Progressing clinical academic careers in the UK

A review exploring the experiences of early-career clinical academics across the UK has highlighted that while many successfully advance to research leadership positions, widespread barriers to both clinical and academic progression are faced by many of those aspiring to pursue a clinical academic career.

The review, led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) in collaboration with the Academy of Medical Sciences, British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, National Institute for Health Research and the Wellcome Trust, details the experiences of more than 400 clinicians who applied to these funders for clinical research training fellowships or clinical scientist fellowships. It explores how past fellowship applicants first became interested in research, the career pathways they have pursued and what factors have helped and hindered their progression as a clinical academic.

Clinical academics occupy a unique position – linking clinical practice and research – and fellowships to support the training and development of early-career clinical academics are offered by a range of funders, including the six who undertook this review.

Past fellowship awardees, as well as those whose applications had been rejected, took part in the review and in both cases the majority contribute to research activity in some form in their current role. Those who had held a fellowship in the past were more likely to now hold an academic leadership role, and to have secured significant further funding. In the review, participants describe the impact the award had in supporting their career progression.

The review highlights the importance of research funding, personal mentorship and tailored careers guidance in enabling aspiring clinical academics to progress, along with a number of wide-spread barriers they face. Those taking part reported that maintaining research activity, the inaccessibility of relevant careers guidance and support, and a lack of alignment in organisational support to combine clinical duties and research time were particular concerns.

The review makes a number of recommendations for research funders and other stakeholders in clinical education and training in order to maintain the pipeline of early-career clinical academics, and ensure seamless, coordinated support for clinical and academic progression.

Professor John Savill, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, said:

"This review demonstrates clinicians' appetite to pursue and ability to succeed in academic careers. Tremendous progress in supporting clinical academic careers has been made over the last decade with the implementation of integrated training paths across the UK. However, the review also highlights a number of widespread barriers to both clinical and academic progression. All stakeholders in clinical training and education have a role in ensuring training pathways offer the flexibility to support a wide range of career routes and facilitate seamless progression."

Dr Anne-Marie Coriat, Head of Research Careers at the Wellcome Trust, said:

"The UK provides a unique environment in which to pursue a career in clinical research, but the experiences reported in today’s review highlight that despite considerably opportunity there is still a need for better support and guidance for those who embark on this route. The Wellcome Trust has recently refreshed its support for clinical researchers to make our approach more flexible, and better suited to supporting diversity among clinical trainees. We will continue to listen to the community and to work with partners to help our excellent clinical academic researchers establish themselves in their chosen career."

A copy of the report, 'A Cross-Funder Review of Early-Career Clinical Academics: Enablers and Barriers to Progression' is available on the MRC website.
Read about our refreshed offer for clinicians on the Wellcome Trust Blog.