November 2020

Dr. Miriam Hillyard, MRC Addictions Research Clinical Training Doctoral Fellow at the National Addictions Centre talks to us about her career and experience following her BRC Preparatory Fellowship.

Our current opportunities page lists any schemes currently recruiting.

Tell us about your career to date

I studied Medicine at University of Oxford, where I intercalated in Neuroscience (and enjoyed looking at neurons in a lab!). During my medical degree, I began teaching undergraduate students, and I gained a Non-Stipendiary Lectureship during my final year.

After this, I moved for my foundation doctor training to North-West London. Attracted by the principles of cradle-to-grave care and attention to the social determinants of health, I then began working as a GP Academic Clinical Fellow in Tower Hamlets, East London. About half-way through my GP training I took time out to do the Maudsley BRC Preparatory Fellowship, and during that was successful in my application to the MRC Addictions Research Clinical Training (MARC) scheme.

I have just completed an MSc in Epidemiology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and I am now beginning a clinical PhD at King’s College London.

How did you first become interested in a clinical academic career?

I have long been interested in the health of marginalised or vulnerable groups, with much of my previous research experience focusing on the LGBTQ+ population. At medical school I worked on a study about medical education and spent my elective doing research in transgender health, which gave me experience of the publication process and presenting at international conferences.

From there, I continued to do various research projects throughout my junior doctor training which were in line with my specific interests (mental health, sexual health, health inequities). Clinical work and academic work give you different skills, but ultimately these are complementary, and allow you to approach problems from multiple perspectives.

What interested you in a career in mental health?

I see addiction (whether to drugs, tobacco, alcohol, or detrimental behaviours such as compulsive gambling) as a key driver of disparities for people experiencing social marginalisation or deprivation.

The stigma attached to mental illness, and addiction in particular, is still very much present. To me, there is not only a clinical imperative to tackle the health inequities experienced by underserved groups, but also a societal and moral one.

What attracted you to apply to the BRC Preparatory Clinical Research Training Fellowship?

When I applied, it felt like the right time to step out of full-time clinical training in order to gain research skills and experience. I was attracted to the research environment at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, and wanted to spend time working up a good PhD proposal.

What skills did you develop during the BRC Preparatory Clinical Research Training Fellowship?

The most valuable thing the Preparatory Fellowship gave me was space and time to think.

During the fellowship I worked on a qualitative study with a colleague, gaining experience in analysing interviews and focus groups. I also performed data analysis for a quantitative study regarding alcohol guidelines, and both studies have led to publications. I worked clinically in addictions, gaining confidence in this specialist area. I was able to undertake several excellent training courses in research skills and theoretical approaches, from statistics to queer theory.

I wrote a teaching module for the NHS e-Learning for Health platform, and I also spent time working on my proposal for funding to undertake an MSc and PhD.

How has the BRC Preparatory Fellowship helped you achieve your career aspirations?

The Preparatory Fellowship ultimately led to my successful MSc and PhD application, which is the next step in the academic pathway. I also benefited from being able to carefully evaluate my future career plans, creating a coherent idea of my goals and aspirations. I found the supportive and facilitative environment also helped to build my confidence more generally.

Tell us about your current role

I have recently started my PhD in Addiction Studies, which will focus on drug and alcohol use among LGBTQ+ people. All too often, the ‘minority stress’ that results from living in a homophobic/transphobic society as an LGBTQ+ person can lead to mental health and addiction problems. I am interested in how experiences of stigma or discrimination are embodied, later emerging as illness for an individual.

In addition, I work one day a week in an NHS addictions service, mostly providing opioid substitution treatment and community alcohol and GBL/GHB detoxes. This job is varied and sometimes challenging, where the effects of social exclusion, austerity, and personal trauma are often manifest. However, I am privileged to work with a skilled and supportive team, where there are many opportunities to think about holistic care.

Do you have any career advice for clinicians starting out in research?

Research can be hard, and it is worth questioning your motivations before you start. Is it something that you are intrinsically interested in and stimulated by, or are you more driven by a need for external approval and a relentless idea of ‘success’?

Don’t be afraid to approach academics of all levels of seniority - from PhD students to professors - if you have a shared interest, and ask about their experiences.

Attend conferences if you can, and talk to people who are giving presentations or standing in front of posters. Research is almost always more achievable when done in collaboration with others, so finding out who else is working in your area of interest is valuable.

And finally - academia is slowly becoming more diverse. So if you think, ‘this isn’t for people like me’ - think twice, because your voice might provide a valuable perspective that is currently missing from the conversation.