• How did I get to be ‘mid-career’? Dr Richard Cooke, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Liverpool 

    How did I get to be ‘mid-career’?  Dr Richard Cooke, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Liverpool 

    In 2020, UKSBM established the mid-career network to reflect the interests and needs of mid-career members. Run by a committee to focus on addressing issues that matter to mid-career members like, leadership and managing projects, mentorship and training, membership of the network is free to UKSBM members.  

    The MCN held its launch event at the 2021 UKSBM ASM. During the event, committee members hosted a discussion about how to define mid-career. Answering this question proved to be quite challenging; unlike early career researchers, who tend to be defined with regard to number of years post-PhD, mid-career researchers are usually seen as more skilled and experienced, but without clear milestones that indicate attaining mid-career status. Due to difficulties in providing a definition of what it is to be mid-career, the committee thought it would be helpful for committee members to write blogs discussing why they see themselves as mid-career; we believe that by focusing on our experiences and stories will help members gain a sense of what it is to be mid-career. Therefore, the main aim of this blog is to outline why I see myself as a mid-career researcher.  

    “mid-career researchers are usually seen as more skilled and experienced, but without clear milestones that indicate attaining mid-career status”

    I believe that being mid-career means you have accumulated experience, knowledge, and skills that you can draw on when facing a challenge. When I was an early career researcher, i.e., during my first few years post-PhD, I had not yet accumulated these things or lacked the confidence to lead projects outside of my area – I could conduct studies that were variations on studies I had already conducted but was wary of leaving my comfort zone.  

    My first steps towards becoming a mid-career researcher occurred eight years post-PhD when I secured funding from the Heart of Birmingham Primary Care Trust to act as principal investigator for a qualitative evaluation of the brand new NHS Health Checks programme. This was my first experience of leading a project and the management side of research; checking budgets for research staff; arranging meetings with academic and trust staff; submitting NHS ethics and R&D; report writing for the funder. These novel experiences required me to learn a new set of skills including how to delegate work, sometimes to staff who were more experienced than me, and how to work collaboratively with a large research team. It was also novel for me to lead a qualitative evaluation because I do not see myself as a qualitative researcher. Comfort zone well and truly left! Indeed, the idea of me leading a project using qualitative methodologies was initially quite intimidating. Nevertheless, leading a project and conducting research require different skills. My main role was to ensure the project was completed which involved project management skills rather than research skills, although these were used to ensure the project was completed successfully.  

    The Health Checks project also provided me with my first experience of working on a big project – our qualitative evaluation was a small part of a bigger evaluation being run by the trust, which itself was part of a national pilot of the entire programme. The size or scale of the projects you work on tend to be larger for mid-career than early career researchers. In our health checks project, we had a budget for the time of four academic staff plus a part-time research assistant, which means it would not have been feasible for me to complete the work on my own. Although it can be quite unsettling at first, it is tremendously beneficial to work in this way because you develop a range of collaborative skills that help you to develop as a researcher. You start listening to people more and running your ideas past them. Overall, you benefit from a different perspective that helps you to achieve your goals.  

    While gaining that experience as a principal investigator helped to jumpstart my research career, leading to promotion and further funding, it did not mean I ended up being principal investigator on all future funding applications. Indeed, the next application I was on, with the ExtraCare Trust, I was a co-applicant. This next application was for a project with a bigger budget and ultimately led to my involvement in an EU-funded project on frailty, working as part of a multi-disciplinary team of academics from four countries. Talking to my peers it seems a common experience to move from leading some projects to assisting with others. To me this is only natural, sometimes you are right person to lead a project other times you contribute to the project by the knowledge and skills you possess.  

    “sometimes you are right person to lead a project other times you contribute to the project by the knowledge and skills you possess”

    An example of this is the work I have done in collaboration with a colleague in Optometry, Dr Hannah Bartlett. Hannah was interested in exploring the role of beliefs in dietary behaviour among patients with Age-related Macular Degeneration. My background knowledge on beliefs and health behaviours and my skills in survey and intervention methods enabled Hannah and I to successfully supervise two PhD students, bringing a multidisciplinary approach to this research topic. Working with staff from another discipline broadens your horizons and can prepare you when opportunities for collaboration arise; six months after I joined the University of Liverpool in 2018, I was approached by Prof Rebecca Harris, a Professor of Dentistry to act as the health psychologist on a multi-million pound project seeking to increase rates of routine dental attendance, funded by the NIHR. One month later, I was put in contact with a team of Nutritionists working at the University of Manchester on a project to promote eating a healthy diet among colorectal cancer survivors. My previous experiences of working across disciplines with Hannah gave me the confidence to take on these opportunities.  

    “The experiences, knowledge and skills I developed as a mid-career researcher encouraged me to take on other challenges beyond research.”

    The experiences, knowledge and skills I developed as a mid-career researcher encouraged me to take on other challenges beyond research. In 2012, I took on the role of Programme Director for the Undergraduate teaching programme at Aston University. The same skills I developed during the Health Checks programme, communication with staff, collaborative working, were really useful when it came to performing this role. I also organised the 2018 UKSBM conference in Birmingham, a different kind of challenge but one that I could use my previous experiences of running projects and collaborative working to achieve.  

    I want to end this blog by acknowledging that I don’t believe all mid-career researchers end up where they are via the same route. I would not expect that everyone, or perhaps anyone, would follow my route. Everyone is different but I believe we can all benefit from a network that aims to support us via training events, mentorship, an exchange of ideas on twitter or at an event. Even writing the occasional blog!

    “I believe we can all benefit from a network that aims to support us via training events, mentorship, an exchange of ideas on twitter or at an event”

    Hopefully this blog will inspire others to share their experiences and bring mid-career researchers together to ensure that the UKSBM mid-career network flourishes. 

    Dr Richard Cooke, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Liverpool 

  • Welcome to the UKSBM MCN blog

    Welcome to the UKSBM MCN blog

    Are you building an independent career as a researcher or practitioner in behavioural medicine?

    This is the UKSBM Mid-Career Network blog.

    Keep reading for news, views and resources to help you survive and thrive as you develop your career.

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