STP Reflections | Hello from a co-editor, and my STP experience so far

Firstly, just a quick introduction as I realised that I never properly introduced myself on this blog.

A bit about me
I am Rachel, one of the blog editors. I am 24, am a second (nearly third!) year clinical bioinformatics trainee, I enjoy watersports, climbing and art in my spare time, and love new experiences – one of the reasons I volunteered to work on this blog in my spare time!

Being involved with the blog
I also wanted to say thanks to everyone so far for all your fantastic contributions, not only have your experiences, advice and differing opinions opened mine (and I’m sure other trainees’) eyes on the rich and varied experiences within the healthcare science profession, but I have personally gained a lot in this experience in terms of the opportunities it has provided. Reflection and introspection, and working and communicating with a wider network of people – our fantastic contributors and readers, the previous blog editors, new prospective editors, my lovely colleague and co-editor Erin, and the National School of Healthcare Science.

So now back to the blog post!

The last year and a half has been extremely challenging
I, like I think all of us at this point, have found this last year and a half extremely difficult. A rollercoaster of emotions and spiralling loss of control, with lows but also some highs and personal achievements that have made this time somewhat more bearable. However, it is safe to say that this has been the most isolating and challenging year of my life so far.

The STP  as a recent graduate
Our 20s are often a period of self realisation – a time where we tend to learn a lot about ourselves, and make choices to shape our lives without yet being tied down. For me so far, both meeting new people and spending time with old friends had played a big part in this, being a sociable human who places a lot of value on connections with friends, family and likeminded people.

The STP (and life in a new city, the new experiences I would have, and people I would inevitably meet) was set to be a bit part of this experience. I joined the STP a year after finishing my undergrad, and always planned to move into London soon after starting to be nearer to work and experience city living having grown up in a relatively small town.

It all started off swimmingly
The first six months of the STP for me were fantastic. Starting a new job in a new city with a friendly and supportive team giving their time and effort to train me. Having seven weeks of university blocks which gave me the chance to meet and live with like-minded people who I am now able to call great friends. The opportunity to go to conferences and broaden my knowledge in the field. The start of the first of what was meant to be several rotations where I was able to go into a different working environment, learn about them and their differing ways of working, and gain new skills.

Making the best of a difficult situation 
The pandemic meant these rotations did not happen in person, were moved online or delayed indefinitely. Things started to get a lot more challenging – bereavement and readjustment to a new more isolating way of working and living.

I had started off the STP commuting to London and had always planned to move once I had settled in. This had already been put off by the pandemic so last year, with lockdown one over, things opening up, and a collective sense of imminent return to normality, I took the plunge and moved into a houseshare. Unfortunately this was shortlived – by the end of the summer restrictions started tightening again and I was stuck working in my bedroom all day, paying London rent for none of the benefits, and isolated from my friends and family which impacted my mental health, so I moved back in with my mum again.

Since then I came to the realisation that it is incredibly difficult to make any big decisions with any confidence due to the uncertainty that we have faced and continue to face, and that this means I have been unable to fully open the next chapter of my life post-university. I am sure this is a realisation that is shared by many other young people starting out in their careers in their 20s, an already uncertain time in life that often doesn’t provide much continuity or stability, let alone during a pandemic!

The reality of my STP experience
I’ve now been working from home for 17 months, which is three quarters of my training experience so far (and even then a lot of the first months on the STP for me were spent at university!). I haven’t seen most of my colleagues in person for this entire period. For me, this job is the longest I have ever been in continuous employment, which means that the majority of the longest time I have been in continuous employment has been working at home. It is definitely not where I envisioned I would be when I signed up!

However, I have been lucky to have still been able to progress with my training. As my specialism is computer based, remote working has always been very feasible, meaning that I have been able to complete my rotational placements (although somewhat delayed). Inevitably I, like many other trainees, have missed out on the benefit of face to face learning, picking up knowledge through in-person causal conversations and interactions with colleagues, and being able to ask to be shown how to do something in person. But unfortunately this is something that has been largely unavoidable.

However, I do believe it is important for training departments to try to prioritise getting trainees back into the office – the longer we are kept working from home, the greater the long term impact on learning and training. This is well summarised in this article – despite the subject being junior doctors, it is also applicable to trainees in the wider healthcare profession. Another article summarises the more general impacts on early-career employees. I think it can be easy for managers to assume that employees in computer-based specialisms, such as bioinformatics, are more capable of working from home as the nature of their job facilitates this, which is true in terms of logistics, however it is so important to appreciate the longer term impacts to employee well-being and collaborative working that these decisions may have.

The takeaway
The biggest takeaway from this experience for me has been that I have learned to be okay with not feeling completely in control of my life. Before this, I relied on being organised and busy, and being able to effectively plan, at least in the short term. But I am now much more okay with uncertainty – I moved out into a flat in my home town with a friend on a short term let, with the aim of moving back to London, and I have no idea if or when this will be feasible, but I am okay with this. Life throws curveballs at us and a big part of this is learning to cope with and adapt to these in a healthy way.

I’ve also realised that there is no point getting worked up about things that are out of your control, something that I found was an easy habit to slip into whilst working from home with not much else to distract. I think a lot of us trainees are perfectionists by nature and like things to be done correctly – often the nature of high achievers – but it is really enough sometimes to do ‘just enough’, especially when perfectionism comes at the expense of your mental health or wellbeing. Your health is more important than anything.

Thirdly, I have gained a new appreciation for my hobbies and spare time, and creating my own structure to my life. I’ve fallen back in love with running, and have found this to be a fantastic way to relieve any work-related stress and provide a separation between the end of the work day and the evening. With the three hours that I used to spend commuting into London per day now freed up, I also suddenly had spare time to pick up artistic hobbies that had fallen by the wayside since I started the programme. The isolation that the pandemic brought about also made me really appreciate the people in my life.

My point in writing this blog post (which has probably been a bit of a ramble!) is that whilst it can be difficult to voice our thoughts and experiences of struggles and difficulty and reflect upon these (especially when we see other people who we feel have it worse), it is important to share these in a constructive way that might be able to guide others. Its okay to be struggling during these difficult times and to know that you are by no means alone in this – other trainees have also been finding things extremely difficult.

Author: Rachel

I am a second year trainee Clinical Bioinformatician (genomics) at the Viapath Genetics Laboratory at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust.

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