In this series we talk to some of our past PhD students about why they got into research, what an ARC PhD meant to them, and what happened next in their research careers. At PenARC we believe in creating opportunities for research training as an investment in the future of the research community and in our capacity to positively impact on health outcomes for patients and the public. Our studentships are linked to our research themes and priority areas and students receive expert supervision and guidance from our academic colleagues.
Here we meet Dr Ross Watkins, currently working in the Department for Health at the University of Bath.
Can you tell us about your PhD project? What led you to undertake it?
Before embarking on a research career, I was a Marketing Manager. During a keynote presentation at a marketing conference in London the speaker placed a series of objects on the stage beside him and asked us to imagine that he was the sun, and the objects lined up beside him were the planets in our solar system. He asked us to estimate where the closest star in our galaxy was. After a few wild guesses (five rows back, the back of the auditorium, Earls Court tube station?) he told us that the nearest sun to our own would, on this scale, be approximately as far away as Australia. It was the most interesting and inspiring thing that I heard at the conference and confirmed that a career in marketing probably wasn’t for me. I resigned from my job and took the first steps towards a research career. Whilst I clearly wasn’t going to be an astrophysicist, I was keen to get back into education to learn about things that interested me.
After completing an MSc in Nutrition, my PhD focused on the role of mealtimes in structuring the health, wellbeing, and quality of life of older adults living in care. Malnutrition (undernutrition) is one of the greatest threats to an older person’s wellbeing and autonomy, and often remains undetected and untreated in care homes. My project was informed by two systematic reviews which suggested that simple changes such as the style of food service, seating arrangements and the playing of music can positively influence nutritional outcomes and the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia. My doctoral research articulated a means of meeting some of these challenges through mealtime interventions.
Can you tell us about your current research?
I split my time between two projects. The first is a Versus Arthritis-funded project to develop a digital intervention for young people at risk of developing knee osteoarthritis. Using the Person-Based Approach, I’ve conducted qualitative studies with target users and healthcare practitioners to inform the development of a smartphone app and identify challenges to its implementation.
The second project is assessing the impact of virtual consultations (telephone, video calls) amongst patients and practitioners. I’m working with the Gerontology Department at the Royal United Hospital in Bath to explore the acceptability and user (practitioner, carer, patient) experience of moving to virtual consultations to help inform future research and generate recommendations for implementation and best practice.
What sort of impact do you anticipate, or would you like to see, your research have?
Impact is the operative word. As a researcher I think it’s important to ask yourself what real-world difference your research could make. As researchers we’re constantly building on existing knowledge and attempting to address key questions, but in health research, there’s a real focus on applied research – impact is often measured in terms of providing practical solutions to problems. Whilst publishing your research in leading academic journals is always an important goal, it may not be the most pivotal output. During my PhD, I co-produced a mealtime training guide for care home staff in conjunction with stakeholders. Seeing this training guide rolled out and used by care homes in the South West was really satisfying. I hope for similar impact with the smartphone app that our research group is developing.
How did your PhD project affect your current research?
My PhD certainly taught me a lot about how to conduct research, and I’ve applied many of the skills that I learnt during my PhD to subsequent projects. And, although the projects that I’m involved in currently have a different research focus, many of the research methods and intervention design principles are the same.
How important was the participation of patients in your research?
Absolutely essential. I believe that the involvement of patients and other stakeholders throughout the research process helps to maximise the benefits of your research. Often, researchers don’t have first-hand experience of the health condition being investigated and so might overlook some of the important questions that a lay person might ask. My PhD topic was informed by a patient and public involvement group, and all of my subsequent research has involved the ongoing involvement of stakeholders: from qualitative interviews to explore the problem, through to the ‘Think Aloud’ studies to inform intervention development, and feasibility and acceptability testing of interventions. In the future, I’d like to explore citizen science approaches too, involving stakeholders as amateur researchers – with potential benefits for capacity, scale up, and an increase in patient and public awareness.
What happens next? How would you like your research career to develop?
I hope to continue my research career, focussing on the application of the behavioural and social sciences to health care and the delivery of care. I’d like to work on developing interventions for marginalised, stigmatised or under-represented groups in society that are aimed at improving health, wellbeing and quality of life. I’m interested in how establishing meaningful social connections (or social identity) with other people in group settings critically shapes wellbeing and general quality of life – with clear implications for wider health. My research experience has shown me the benefit of peer support to address mutual challenges, knowing and being comforted by the fact that others share one’s difficulties, and collaboratively devising strategies to overcome some of these difficulties.
Would you recommend a research career? What piece of advice would you give to yourself if you were starting again or to anyone else considering a career in research?
People will have different reasons for beginning a career in research, but for me the three main drivers were, having “a thirst for knowledge” (to quote a Pulp song), an enjoyment of writing (which attracted me to marketing), and a desire to address some of society’s challenges (something marketing didn’t give me). So, to anyone considering a research career, I’d recommend reflecting on what motivates you and whether research will be able to satisfy your ambitions. In my experience, research opportunities can send you off in different directions – you never quite know where it will take you, or where opportunities lie. However, it’s worth being mindful of what really interests you – if you had to get up at 4:00 in the morning and write about something, what would it be? If you’re able to carve out a research niche in that area, then you’re probably on the right track.
As an early career researcher, I’d advise you to say “yes” to everything that sounds interesting. Getting involved in different aspects of academia (presenting your research, teaching, mentoring, committee representation) is a good way to broaden your network and gain valuable experience.
Find out more about Ross’ PenARC PhD project Mealtime interventions and the health, quality of life and well-being of older people in residential care
Follow Ross on Twitter @RossWatkins to learn more about his current research