Getting involved in old age psychiatry research

Research experience is a valuable addition to training in Old Age Psychiatry and there are many opportunities to get involved in established research or set up your own project.

There are multiple paths to a research career as highlighted by Drs Paul Donaghy, Leo Chouliaras and Lucy Stirland in their career vignettes. Each highlight the benefits of research in terms of intellectual curiosity, improved patient outcomes and the chance to develop skills in academic writing, teaching and specific research methodologies.

I graduated from Queen’s University Belfast in 2006 and completed my Foundation Training in Belfast and Craigavon. Following this I undertook my Core Training in the Mersey Deanery.

Whilst studying for the MRCPsych I became fascinated by neuroscience research and started to think about an academic career. At that time I wasn’t aware of academic pathways in medicine so I took a year out to do a full-time Masters in Systems Neuroscience at Bristol University. 

Following my Masters I wanted to undertake a PhD.  I was really interested in the imaging and biomarkers research in dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) taking place at Newcastle University, so I approached the researchers here directly. I applied for and was appointed to a Clinical Research Associate post which allowed me to work as a doctor on two research projects whilst also completing a PhD. 

I submitted my PhD thesis in 2015 and re-entered clinical training as an ST4. I have had protected academic time during my higher training, initially as an Academic Clinical Fellow and now as an Academic Clinical Lecturer.

Having a mixed clinical and academic job means there is always variety in my week and I find both aspects of my job very satisfying. My research work has given me a deeper understanding of the evidence base for my clinical work, particularly in dementia diagnosis. Similarly, seeing the difficulties experienced by people with DLB in my clinical work constantly informs my research.

My research interests are imaging and early diagnosis in DLB. The research projects I have been involved with have investigated the association of amyloid deposition with clinical and imaging findings in DLB, the use of FP-CIT SPECT in prodromal DLB and the use of skin biopsy as a novel diagnostic biomarker in DLB. 

I would advise trainees who are interested in an academic career to identify a researcher in an area they are interested in and approach them directly. Senior colleagues here in Newcastle are always supportive of trainees who wish to undertake academic training posts or apply for PhD fellowships.

I am more than happy to be contacted by junior colleagues to discuss pathways in clinical academic training and opportunities that may be available here in Newcastle.

paul.donaghy@ncl.ac.uk

I graduated from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece in 2008. During medical school I became very interested in neurosciences and eventually moved to the Netherlands where I completed my PhD at the University of Maastricht in 2012 investigating the involvement of epigenetic mechanisms in ageing and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Following my PhD I moved to the UK considering the excellent prospects of a clinical academic career in psychiatry. After completing Foundation Training in the West Midlands I moved to Oxford where I started as an NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow in psychiatry to combine core training psychiatry with protected time for research. In Oxford I worked with the Neurobiology of Ageing group and my project focused on the role of the epigenetic mechanism of DNA methylation as a peripheral biomarker for brain ageing and age-related cognitive impairment. 

My research work gave me a deeper understanding of the neuroscientific basis of brain function and psychiatric disorders while my clinical work helped me formulate and prioritise my research questions and methodology. 

My research interests in age-related disorders and the challenges of working with older people helped me decide towards higher training in Old Age Psychiatry. After completing core training I took up a post as an NIHR Clinical Lecturer in Old Age Psychiatry in Cambridge to combine higher training with research.

My research interests include the role of epigenetic mechanisms in neurodegeneration, and particularly in Dementia with Lewy Bodies, Alzheimer’s disease and Mild Cognitive Impairment.

My projects focus on genome-wide profiling of DNA methylation and hydroxymethylation in post-mortem brain tissues and also in peripheral blood.

Exploring disease driven changes in the epigenetic landscape has the potential to improve our understanding of the pathophysiology of neurodegenerative disorders and aid in the identification of novel pathways as therapeutic targets. Work on peripheral epigenetic profiling in combination with multimodal neuroimaging techniques can aid in the development of early risk markers of disease before the onset of any symptoms. 

Quoting one of my supervisors, “science is fun”, and my advice to all trainees would be to devote some of their time to research. The best way to get started would be by contacting a researcher working on their topic of interest in the nearest academic or clinical research unit and discuss opportunities.

