Senior Clinical Scientist

May 2021: A day in the life of a Senior Clinical Scientist – Medical Physics (Radiotherapy Physics)

My name is Greg Martin and I am part of the healthcare science workforce in the NHS. Healthcare scientists make up 5% of the NHS workforce, but are involved in over 80% of patient pathways. This could be through carrying out diagnostic tests on patients, analysing samples in laboratories or through the equipment we commission, test and others use. There are over 50 areas of healthcare science; both the number of specialisms and the numbers of staff within them are growing rapidly.

From doing my A-Levels in Physics, Maths and Geography, I went on to do a Physics BSc (Hons)degree and then onto an NHS healthcare science graduate scheme, imaginatively called the Scientist Training Program (STP). My discipline within healthcare science is medical physics, this covers the safe use of any type of radiation within a hospital, from sound waves in ultrasound, to high energy x-rays in radiotherapy. It is radiotherapy physics that I have specialised in.

A Day in the Life of a Radiotherapy Physicist

During any typical day I could be doing one of two aspects, clinical duties or research.
My day could begin early, coming in at 7:45 in order to switch on a radiotherapy machine (linear accelerator), do a range of safety checks on the machine ensuring that it is safe for use that day. I then hand over the machine to the therapeutic radiographers (another amazing career) they will deliver the patient treatments throughout the day.
I could then spend time designing Radiotherapy treatments. I look at patient scans and I try to maximise the dose to the target and minimise the dose to radiosensitive healthy tissues. I do this by optimising the orientation of radiation beams, the amount of radiation delivered from each one, the position of patient, energy of beams, etc.
Other routine duties are;

Helpdesk, where I respond to any general queries or issues that staff members are having within radiotherapy. This could be fixing a breakdown on a treatment machine, or advising a radiographer on the dosimetric effect of a patient who has gained/lost weight, assisting radiographers with complex patients, etc.
Quality assurance, this often happens in the evening and involves testing every variable within radiation emitting equipment, this is done using a huge range of test equipment. I have to following guidance from manufacturers, professional bodies and legislation.
Alongside these clinical duties and others, I carry out and publish research. This could include evaluating the benefit of new equipment, software or techniques

Conclusion

I find working in my role very rewarding and a worthwhile use of my skills. I enjoy working with the large multidisciplinary teams and due to the nature of the work we do, we all feel the need to socialise together whether at lunchtime, evenings or weekends. It is a challenging and fast paced field, but the benefit to patients and staff from what I do, makes it all worthwhile.

Healthcare science careers can be accessed through many different routes, using a variety of qualification from GCSE’s, A-Levels to degrees. For more info visit the National School of Healthcare Science website www.nshcs.hee.nhs.uk

Your questions answered!

How can I get a part-time job within the NHS, only to gain experience while being at university? Are there any jobs that require no specific hard skills?

Hi, thanks for the question, it is a really good idea to try and get some experience before it comes to applying for your dream job after uni. Jobs in the NHS tend to be managed through www.jobs.nhs.uk, you can search by key word e.g. Healthcare science, filter by area, work pattern, qualification requirements, grade, etc. You may be able to find a simple part time job in the NHS that does not require any significant qualifications. If you can’t, what you will be able to do is get a normal part time job, where you can develop transferable skills e.g. working with the general public, communication skills, problem solving skills, health and safety, etc. You could complement this with some relevant work experience, this can come in many forms, sadly often unpaid, but if it is brief you can gain the experience without impacting your finances too much. You can access this in lots of different ways, for example some university courses come with placements, or opportunities to do a year in industry. Equally many hospitals run work experience placements and when you go to uni it may be that your lecturers can help you making links e.g. through other healthcare courses at your university. Sometimes even attending lectures from other course at your uni can be of benefit. Also, you could contact the National School of Healthcare Science, they may be able to direct you to someone relevant in your region. You could also reach out yourself to healthcare science departments in your local hospitals. Second to work experience, many departments run open days for healthcare science. These are usually advertised on the National School of Healthcare Science website, these can give great insight to the training scheme and job. They look great on applications and again you can enquire with those department for further work experience.

How did you find out about the scheme and how did you work out that it would be a good opportunity for you?

