Dr Kelly Victor, Head of Echocardiography at Cleveland Clinic London, shares her journey through the Higher Specialist Scientist Training (HSST) programme.
I was lucky enough to commence the HSST journey as early as 2015. In fact I was the (terrified) first and, at the time, the only cardiac science HSST. I must admit - I didn’t know exactly what lay ahead professionally, academically, or emotionally but something told me that it was worth a punt. Truth be told, at such an early stage, I’m not sure the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS) was 100% certain on the course the programme would take; and peripherally, the concept of training a scientist to consultant level within the echo profession, and perhaps the NHS as a whole, was still gaining momentum and merit. Seven years on and one doctorate in cardiac science down, I suspect both the NSHCS and I have a much clearer view on the experience, ethos, and end-points of the HSST programme.
I completed the programme in just over six years. Advertised and achievable as a five year programme (sans COVID), the cardiac science HSST programme combines academic, clinical, research and workplace modules. There is much to learn and the fruitfulness of learning depends on your openness to experimentation, reflection and change.
Just as healthcare is required to continually grow and transform, so must we. HSST offers time for that little bit of head space to think differently about how we could do things better both individually and collectively. But beyond that, it also offers opportunities to engage with equals outside of one’s direct scientific bubble. This was the most interesting component of the programme for me. Never before had I found myself in a room with strangers, with a common bond, a wealth of experience and a wide range of diverse, sometimes conflicting, ideas and viewpoints (p<0.001). More than any other component, I enjoyed hearing those thought provoking perspectives, challenging me to think differently… Bigger, brighter. These sessions personified the celebrated parable ‘If everyone is thinking the same, no one is thinking!’
Needless to say, it wasn’t all roses and sunshine. There were of course some challenges. There was a lot of work to do. Overwhelming amounts of work, at a time when I was also saying ‘yes’ to every other professional opportunity! For me, it was also hard being the only one on the programme with no one else in cardiac science to bounce around ideas and understanding of expectations. Some days it felt very lonely, many days I felt a bit lost and most days I felt I could have been doing a much better job with my social life. Thankfully some of these challenges have been alleviated as we grow the profession and increase the number of students in each cohort. I can also promise you the social life definitely improves on completion. I guess there always needs to be a first.
I am reasonably honest by nature. To say, back in 2015, that I wanted to push the profession forward would be fibbing. I was ambitious and I wanted to achieve a doctorate which I felt would prove I wasn’t just any old scientist. Thankfully, the Academy for Healthcare Sciences (ACHS) and NSHCS were thinking differently. The HSST programme is targeted at ‘training the consultants of the future, offering a pivotal role to meet the challenges of delivering healthcare at the limits of science’1. The programme has been designed to parallel the training of clinical cardiology consultants but with a scientific rather than medical slant. It is intended to produce expert scientists who can provide a scientific and technical opinion in the clinical context; a role that dovetails seamlessly alongside fellow medical experts whether they be working in cardiology, intensive care, or acute or general medicine. The programme successfully caters for exactly what the workforce desperately needs – opportunities for senior scientists to excel, break (rather than polish) the glass ceiling, and achieve a new level of professional autonomy and personal satisfaction. However, somewhat interestingly, the NSHCS quotes that we, HSSTs, train for ‘available’ consultant clinical scientist posts1. To me this is a confession of unavailability in itself. Clear stipulation that the post may be obtainable but indeed not accessible. Wouldn’t it be nice if job prospects for consultant scientists also aligned with the clinical cardiology consultants? Thankfully the British Society of Echocardiography (BSE) and the brilliant minds of the workforce committee are working on this with a view to promoting the important role of consultant clinical scientists with expansion of the number of roles available a key objective.
Perhaps it’s age. Or experience. Or transformation. But personally I note a vast metamorphosis between the me of 2015 and the new 2022 me. I now better understand the importance of HSST for cardiac science in the wider healthcare picture. I understand the value of consultant clinical scientists and the richness they add to the doctor-nurse continuum. And even more so can I appreciate the worth, the insights and the uncertainties felt by the next generation of higher specialist scientists who will challenge every piece of progress we have made and ask, ‘Why did they do it this way in 2015?’. This is exactly what our newbies should be doing and for those senior amongst us, it is exactly our job to support the constant evolution.
Seven years on and I’m not yet a consultant clinical scientist, but I do have more strings to my bow. I have learnt a lot through the programme and the experiences the programme generated. I will be candid; two years before finishing all I thought about was becoming a consultant clinical scientist. I guess I saw that as my end-point. With hindsight, as cliché as it sounds, I really do think it is more about the journey; the path, the generation of learning and the fruitfulness and depth of professional satisfaction.
I often ask myself where I would be if I didn’t do HSST. Maybe I would be unchanged, frustrated, yearning for growth. Maybe not. I won’t ever know. But perhaps a harder question would be ‘What would I have missed out on if I didn’t pursue the opportunity to do HSST?’
I am currently enjoying project work in cardiology activation and the opening of a new hospital. I feel ‘more-dimensional’ and I feel that I am a better leader than I have ever been before. This is in part through learning, guidance and experience external to HSST. I have been privileged with supportive mentors and strong authentic leaders. But without HSST I am not sure that I would have had the self-assurance, strength or resilience to take such a unique next step.
Perhaps it was worth the punt?!
Dr Kelly Victor, Evolving scientist; ? consultant clinical scientist in the making
- National School of Healthcare Science. (Accessed March 2022). Higher Specialist Scientist Training Programme.