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Taking a non-traditional route into social care research

Published: 30 September 2020

Stacey Rand is a social care researcher at the Personal Social Services Research Unit at the University of Kent. Here she talks about her route into the field and how NIHR’s Research for Social Care call has supported her work. 

I have taken a non-traditional route into social care research. My academic background is in the biological sciences, and my early research focus was in cognition, language and emotion. These research skills were applied in six years’ working as a commercial analyst and manager in the pharmaceutical industry, developing bids and contracts for clinical trials, before later coming back to academia. 

There has been a lot of transferable knowledge and skills from this background, including in the planning, design and management of research projects, research writing and communication, and the importance of collaboration and partnerships. 

Diverse skills and experience

Many colleagues (myself included) come into social care research without a PhD. It is useful to have some grounding in applied or social research methods, whether that is by a Master’s degree or research placements. However, a PhD may support career development and it is a great way to develop research skills and develop your own interests. 

There is a strength of bringing together diverse skills, experience and backgrounds in social care research, whether that is in local government or industry, academic or applied research, or health and social care practitioner roles. As it is a broad and diverse area, it is good to be flexible and bring a range of skills, as well as the ability to work across disciplines. 

Researching community-based social care

My research over the past eight years at the Personal Social Services Research Unit (PSSRU), University of Kent, has focussed on the measurement and application of social care outcomes to assess the quality and effectiveness of community-based social care. This has included development of the ASCOT-Carer, ASCOT-Proxy and ASCOT-ER measures in the Adult Social Care Outcomes Toolkit, as well as the translation and cross-cultural adaptation of these measures. 

I applied in the first round of NIHR’s RfSC annual call, in 2018, and received funding for my project on the social care outcomes of carers of people living with dementia in the community. The funding process was clear and I’ve had good support from colleagues and University, as well as from NIHR, especially as a first time applicant as Principal Investigator (PI). The RfSC programme is a great opportunity for early to early mid-career social care researchers to develop and lead their own research projects. 

Developing your research ideas

As with all funding applications, it is important to allow enough time and space to develop the idea properly and for patient and public involvement (PPI), as well as building partnerships with organisations and thinking through the pathway to impact. 

In retrospect, I wish I had taken advantage of the support and advice offered by the NIHR Research Design Service (RDS). The RDS offer a range of support for researchers in developing their application, from general advice on the application process, through to how to gain the most from PPI and providing critical feedback on drafts of the application. It is worth engaging early on and making the most of the support available.  

Opportunities and challenges in social care research

It is a good time to be considering social care research as there are funding opportunities, like the RfSC programme, and a greater focus on social care research. There are still challenges - there is a gap in support and infrastructure for social care research, by comparison to healthcare and medical research, even if there has been sustained effort to address this. 

There is also still less of a culture of integrated research and practice, partly due to the tensions of bridging research and practice as a researcher-practitioner, but also due to the culture of organisations in how they engage with and use evidence in practice. There are real opportunities for the promotion of a culture of research within organisations outside of academia, as well as for greater collaborative working between researchers and practitioners, who each bring their own particular knowledge and skills, but that can be combined to produce high-quality applied research. 

Becoming a leader in social care research

The RfSC award has been an important part of my transition from early career into mid-career researcher. As I have established myself as an academic social care researcher, I envisage now staying in academia and developing as a leader in research. I enjoy encouraging and promoting colleague’s development, so I hope to be able to apply that also here – especially, in supporting postgraduate study in social care.  

Stacey Rand receives funding from NIHR’s Research for Social Care programme and from the NIHR School for Social Care Research.

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