Doing a PhD in Health Services Research

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As last week’s post explained, my PhD is in the field of Health Services Research and looks at the process of participant recruitment to clinical trials. My undergraduate degree was based in lab science, and as far as I know I’m the only person from my graduating cohort to leave the lab but remain in academic science. I tend to get a lot of questions about what I do now that I don’t work in a lab anymore, so this week I wanted to take some time to explain what it’s like to do a PhD in this field; the questions I get and how it’s changed the way I look at science more generally.

Why did you decide to leave ‘proper’ science?
This is one of the best things to ask me if you want to see me bite my tongue so much that it bleeds. I’m still struggling to work out whether ‘proper’ science is intended to suggest that health services research isn’t worthwhile, or if my questioner simply isn’t aware that science can, and does, take place outside of a laboratory. I’m hoping it’s the latter.

I decided to leave lab science because I didn’t feel like the work I was doing was close enough to patients. To be clear, I’m not saying lab science is not a useful or worthwhile career path, just that I work best when I’m not too many steps away from the end result.

How do interviews help your work, surely you want data and evidence?
Yes, this a real question that someone asked me a few months ago.

To explain a bit of the background – undergraduate lab science degrees don’t pay much wpid-photo-aug-12-2013-805-pmattention to qualitative research whatsoever, or at least mine didn’t. I think in first year the words ‘qualitative data’ were mentioned once, and only when explaining that everything we would do going forward would involve the opposite. The PhD very quickly taught me that evidence comes in all shapes and sizes, and interviewing people to find out about their experiences and views on specific topics is just as useful as percentages and p values – it just depends on what you want to know.

We don’t know lots of things, and the NHS isn’t always right
I’m showing my naivety here so bear with me. Before starting PhD study, I thought that if something – whether that’s a type of surgery or a new drug – is put into practice within the NHS, then there was good equality evidence to support that decision. Turns out, I was wrong. I won’t say much more on this – Margaret McCartney’s books are a good starting point if you want to find out more.

Science in the media
The biggest change I’ve noticed in myself since starting the PhD is the way I consume media reporting of scientific stories. Previously I would be cautious of ‘bad science’, understanding that some news outlets will happily sensationalise content to improve readership figures. Now though, I find myself reading stories and picking holes in them as I am reading – thinking ‘well that’s not true because…’ or ‘the data you’ve provided does not show that result…’. I’ve stopped reading health/medicine stories on certain websites, and now stick to a few that I feel comfortable relying on. Vox and The Conversation are now my go-to news sites, and I try to follow specific reporters on Twitter too. I’d recommend both Julia Belluz and Kathryn Schulz, I saw Julia give a talk at last year’s Evidence Live conference and it was clear she really cares about accurate reporting – you can see her talk on YouTube here.

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