix it and move on. I also (apart from safety reporting) didn’t really talk about it with my supervisor. This meant that the team as a whole missed out on learning from system based failures. If mistakes happen, especially serious errors, they tend to be compound events linked to multiple failures along a pathway. The best way to avoid these errors to identify the weak points in the system when minor issues occur singly, so it reduces the chance of a compound failure later on. Long and short, don’t be afraid of failure, focus on learning from it and know we are all in this together.

There are no stupid questions

I love people that ask questions, it makes me think, it makes me remember why I’ve made decisions and assess if they are still relevant. When I started out I was worried that asking questions would just demonstrate my ignorance, and at the start of my training I was concerned about what people thought about me coming in as a non microbiologist and being behind everyone else. It takes courage to ask questions and be part of the discussion. As a trainer it is very difficult to evaluate whether you are covering knowledge gaps or pitching what you are doing correctly if the dialogue is one way. As your confidence grows it is also good to question and challenge, there are many different ways of doing things and only by having dialogue can you really understand why certain decisions get made under some circumstances and not in others. If you are an introvert and not comfortable asking questions openly, make notes, email and discuss your findings, find a way that works for you and work for your mentor.

Make copious notes

You will be given a LOT of information when you start, well to be honest all the way through your training, but the start can present information overload. When I look back at my notes from the first week of my training I obviously didn’t know what some of the words meant, let alone the context. By taking copious notes throughout however it meant that once I had found my feet I could review those notes and gain new information I was unable to take in the first time. By reviewing notes when you come back to something, after a break or rotation else where, you will be able to make connections which may not have been obvious to you the first time around. It will also enable you to ask questions better (see above) and have more enriched meetings with you mentor/trainer/supervisor as you will have access to specifics. Not only that but it will mean that you demonstrate attention and will enable you to ask questions that add to your experience. Plus when you look back at your notes from 10 years ago it will make your realise how far you’ve come and how much you have achieved!

Be the master of your own destiny

Every trainee/student is different. Hopefully you will get a supervisor who will have the time to help you reflect on your learning needs, but you need to also be able to develop the skills to do this yourself as you won’t always have access to someone to do it with you. Most training programmes are quite structured but there are always many different ways to deliver on the same learning outcomes. This is a career and every career journey is personal, so the sooner you can get into the habit of thinking about what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what your specialist areas of interest could be, the more you will get out of any opportunities you are offered. Within academia and the NHS you will often not be offered opportunities on a plate, but if you know what you want and find the opportunity out, you will very rarely get blocked from accessing them. Start thinking early about what could enrich your training and find ways to access those experiences.

Sadly this is not a 9-5 but you can do this and have a life

I’ve sat in a lot of lectures from very senior people who talk to trainees about clinical and academic work not being 9 – 5, it’s true but in many ways this saddens me. It gets spoken about as if you can’t have a life, you either choose devotion to this vocation or it isn’t for you. There will definitely be points where you have to commit more than the standard hours, exam revision, dissertation writing etc, but this shouldn’t be all the time. I encourage my guys to take on extra curricula activities such as STEM engagement, which often happen on the weekend, but this is a few times a year. Training shouldn’t be about burn out. To fully learn and develop it is crucial to have mental space to reflect and recovery time. You need to early on find strategies that work for you to manage your time. Do you want to block out every Friday afternoon for paper reading? If you do need to put in some extra hours would you rather do it at your desk to maintain work home separation, or work on the sofa. Be aware early of working to manage stress rather than to manage task and develop strategies to enable yourself to walk away and unwind (my trainees and students will be laughing at the hypocrisy of me writing this line, but do as I say not do as I do, I too am constantly learning).

Have a plan for what’s next

3 years feels like a long time when you start but it’s not really. Before you know, it will be 18 months in and you will need to start thinking about what the next stage of your career may look like. As part of your progress it is therefore important to make sure you regularly check in with yourself about what you’ve enjoyed and you’re aspirations to make sure you’re on track for the career you want. The more you do this, the more you will be able to mould your training around the experiences and networks you will need to help you succeed. A lot of us fall into career choices, but if you can be deliberate it will help you find happiness as well as success.

Reach out and connect

It’s not what you know but who you know. This isn’t entirely correct, but finding opportunities often depends on knowing the people who are making them or have access to them. This is often difficult when you are starting out in a new field or career as you don’t know who people are in order to hear about things. This goes for job posts as well as learning and accessing skills. There are now some ways where you can do this on your own, such as social media, which are less reliant on introductions – join us on Twitter. However this is where extra curricula’s can really help. Join your professional body, find a trainee network, engage in patient and public engagement, go for coffee with your fellow trainees and PhD students. Relationships and connections forged now will pay dividends later and are worth the investment, even if you are busy with other things.

Enjoy the ride

I was so focused on the end goal that I didn’t enjoy the journey as much as I should have. I spent 17 years focussed on making consultant, ticking boxes along the way like PhD and FRCPath, that I didn’t live in the moment. I was always focussed on the next step, the next target and so I didn’t enjoy the freedom that my training presented me with. Being supernumerary only occurs early in your career and gives you a freedom to make decisions and enjoy experiences you just won’t get later on. Learning is your focus right now, free of the demands of the inbox, meetings and other peoples agendas. Make sure you relish every moment as you will have less and less time to just enjoy learning as your career progresses.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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