In the next in our series of reflections from our early career researchers, we asked Katharine Orellana, just awarded her doctorate by King’s College London, to reflect on her three years as a Research Training Fellow.

 How would you describe your experience of your PhD fellowship?

I investigated the role and purpose of generalist English day centres for older people, a largely ignored and under-researched part of social care. Using mixed methods within an embedded multiple-case study design, my aim was to paint an in-depth and contemporary picture of four day centres from four perspectives. As well as a literature review – which was recently accepted for publication – this involved fourteen months of fieldwork, visiting day centres and interviewing centre attendees, their family carers, day centre personnel and local authority adult services staff. This was my first experience of empirical research.  It was essential that we involved older people in designing the study and this couldn’t have been achieved without the assistance of King’s College London’s Social Care Workforce Research Unit’s (SCWRU) Service User and Carer Advisory Group.  We created a Study Advisory Group of seven people, with the study’s four participant sub-groups covered among its members.

I feel very fortunate that I have had one foot in the Institute of Gerontology at King’s and the other in its SCWRU. It really is true that the people around you make a key contribution to an experience. Never before have I heard the phrase ‘It’ll be fine’ so often! With many different types of support from my two wonderfully knowledgeable, approachable and kind supervisors, Professors Jill Manthorpe and Anthea Tinker, my professional researcher colleagues (who shared many of their experiences with me) and my student peers (who were undergoing similar journeys), I have achieved things I only ever dared to imagine when the first spark of interest in doing a PhD entered my head in 2010. The value of supervisory, colleague, peer and other support cannot be underestimated, and I highly recommend actively seeking out and making the most of whatever may be available, including attending Dunhill’s events for Fellows, which started towards the end of my programme. Even contacting current or past Fellows to find out about their pre- and post-application, or interview, experiences can be valuable. I have found that most people are very willing to help others through the mazes and mires they have also encountered.

Having always prided myself on realistic planning, the fellowship has also taught me much about re-scheduling; never have my well-laid plans gone so awry. From a timing perspective, the fact that Fellows are expected to submit structured annual reports to the Trust was very effective in focusing both the mind and one’s plans.

It has been both a long and a short journey, and one of constant self-discovery with respect to my own skills and resilience. This is not intended to sound negative; I very much enjoyed my time as a mature student, a phrase that still makes me chuckle. It merely acknowledges the steep learning curve which is similar to the first few months in any new job, but is constant during the studentship.

Why did you choose a career in ageing-related research and how do you see it progressing?

Serendipity has played an important role so far. My path into ageing-related research started in 2001 after I had been working for three years at an age-focused charity, gathering and sharing information about service provision. My manager suggested I might find a post-graduate course in gerontology stimulating. After discovering what this was and considering the implications of part-time study alongside full-time work and having young children, I enrolled for a MSc at King’s College London’s Institute of Gerontology. The more I learned – and as my parents aged – the more my interest increased. Alongside this, I became excited about the idea of moving into the world of research so that I could be involved in producing evidence and the next step was a PhD. Once both children had started university, an opportunity to embark on this career change presented itself through redundancy, an internship at SCWRU (after I made contact for some advice) and being told about the Trust’s fellowship scheme, of which I had previously been unaware. From there, everything has been a bit of a whirlwind!

What is next for you, in terms of your research, now that your fellowship has ended?

I’ve moved straight into a one-year post doc position at SCWRU, in which I am carrying out care home research. I am keen to continue to disseminate my findings from my fellowship. My view is that researchers have a responsibility to make their findings count by disseminating them to as many relevant audiences as possible in a format that is appropriate for each. I have started to do this by writing a short evidence briefing aimed at service commissioners which, to my delight, has generated plenty of interest and been included in both Social Care Online and NHS Evidence Search and an online article on a practitioners’ news website. I have also shared my work at annual conferences of the British Society of Gerontology, the Social Policy Association and SCWRU’s older people’s conference and took part in a seminar series for practitioners organised by Making Research Count and SCWRU. Through these, I have also gained useful feedback and ideas for further dissemination from delegates. I have three further academic journal articles planned, all with different messages for different audiences. One thing I really must get down to is activating the blog I created at the beginning of my Fellowship, but lacked the experience or confidence to populate…

I would like to acknowledge that this career change and research would not have been possible without funding from the Trust. I am both appreciative and proud to have received support for a Research Training Fellowship awarded under The Dunhill Medical Trust’s Older People’s Care Improvement Initiative.

Find out more about our fellowships