Embarking on My 17th Year as a Healthcare Scientist: What have I learnt?

When I applied to become a Clinical Scientist (the term Healthcare Scientist didn’t exist then) in 2004 I have to admit I didn’t even know what one was. This lack of awareness that such a wonderful position existed has been a real driver for me ad became an ongoing passion to raise the profile of this, all too often invisible work force, that impacts across patient pathways and is so key to patient outcomes. If the great future scientists out there don’t know that they can join us, they never will.

Life has changed a lot since I walked in on my first day with very little idea how to pipette, what Staphylococcus aureus was, or how to spell Erythromycin. I (mostly) know what I’m talking about now, I’ve got married, brought a house, got a PhD, passed FRCPath and been awarded a New Years Honour. Importantly for me I found my passion, I know my why and I’m privileged to work with amazing people doing the best job on the planet.

My NHS career turned 17 on the 4th October 2021 and so is old enough to learn to drive. In continuing this metaphor I thought I’d write about the journey so far and what I’ve learnt.

Things to know as you start out on your journey

Have a plan

Your plan will change and evolve over time but if you want to make the most of the opportunities presented to you it’s worth having an idea of what boxes you need to tick in order to get to various fixed points along the way. Do you ultimately want a consultant post? You’ll need FRCPath, what will you need to be able to get there? Do you want to be a lab manager? You’ll need some leadership, recruitment and management experience, what opportunities can you access to help you?

Having a plan doesn’t mean you should feel boxed in and trapped by these ideas, but you can use them to help you prioritise chances that are presented to you. Not only that but can use it to ground yourself when everything feels a little overwhelming. You can also use this awareness to find champions and coaches/mentors that will help support you along the way. Invest a little time early on to make the most of your time later.

It’s OK to re-plan your route

Opportunities will come about and open up that you can’t predict when you start out. The term Healthcare Scientist didn’t exist when I joined the NHS, therefore there certainly weren’t any lead Healthcare Scientists. Getting a PhD wasn’t part of my plan, as when I joined there wasn’t a clear route through to being a Consultant, and so I didn’t know that I needed one. The National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) has been a massive part of my scientific career, enabling me to have a role as a Clinical Academic, but they didn’t even exist until 3 years+ into my career.

So have a plan, but don’t be so tied to it and so linear that you miss out on things that will change your life and career. Having the right people as part of your networks can help you realise when you need to take a leap of faith into one of these alternate routes is key.

Sometimes you may take a wrong turn, the extra journey will not be wasted

There will be times during your career when things don’t go to plan. Road blocks will spring up, paths that seemed clear will be obscured, and to be frank sometimes the car will just break down. The thing to bear in mind at these points is that none of this time is wasted as long as you learn from the experiences being offered to you. Sometimes these experiences are not particularly pleasant whilst you are going through them. I would be lying to you if I said there wouldn’t be challenges along the way. You will however emerge stronger and more knowledgeable from them, as long as you see them for what they are, learning opportunities. So deep breaths, make that cup of tea and know that this is still an important part of your journey.

For those of you mid-trip here are some things I learnt somewhere post registration

Remember you are part of a system at every level and take the time to understand how it works

It was only when I started on my leadership journey as part of the GOSH Gateway to Leadership programme, that I really began to appreciate the importance of systems. As a trainee I was very focussed on my department, with a few links to my professional community at a national level, via the Association of Clinical Biochemists and Laboratory Medicine. It was only when I was on this cross disciplinary programme that I met people who were outside of my silo that I began to understand what the drivers for other peoples behaviour might be.

Now I spend a lot of time in national strategic committees and working with different professional backgrounds and it has enriched not only my practice, but also enabled me to work towards impact on a level I could never achieve as an individual. If you really want to be a driver for change then understanding the landscape within which you are working and making those changes will only make you more successful.

Influence is not about seniority

For a long time when I was starting out I believed that titles and seniority were key to influencing others and therefore supporting change and improvements. It took a while for me to learn about the difference between formal authority and informal authority. Informal authority is actually really key in order to win people over and get engagement with proposals. It’s built up over time, requires work and effort to maintain and is based on your credibility. Formal authority is given to you in the form of job title and role. You can make huge impact where ever you are RIGHT NOW, you don’t need to wait to be given authority. Put in some time and develop the informal authority to enable you to make things happen.

