Academic Training: The Foundation Programme

It’s that time of year again: we’re all thinking about moving to new rotations; graduation ceremonies are happening; e-portfolios are being filled.  Inevitably, this means that my social media feeds are full of people panicking about ARCPs, e-portfolios, and trying to get things finished before the end…  In particular, I’ve had lots of comments about the Academic Foundation Programme (AFP) pop-up.

Maybe it’s because, unlike a lot of our training, the Foundation programme does feel like a separate entity with a definite end-point.  Most people move to different LETBs at this point, so it’s harder to keep connections going.  There’s extra pressure to get audits, projects, research  finished and completed.

And alongside this panic, there’s the retrospectoscope, and the “I wish somebody had told me” and the questions to yourself:

Could I have done it better? (Define better…)

Could I have done it differently? (Always)

And the most common questions coming through are these:

Why did I take this on? 

What was the point? 

 

I’ve seen a lot of the last two questions coming from Academic Foundation trainees over the past few weeks; and I understand why.  That’s exactly how I felt at various points during my FYA (and my ACF, and my PhD…) but I get the feeling that it’s for different reasons.

One of the things that makes me really sad is the feeling that the programme has somehow been a failure if FYAs haven’t completed a piece of research in that time; if they haven’t got a paper accepted for an international conference.

Publications are nice, but focusing on that is to ignore all the other things that the AFP gives you.  I started my academic training thinking that I would have a list of publications by now, and a collection of flight miles accumulated from numerous conferences in exotic locations.  The reality is that I have one published paper which came out of my FYA programme, and was published 3 years after I finished my FYA…

Publications are not what I got out of my FYA project.

 

So, what is the point of the Foundation Programme?

I think you should come out of the AFP knowing if you want to spend more time in academia or not.

It’s that simple.  Academia isn’t for everyone; it isn’t a failure if you decide it’s not for you.

What worries me is that 1) trainees feel that they aren’t suited to academia because they haven’t “achieved anything”, and 2) they have bad experiences because they aren’t properly supported.  You can get your name on a big research paper and not have had any sense of how research in the NHS works because you’ve been a lab monkey for 4 months.  You can spend your 4 months waiting for ethics /R&D approval to come through on a proposal that you drafted in your first week.  That’s not a great experience of research (it might reflect some of the reality, but it’s not all), and it certainly doesn’t feel like enough to make a decision about whether or not you want to pursue academic training.

We do things slightly differently for our trainees locally, largely because we think this is important. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but I think it’s got potential.  And it’s been running for about a decade – we’ve had time to learn what works and what doesn’t.

So, this is what I learnt from my time on the AFP:

1) Be realistic – 4 months is not a lot of time.  My first thought on having a research block was ” I actually get given time to do all this stuff??”  Let’s face it, most of us are used to the extra-curricular aspect of academic life; trying to squeeze it in between clinical commitments, and exams, and the rest of our lives. (Remember that? the rest of our lives??).  Those things don’t suddenly go away. Yes, you will have some dedicated time for reserach that you probably haven’t had before. Yes, this is exciting.  It’s still not a lot of time to get things done

2) Choose your project carefully: find something about it that interests you.  That might not be the topic, it might be the methodology.  Not everything about it will be interesting, and you still only have 4 months to get it done.

3) More important than choosing your project, choose your supervisor carefully.  You are a junior trainee coming into a research group for a short period of time.  The international professor might have a great reputation, but are they used to supporting junior researchers who only have limited time & experience?  Talk to your colleagues, talk to the potential supervisor, have plenty of meetings before you commit.

4) Learn some management skills and appreciate what you’ve learnt.  You’re learning to manage your own time, other people, organise projects… All that is important and relevant and much more useful in the future than a particular technique to count serum rhubarb concentration.

5) Boredom happens.  That’s OK.  Find other people who are in the same position as you (use social media – sometimes it’s easier).  Link up with the people who did the post before you, the people slightly senior to you, anybody who understands the frustration of a coding tree that will not make sense no matter how much you stare at it.

6) Get some training.  FYA trainees are trainees in research.  If nothing else, learn some critical appraisal skills.

Ultimately, see this as your chance to try something different, and make the most of it.

Good Luck!

 

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