‘Role Transition’ when becoming a Research Nurse

Posted on by Kelly Gleason in Professional Development, Research

Following the decision to become a research nurse, the first few months can be quite difficult and can really make you wonder whether or not you have made the right decision.  You miss the routine of the ward, the camaraderie of your peers and feeling like you actually know what you are doing!

You arrive in clinical research equipped with your years of clinical experience, feeling like a competent healthcare professional able to answer your patients’ questions, make decisions regarding their care, and enjoy the well established and trusting relationships you have developed with your medical colleagues. Suddenly you are in a sea of unfamiliar acronyms, being asked to steer several ships to dock – and all this without a life jacket and the usual support, guidance and knowledge upon which you had come to rely. While navigating this new sea we have all also found it difficult to ask for help in fear that we will look incompetent and that our new employers might question their decision to recruit us in the first place!

I would like to take this opportunity to say: ‘its okay and its normal’…we ALL go through the same process…and it does end…and you do, once again, find yourself feeling like the professional you once were. 

Spilbury et al 2007, describe this period as ‘role transition’: a time when a research nurse experiences a loss of role confidence while acquiring new skills, knowledge and competence – in order to function in a new role and to adapt to working more autonomously than one did on the wards.

It is much easier, I think – once you accept that this is going to be a period of transition and that your role during this time is to learn – not to have all the answers. As Earl Gray Stevens once said, “Confidence, like art, never comes from having all the answers, it comes from being open to all the questions.”

I also think it is important to accept that not everything can be learned straight away, and rather that the first 6 months is a good time to learn the systems and processes of your particular place of employment, and become familiar with the regulations that govern clinical research, your assigned trial portfolio, your patient pathway to optimise recruitment, and get to know the multidisciplinary team you will be working with.

In my experience it takes most people 6 months to start feeling  more ‘at home’ in this new chosen field.  This of course will depend on what you are exposed to in this first 6 months, and who you have supporting you.  Support in the role of the research nurse is also essential for survival, so make links where you can – even if it is with research nurses in other disease areas.  The ‘peer group’ for research nurses is growing and there is now greater awareness of the role – so if you have not come into a team but instead work more in isolation, then try to speak to management or your nursing directorate, as they will likely know other research nurses in your organisation who can provide you with support and understanding when you need it.

I believe that for most of us, persistence through this initial transition period is well worth it.  The field of clinical research is growing and beginning to offer nurses wonderful opportunities to develop themselves professionally.  The anticipated changes in the NHS over the foreseeable future will undoubtedly affect how we deliver care and how we support research.  Let’s be ready to offer solutions.  Solutions that will benefit the healthcare system, and solutions that will support research nurses in developing themselves as advanced practitioners, committing themselves to innovation and the highest standards of care – all of which can only be achieved if research fully integrates itself in the service we deliver.

So if you like to be challenged, have a passion for leadership and for making things better, maybe research nursing really is for you…the initial change can be a little uncomfortable – but with a little understanding that this is likely only to be temporary and that you are allowed this time to learn, you will hopefully come out ‘the other side’ to see many opportunities that this new and growing field has to offer.

Spilbury K, Petherick E, Cullum N, Nelson A, Nixon H & Mason S, (2007) ‘The role and potential contribution of clinical research nurses to clinical trials’ Journal of Clinical Nursing 17(4), 549-57.

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