Don’t compete with anyone but yourself, your journey is your own

The world of Healthcare Science is a small one, it can feel like everyone is trying for the same end points and therefore is competing over the same limited opportunities. In my opinion this isn’t actually the truth. It feels like it, but it isn’t. When you speak to people, very rarely do they want the exact same thing as you. This competitive drive can mean that as a community we don’t support each other enough. Once you realise that others are not really competition, it dawns on you that your only competition is actually yourself. You can tick the boxes you need to tick with principles and grace, these don’t require anyone to lose out. Also, if we do these things as a community together we also often achieve more. If we form FRCPath study groups to help us pass then we are not losing out on consultant posts, as more people have FRCPath, we are increasing our chances of succeeding together. There will be enough consultant posts as we are not all looking for the same things in a job, the ideal post for one person will not be the same for another. Don’t spend too much time focussed on what others are doing and achieving, keep an eye on your road map.

We rise by lifting others

Part of succeeding as a community is to really function as a community. Twitter and #IBMSChat are great examples of this, sharing opportunities, knowledge and experiences for the good of everyone. No matter where you are with your journey there will be people behind you who you can sign post and offer support to. This is part of the reason I believe outreach and public engagement is so important, we need to support people at all parts of their pathway.

The other thing is, that it is crucial that as your formal authority increases you consciously make the decision to send the elevator back down, or ride share where you can. As leaders we are obliged (in my opinion) to amplify the voices of those who may not otherwise be heard. If you are lucky enough to have a voice then you need to use it, not just for yourself, but for everyone that either doesn’t have one or holds one that is unheard or ignored.

You will never be liked by everyone, and that’s ok

Amplifying the voice of others or being a driver for change, frequently does not increase your popularity. I’ve always been a people pleaser, I want people to like me, I want positive feedback, I want positive reinforcement. Sadly I have discovered that not everyone is going to like me. I am not going to be everyones favourite person. Being someone who likes change and disrupts the status quo will lead to benefits, but will also make people feel uncomfortable and that will sometimes drive challenging behaviour. Sometimes clinically it’s also my job to hold the line, to deliver bad news, to not be the popular one. Not everyone is going to like me, but I’ve discovered that it is rarely personal. It’s mostly about the response to the role or the situation and some key learning for me has been learning to separate these from who I am, in order to not take it personally.

What to do when you hit your original destination

Know your why, why are you doing this? What are you passionate about? Where are you going?

When you reach your planned destination, there’s only one thing to do and that’s plan for the next stop along the way. It’s really important therefore to check in with yourself and know your why? Why did you pick this original target and how are you now going to build upon all of the hard work that has got you to this point? What is your driving purpose and how are you going to stay true to that in the next phase of your career?

It’s worth doing some of this thinking as you approach your destination so that you can be ready once you’ve re-stocked on drinks, snacks and mix tapes/downloaded Spotify playlists to hit the road again.

Sit back, smell the roses and take time to celebrate

Finally, to complete the metaphor. It’s important to look in the back mirror every now and again to assess just how far you’ve come. Celebrating can feel indulgent and like boasting, in fact it’s the opposite. It’s inspiring to those that are following behind you and is important to show to others that they to can achieve. People can’t be what they can’t see and so by talking about the journey you will enable others to make informed choices about their own. On long journeys it can feel like you still have miles to go but by looking back you can see how far you’ve come and put it into some kind of context.

I’ve been listening to Hamilton a lot lately and these words have a particular resonance for me. Whatever your journey, it is yours and no one elses, therefore it will come together at the time that is right for you. So celebrate the moments, large and small, after all the journey is most of the fun.

I am the one thing in life I can control
(Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it)
I am inimitable
I am an original

I’m not falling behind or running late
(Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it)
I’m not standing still
I am lying in wait (Wait, wait, wait)

Wait For It – Hamilton

All opinions on this blog are my own

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