There is certainly a lot going on in the Cambridge Biomedical Campus and certainly there are plenty of opportunities to suit one’s interests here.

Research always involves team efforts and motivated people are always needed. I am always happy to be contacted by colleagues in the UK or abroad to discuss paths and opportunities related to clinical academic training so please feel free to email me: lc716@medschl.cam.ac.uk

 

I completed my medical degree at the University of Edinburgh in 2010. I didn’t intercalate because at that point I hadn’t considered a research career. I worked as a Foundation doctor in Perth and Dundee where two key jobs influenced my future directions. In geriatric medicine I realised how much I enjoyed working with older people, and in learning disability psychiatry my supervisor inspired me to apply for psychiatry training. 

I returned to South East Scotland for core psychiatry training, working in Fife and Edinburgh for three years.  The MRCPsych curriculum teaching at Edinburgh is of a high standard and we were encouraged to consider research.

In CT3 I was fortunate to do a six-month job which combined research and clinical duties. During this placement I conducted a systematic review and some data analysis with supervision and guidance from Dr Tom Russ, an academic old age psychiatrist. 

Around this time, Dr Russ and the academic head of department encouraged me to apply for the PsySTAR (Psychiatry: Scottish Training in Academic Research) scheme, funded by the Medical Research Foundation and Medical Research Council. This programme supports psychiatry trainees to complete PhDs in their chosen area alongside training.

I successfully gained a place and developed my PhD proposal, aligned with my interests in epidemiology and the interplay between older people’s physical and mental health. At the same time I commenced Higher Training in Old Age Psychiatry.

I joined the University of Edinburgh full-time in 2016 to start my PhD as a Clinical Research Fellow. My research uses large datasets to explore links between physical multimorbidity, polypharmacy and various mental health conditions in older people.

As well as core research skills such as statistical analysis and critical appraisal, I have also enjoyed teaching. I have stayed clinically active, both in a dementia clinic and on the registrars’ on-call rota. I plan to submit my thesis in summer 2019 and return to higher training for two more years.

I started my PhD with an open mind about my future career. I sometimes miss seeing patients every day, but appreciate the autonomy that independent research can offer. Having ownership of my projects means I am now motivated to continue my research when I return to training.

Discussing my research with my lay contributor also reconnects me with the people at the heart of what I do. Mentors and supervisors have been crucial in guiding my journey to psychiatry and research. I would encourage trainees to approach researchers, whether you have an idea of your own or would like to get involved in ongoing projects.

l.stirland@ed.ac.uk 

Funding for research is competitive, but there are a number of organisations keen to support research in mental health, who provide funding for early, mid and senior research fellowships. 

 

Talk to someone who is already involved in research. This might be a clinical supervisor or post-graduate tutor.

Or look at our web pages and make contact with someone who is focusing on an area that interests you.

Good luck!

If you are interested in undertaking a research project, getting in touch with an Academic Psychiatrist is the best way to start.

They can help you focus your ideas and identify opportunities where you might be able to get involved. Starting a literature review, helping with a clinical trial or starting to analyse some data is a great way to learn new skills and to get started.

It’s worth looking out for local opportunities for further training such as courses in a specific methodology (e.g. statistics or Magnetic Resonance Imaging).

Or you might be able to develop generic research skills through a more formal course (e.g. Post-Graduate Certificate in Health Research or Masters in Psychiatric Research).

For those intent on pursuing an academic career, a research doctorate such as MD or PhD provides excellent further training.

 

You may be able to negotiate time for research with your clinical supervisor, or use your special interest time if you are in higher training.

For those with a strong interest in research it is possible to apply for time out of training for research e.g. through a Clinical Research Fellowship. 

There are also integrated clinical-academic training posts available in the form of NIHR Academic Clinical Fellowships and Academic Clinical Lectureships

The career vignettes on this page show that there are multiple paths to research success – there is no one correct path. The key is determination and a commitment to succeed.

 

You can get further information about getting involved in research via these links:

Alternatively, please contact any member of the Old Age Faculty Executive Committee, they would be happy to discuss career plans with you.

Get in contact to receive further information regarding a career in psychiatry