Read as Prudence Plummer talks about her career as a Clinical Researcher.  Find her at www.prudenceplummer.com or www.neurorehabphysio.blogspot.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.

What do you do for a living?

I am an Assistant Professor in Physical Therapy, specializing in neurological rehabilitation.

How would you describe what you do?

Primarily, I am a clinical researcher.  I conduct research to study how injuries to the brain (e.g., stroke) affect a person’s ability to walk, and how physical therapy can help improve walking recovery after stroke.

As a clinical researcher in an academic setting, part of my job is also to teach.  I teach physical therapy students in the area of adult neurological rehabilitation – i.e., how to assess and treat people with neurological conditions such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.

What does your work entail?

I design and conduct research studies, analyze data, write grants, write research articles, present at conferences, think and read a lot!  I also lecture students, write exams, and grade assignments.  I interact with students, patients, clinicians, and other researchers and professors on a weekly basis.

What’s a typical work week like?

Since I am in an academic setting, the typical work week varies by semester.  During the academic year, a typical work week involves: research-related activities such as collecting and processing data, working with research students, meeting with collaborators, writing and reading (30-60% of the week depending on the semester); attending committee and faculty meetings, teaching and class preparation.  I also review articles for publication in journals and critique grants for various federal agencies – peer-review activities also vary from week to week.

A typical work week for a clinical researcher in a tenure-track assistant professor position includes the weekend!

During the summer when I have no teaching or contractual responsibilities, I spend 100% of my time on research-related activities – writing manuscripts and grants, working on ongoing projects, developing new projects.

How did you get started?

I became interested in the research career path in physical therapy when I was doing my undergraduate honors research (Bachelor of Physiotherapy, in Australia).  I really loved the critical thinking and writing involved in doing research.  I love learning; being a researcher is a way to continually learn!  When I graduated as a physiotherapist, I went straight back to school to get a PhD.

What do you like about what you do?

There are so many things I love about what I do, but I would say that the main thing I like is the analytical thinking and writing.  I also love to interact with patients and clinicians.  Another great feature is that, for the most part, I get to structure my days as I please.

What do you dislike?

I dislike having to exclude patients from my research (e.g., if they do not qualify for a particular study).

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

As an Assistant Professor, I am in a salaried position at a University.  In my current position, I get paid only for the academic year, but I can get paid through research grants to supplement my salary for the summer.

How much money do clinical researchers in neurological physical therapy make?

The dollar figure will vary a lot based on location (e.g., cost of living variations), years of experience, and type of position.

Postdoctoral salaries range from $39,000 to $54,000.  Research associate positions typically range from $46,000 to $82,000.  Average salaries for junior level clinical researchers in academic settings are $75,000 to $85,000 (with potential to make more through grant support for summer salary, unless you’re on a 12-month contract).  Senior level clinical researchers in academic settings can make $120,000 to $200,000.

How much money did/do you make starting out?

As a first-year postdoctoral researcher I made $35,000 (that was in 2004).

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

Clinical researchers need a PhD in a health-related field, so it is a lot of schooling!  Then, usually, some postdoctoral training is expected; this is especially important if you want to become an independent researcher (lead your own projects and research team).

What is most challenging about what you do?

Getting funding for my research!  In today’s economic climate, it has become very competitive to get research grants.  This is definitely the most challenging aspect.

What is most rewarding?

It is very rewarding to know that I am helping to advance the profession of physical therapy through my research (albeit in small increments), and that what we learn will help contribute to improving the lives of stroke survivors.  I also like being in an academic environment where I can mentor and teach students.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

To be successful as a researcher, you have to be passionate about your field of study.  The salaries are not very high given the amount of schooling required; you have to be motivated by your enthusiasm for the research / process of scientific inquiry.  (It is a very intellectually stimulating job!)  With this in mind, choose your training environments carefully; the training you receive during your PhD and early postdoctoral years is very important for establishing your success as an independent researcher later.  Given the trends in funding, it may be helpful to consider an area of research that is of great importance to public health.

How much time off do you get/take?

Time off?  What’s that!  I get bathroom breaks and a few hours to sleep each day!

Vacation time will vary with type of position and type of contract (if in an academic setting).  Technically, on an 8-month contract, I am “off” 4 months a year.  However, to succeed on the tenure track, I have to utilize those months to advance my research and scholarship.  During the academic year, I get only public holidays and semester breaks off (no vacation time), and I work 6-12 hours almost every weekend.  I tend to view any “student-free” and “meeting-free” time as a great opportunity to work on my research/writing (often at home, which feels like a break!).

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

When people learn I am a physiotherapist (physical therapist), they usually assume I treat athletes on a daily basis.  In my experience, there is a general lack of awareness of physiotherapy involvement in neurological and brain injury rehabilitation, and an even greater lack of awareness that there are physiotherapists with higher degrees whose role is to advance the science of physiotherapy through research.  Even though we are researchers, we were still trained as clinicians initially – I think some people forget that.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

Ultimately, I am hopeful that my research will lead to improved rehabilitation and health outcomes for people after stroke.  I would also like to increase the funding for my research lab so that I can continue to hire and mentor students interested in pursuing a career in clinical research.  Another dream is to better unite clinical researchers / academics with clinicians working in the field so that together we can translate evidence into clinical practice.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

Clinical researchers do not have to work in faculty positions.  For clinical researchers in other research positions, teaching and committee work is less likely to comprise part of the job, but in these positions clinical researchers are often required to provide their own salary and support their own research expenses 100% through research grants.