My Path in Research

Alison Ellwood

My career in research started with a caring profession. At the age of 26 I had two small children and began working in a residential care home for older people, I was motivated to improve the lives of those living with health challenges. I learned a number of important skills from my care colleagues and from the older people I looked after, which still serve me today. Whilst working as a care assistant I gained a number of vocational qualifications and decided I would like to return to more academic education, with a view to working in the field of psychology and/or psychiatric nursing. I began my psychology degree at The University of Bradford when I was 29 and continued to work in residential care provision throughout this time. During my studies I became fascinated by research, in particular by qualitative approaches. I was especially interested in how social events and experiences influenced an individual’s physical and mental health, for instance, things which caused stress or happiness, provided support and created challenges across a lifetime. I began to wonder how non-pharmacological treatments and therapies, implemented at key times, could improve health and wellbeing, particularly for older people.

Applying for my first research post following graduation was challenging, having a small family to raise I couldn’t apply for internships or take opportunities to work far from home. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to work as a Research Assistant on small research projects with one of my former Professors. This experience, alongside my contextual understanding of care home working life were key in being appointed my first full time research role, when I was employed to work with researchers at the University of Leeds on their care home research portfolio. My personal insight and understanding of private sector care provision were useful in forging links with care providers, managers, staff, residents, and their families. Having gained greater understanding of trial-based research, process evaluation and various data collection methods, I began to work across a variety of projects in hospitals and community settings as well.

When I began working in research the team I worked with were very supportive. I found understanding the terminology and the methodological approach difficult at times. In particular, having to rationalise each step when I was so used to working in a setting where systems are already in place, and you often follow instincts and experience, was a challenge. Though I learned to appreciate this systematic approach I also found that my understanding of how care often worked was useful in negotiating balance between the needs of the research and those I was researching with. I met so many skilled individuals at every step; I asked them for advice and made sure that I learned from what they shared. I learned that asking questions and sharing my views was welcomed by my team, they saw my insight as expertise to value.

I started my doctoral journey in early 2020 and have utilised qualitative methods to explore the influence of past and present psychological and social factors on the lived experience of ageing. I have conducted two primary research studies, published a systematic review, and presented findings from my review and primary research at multiple conferences across my PhD. I continue to look forward to the coming months, submitting my thesis, and my research adventure continuing as I explore more about the impact of social determinants on health and wellbeing across the life course.

This blog was written by Alison Ellwood, PhD student within our Older People with Frailty theme at Yorkshire and Humber ARC, as part of the NIHR's 'Your Path in Research' campaign 2022.

2 November 2022