Thanks for your question 😊
I found out about the NHS Scientist Training Program when a Healthcare Scientist came into my Uni to give a career talk. Something that you should look out for when you get to uni! For me, it just fit straight away. I knew I did not want to stay on at uni and work as a pure academic researcher. I wanted to get out into the world. The scheme was well paid and they funded a Master’s degree. I would get to work with the general public (which I had enjoyed through my part time job!), work as part of a diverse team, get to use my skills to help others, work on amazing equipment and do exciting research. Plus, hospitals are in every city and every country in the world so I could work anywhere. Healthcare scientists are also very much in demand, as are pretty much all scientists. Ultimately it was just a good fit for me! My advice would be to learn about as many careers in your area of study as you can. Then you will be best positioned to decide which one is the one for you!

What is the demand for healthcare scientists currently?
Thanks for the question. Demand is really high, there are more vacancies each year than newly qualified staff (as is the case for most of the NHS and Science careers). Equally with an ageing population, more staff are approaching retirement, this is reducing the working force and as more people retire and age, they then require more healthcare, so demand continues to go up. This is at a time when cutting edge technology/science in the NHS is offering huge benefits thus increasing the demand for it, but we need staff to do this!

How was the application process for the scheme? What did you do to prepare and did your uni help you?
Thank you for sending your question 🙂 Every graduate scheme has a slightly different application process, so it is a really good idea to learn about the one for your job and to prepare accordingly. For my scheme, when you submitted your application you had to submit 5 short (200 word) essay question answers. There were questions like ‘how have you prepared for becoming a Trainee Healthcare Scientist?’ I was able to list all the things I had to done to prepare e.g. work experience, open days, relevant uni modules/projects, extra lectures attended, etc. After this, I had to do aptitude tests (very common in graduate scheme applications) and only if you passed these tests did your application get reviewed. So, although it was important to polish your application, it was all for nothing if you didn’t pass the tests. This meant doing a lot of practise tests to prepare. Then if you passed the test and your application was good enough, you got an interview. These were speed dating style, so 10 mini interviews, each 5 minutes long. Once again you had to carefully read all the guidance on what each station was about and do a lot of reading up on those areas to prepare. You also asked if my uni helped me prepare my application. It is worth noting that every university has a careers advice team that help with CV’s, interview prep, etc. so I made the most of this as I recommend you do too! For my application they did not help me prepare specifically for my scheme. But they did help my general skills. For example, in order to get work experience, I needed a CV to send to hospitals, they gave great support when doing this. Also, they did mock interviews, they were obviously not experts on healthcare science but could still give a useful experience. They asked generic questions such as, why do you want this job? What relevant skills and experience do you have for this role? They were able to give useful feedback on things such as, eye contact, using formal language, clarity of explanations, if there were any bad habits I had, etc. I know this may seems a lot, but when you find a career that you really want, then it is all worth it!

What skills have you acquired since becoming a clinical scientist?
Thanks a lot for sending in this question. So since becoming a Clinical Scientist I have acquired lots of different skills, everything from designing different types of radiotherapy treatments, to performing different quality assurance tests on the radiotherapy equipment. But in terms of generic skills, if that’s what your question is getting at, I think the most prominent is the ability to multitask. Every shift I do, I am on a clinical duty and responsible for supporting and delivering that service. But at the same time, I could have research projects on the go, training to deliver, lectures to write, marking to do, interruptions, supporting other staff, meetings, etc. So being able to keep track of where everything is up to, decide what takes priority and needs doing next, is at times a challenge. Equally, presenting, approaching colleagues, calling patients, delivering training, etc. are all things I have had to learn how to do and now take for granted!

Do you have a good work/life balance? Is it shift work?
Thanks for the question. I would like to think so. I thankfully don’t have to work night shifts. I do occasionally have to work earlies (7.30am start), late shifts (8pm finish) or Saturdays. But thankfully most of the time I work flexy time (flexible start and finish times), so can fit my work around my life.
Also working in a hospital in large teams, you get to meet a lot of like-minded people. This means that there is an active social life amongst colleagues which is nice.

If you had to describe your job in 3 words, what would they be?
Thanks for sending in your question. Challenging, rewarding and fascinating.

Are there lots of opportunities to progress in the career and how do they come about?
Thank you for sending in the question. Yes, indeed there are! There are Healthcare Science training schemes available at just about every level of education, including Apprenticeships, Bachelors Degree, Masters Degree and Doctorate. Each level of qualification allows you to apply for jobs at a higher grade. You can apply for these training schemes as an individual. Or if you are already working in a department, they can support you and allow you to do further training as part of your job.