STP Insights: NHS employment

Since the STP applications are opening relatively soon, I thought it would be good to help potential applicants decide if it’s the right path for them. Every other resource tells you- it’s a graduate scheme with a work-based and MSc component, but what exactly is it like to be on the STP? And what are the challenges you can expect to face on your STP journey? We’ll tackle these questions over a series of posts, using our experiences over the last 15-ish months to provide a real insight to the highs and lows of the STP and exactly what you’re signing up for. A big part of the STP is the fact that you are employed by an NHS trust, so for the first post in this series let’s unravel what it’s like to work for the NHS as a healthcare science trainee.

Firstly, if you don’t have experience working in the NHS, the culture change may be a bit of a shock. This is that the patient comes first. This is great- it’s what makes the NHS such a beautiful organisation with so many passionate employees. But having come from a job where hotels can be £100+ a night and you get ~£35 daily allowance for food when travelling for work, the restrictions on these types of expenses were difficult to swallow. Especially when some of my friends are still getting these types of perks! Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand- the £50 saved on my accommodation can be used elsewhere to actually help a patient and I am all for this.

Along these lines, I don’t think it will be news to anyone that financially, some NHS trusts aren’t doing great. This is particularly evident when it comes to staffing and this impacts our training in several ways:

You might have to pick up jobs in your department that usually would be for a qualified scientist to do. This is awesome because it means you’re learning quickly and get to contribute to the workload of the department. However, it shouldn’t be your responsibility to complete these tasks, and sometimes your official and structured training can take a back seat, causing you to fall behind.

It also means people have less time to train you- particularly on rotations and visiting other departments, if they have time to host you at all. This can be disappointing if you don’t get to visit the places you were hoping to, but it does mean that when you do go to other departments the majority of your training will be on the job. You quickly gain experience and skills that someone doing a university course wouldn’t get until at least their 2nd or 3rd year, if at all! I was observing medical imaging scans with 2nd year radiography students after a grand total of a day in the radiography department. Obviously, you’re not expected to learn the intricacies of everything you observe in the same way students are- it’s almost like you get fast-tracked to seeing the cool bits. Despite these difficulties with staffing, in general, people are very willing to help you with your training and development and share their expertise where they can, which is a testament to the dedication and passion of NHS staff.

The NHS is a huge organisation and trusts can differ massively in the way they work, which means that training and experience can vary hugely between trainees in different trusts and even trainees in different departments of the same trust. This can be difficult as you often feel isolated from the other trainees in your cohort, and even when you do talk/get together, your training can be so varied that you can actually struggle to compare and relate to the projects you are all working on. But, this does keep things interesting and mean you can all learn from each other.

How could I forget… annual leave! In the UK, employees working full-time must have 28 days of paid annual leave. In the NHS you start with 27 days but you get your bank holidays on top of that which brings you to a tidy total of 34 days. We don’t get a Christmas shut down like a lot of private sector places do, for obvious reasons, but I think annual leave is somewhere that the NHS does pretty well. I consider holidays and travelling quite a high priority in my life so something like good annual leave allowance is really important to me.

So  I’ve covered some of the good things as well as the slightly less appealing parts about working for the NHS, and I think it’s really important to address these and make it clear that the NHS perhaps isn’t a perfect training environment. However, despite these things, I love working for the NHS and it’s something I’m actually really proud of. I think you’d struggle to meet someone whose life hasn’t been influenced in some way by the NHS and it’s incredible to be a part of that. Working in the NHS, you’re also kind of guaranteed to work with and meet passionate scientists, who are happy to share their knowledge and committed to helping patients through diagnostics and research. I also think it’s funny how protective I’ve become about the NHS whenever I see something bad in the news, as I know that myself and all my colleagues work so hard and only have the patients best interests at heart, so when the NHS is attacked (even if it’s not even remotely related to my specialism) it feels a little bit personal!

I hope this has provided an insight of my experience working in the NHS and although I do sometimes envy the perks my friends working in the private sector get, I am really happy working in the NHS. If I felt any of the issues I’ve spoken about here outweighed the benefit of the STP, I certainly would not still be doing it.

Author: Jes

I am a trainee clinical bioinformatician working at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. I am passionate about increasing awareness and discussion about healthcare science and particularly the routes into the field.

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