The BHP Fellowship – Karl’s story

Mr Karl Payne, Specialty Registrar in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, undertook a Birmingham Health Partners Starter Fellowship in 2018 – 2019 and is currently a Cancer Research UK Clinical PhD Fellow and Royal College of Surgeons Clinical Research Fellow at University of Birmingham.  We asked Karl about his experience of the BHP Fellowship.

What attracted you to apply for the ITM/BHP fellowship?

At the time I was applying for several 1-year fellowships to get me onto the research ladder. The ITM/BHP was local to me in Birmingham and seemed like a great option, but what really made it a perfect fit was the emphasis on translational research. I’m looking at liquid biopsy biomarkers in head and neck cancer and I think I had a really good story to tell with a well-defined research plan and clear line of site that the interview panel liked. If I was writing an application I would talk about the excellent availability of resources, education and research connections from the ITM and BHP, all true, but you can google that for yourself…

What were the benefits of the fellowship?

The most noticeable benefit is the support you get from the ITM and University with regard access to educational activities such as courses or workshops. Being an ITM fellow you often get onto these for free or get advance notice/ring fenced places. My research involves analysis of tumour DNA sequencing data and I was able to get help from the fellowship coordinators to attend modules from the Genomic Medicine MSc at the university. It certainly helps to have the title behind you and that first introduction from the ITM to get access to teaching and facilities that normally would be out of reach or difficult to attain.

Were there any challenges during the fellowship?

The main challenge I had during the fellowship was balancing research commitments and finding further funding. I chose to take a slight gamble and use the fellowship as the first year of my PhD without having secure funding for years two and three (as a surgical trainee I couldn’t take out more than 3 years full time from training). But this was difficult. Writing multiple grant applications is incredibly time consuming and you have the added pressure that you want to have produced something tangible within your one year in case it all falls apart. The take-home message is to use all available resources – both within and outside your research group. There are lots of helpful people, like research coordinators, who can guide you and make these applications much smoother. The other challenge is to accept that things happen slowly in academia and that wasn’t something I was prepared for, this means that preparation is key and planning ahead is paramount to maximise opportunities.

How much clinical work did you do whilst undertaking your fellowship?

At the start I was doing out of hours on-call shifts to supplement my income, but I eventually dropped these to enjoy the ‘time off’. That did mean a dent in my earnings but it was nice to totally focus on the research. Having said that, I did start to miss the operating theatre, so I now try and attend a theatre session once or twice a month to ‘keep my hand in’. I think as a clinician you need to maintain some clinical work, especially for surgeons as you have the fear of becoming de-skilled.

Did the fellowship help with your clinical practice?

Yes and no. I am certain I will have lost a bit of knowledge and skill from the prolonged time off, but I can certainly talk about research in a much more confident way. For example recruiting patients to clinical trials, which is a skill in itself and something I have developed over the past year. Research governance is such a big part of clinical practice and a clinical research fellowship is a great way to develop a research skillset you just can’t get from a two or three day course.

Do you feel that the fellowship has helped you with your career development and aspirations?

Undoubtedly. The BHP fellowship is a springboard onto the career pathway for aspiring academic clinicians. For me it was essential, to allow me to achieve further PhD funding from Cancer Research UK. I can only speak from my own experience but I found it incredibly hard to get funding. Different projects vary, but mine was a ‘start-up’ of a novel idea so I didn’t have any pilot data. I needed someone to believe in me and my research and thankfully that’s what I got from the BHP. I tried to hit the ground running to get some data together fast and that meant further applications during the fellowship have been successful. It’s also clear that funding bodies like funding successful applicants and already being in a prestigious research fellowship scheme clearly helps to highlight that you are someone who is ‘fundable’ and gets results. I have since been granted research funding from two further charities and being able to say I am already in a clinical research fellowship role visibly inspires confidence in interviews.

What would your advice be to anyone thinking of applying for a BHP Fellowship?

It’s a cliché to say you need a ‘good project with a good supervisor’. What you really need is a thorough understanding of your topic and passion to present it well. You need to be able to tell a story that highlights how the findings from your project translate to clinical care and impact patients.

Start planning early. For the fellowship application, but also anything you are going to do or achieve if you are successful and waiting to start. i.e. enrol on courses, or start speaking to other applicants/researchers who can help you during your year.

Say yes to every opportunity – be it a free half day grant writing workshop, or a careers lecture,… as a postgraduate researcher at the University of Birmingham you are very lucky to have access to loads of first class tuition and research opportunities.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Help with grant writing, help getting funding, or help with your research from a fresh pair of eyes.

In 2022, we were delighted to catch up with Karl post-PhD to find out where his career journey took him next. Read his updated interview for more!