How to pursue a career as an academic ophthalmologist
Academic Ophthalmology is a challenging, but rewarding career option. To enter onto this career pathway, posts are available to trainees that allow them to integrate research into their clinical training, with the ambition of eventually becoming a clinical academic employed primarily by a University or the NHS. Not everyone gets this far, but even for those that do not, the academic experience can be highly valuable; providing knowledge and experience that facilitates future engagement in research and education, whilst delivering a skillset that is hugely beneficial for clinical work.
The Royal College of Physicians Research Engagement Toolkit provides an excellent overview of academic training and more broadly how, as a doctor, you can engage in research.
In England, the NIHR Integrated Academic Training Programme provides a flexible pathway for combining clinical and academic/educational training. This is part of a comprehensive set of training programmes offered by the NIHR (see figure).
At every stage of your training there is an opportunity to engage in research. The Academic Foundation Programme provides an opportunity for newly qualified doctors to spend up to 4 months in academia.
Academic Clinical Fellowships (ACFs)
ACFs are 3-year posts that allow speciality trainees to spend 25% of their time developing research or educational skills and preparing for a PhD application. Typically the entry point into ACF posts is at ST1-3 level.
Recruitment to these posts is on an annual basis and is co-ordinated with national speciality training in ophthalmology. In addition, unfilled posts are re-advertised during the year. For additional information see: what are academic clinical fellowships on the BMA website.
John Lee Academic Primer Fellowship
This award is run by Fight for Sight in conjunction with the Royal College of Ophthalmologists (Fight for Sight also run a similar scheme in conjunction with the Royal Society of Medicine). This provides an opportunity for trainees, who have not gone down the ACF route, to enter onto an academic career track at any point during their training. The fellowship was run for the first time in 2017-18 and it is anticipated that there will be further opportunities to apply.
ACFs will be expected to apply for a clinical research training fellowship to undertake a PhD. Whilst undertaking the PhD, trainees go Out of Programme (OOP), typically for 3 years. Funders of these fellowships include the NIHR, MRC, Wellcome Trust and other eye-related charities. In addition, universities advertise PhD studentships that are funded through awards directly to the institutions e.g. 4Ward North Clinical PhD Academy and Clinical Academic Training at UCL.
Academic Clinical Lectureships (ACLs)
ACLs provide an opportunity for trainees to continue with their research after obtaining a PhD. In these posts, which can last for up to 4 years, trainees spend 50% of their time doing research, whilst at the same time completing their clinical training. In these early post-doctoral positions, clinical lecturer starter grants can be applied for from The Academy of Medical Sciences and Fight for Sight, amongst others. These grants provide non-salary support to help aspiring academics run their research.
Clinician Scientist/Intermediate Fellowships
A next step along the academic career path can be to apply for a Clinician Scientist/Intermediate Fellowships (usually 4-5 years funding). These are available from funding bodies including the NIHR, the MRC, the Wellcome Trust and the Academy of Medical Sciences. They are typically awarded to trainees nearing completion of training or at consultant level and provide a stepping stone towards senior research fellowships and university academic posts.
More information about the NIHR academic training programme can be found at the NIHR Trainees Co-ordinating Centre’s website.
Clinician Scientist/Intermediate Fellowships can then lead on to senior clinical fellowships which are usually undertaken at consultant level.
There are no ACF or equivalent posts in Scotland. Various universities support and mentor clinicians towards competitive PhD funding applications, whilst others run fully funded PhD schemes that can be applied for by trainees outwith Scotland. The Scottish Clinical Research Excellence Development Scheme (SCREDS) provide academic training opportunities at a post-doctoral, lecturer level.
Trainees in Northern Ireland can apply for ACFs and ACLs, for further information see the Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency website.
The Welsh Clinical Academic Track fellowship programme provides run-through clinical fellowship training positions.