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Joe Bradley

University of Hull

BSc (Hons) Theoretical Physics
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The Big Picture

We hear from Joe who is a year into the three year Scientists Training Programme (STP) specialising in non-ionising imaging (MRI, ultrasound, and optics) based in Manchester. The Christie NHS Foundation Trust is the largest single-site cancer centre in Europe and the first UK centre to be accredited as a comprehensive cancer centre treating more than 60,000 patients a year.

Joe completed his undergrad at the University of Hull “I decided I wanted to do a year in industry, but unfortunately Hull didn’t have an official integrated placement year on Physics. But the department and careers service supported me to identify my options and improve my applications, which helped me to secure an internship and pause my studies for a year. I went to the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in Oxford and looked at neutron tomography which is like CT but with neutrons. That kind of got me interested in imaging, and then I wanted to do something medical as well, so pushed in that direction.” Joe then went on to do a Masters (MRes) in medical imaging at Nottingham Trent and will also complete a further Masters as part of the STP.

He also started out on a PhD but realised that actually the STP was more the route he wanted to go down; “That was a difficult process to navigate, you know, telling them that I was shifting my focus to the STP. The PhD work was interesting and has fascinating applications in medicine, but I was after work where I could readily see how my physics skills could benefit people on a more day-to-day basis.”

Day to Day

Joe explains that the approach taken on the STP “depends on where your main hospital is, there’s a few different providers of the program, we go to the University of Liverpool for our MSc component, and our clinical work is conducted within The Christie Foundation Trust.” Joe generally completes week-long modules; “the next one is on professional practice; learning how to conduct ourselves, and how to ensure we practice safely for our patients. How to get patient histories, you know, act professional in the NHS. It’s mostly lectures, but it’s also workshops, tutorials, assessments. It’s all very well-tailored to the role so you do genuinely see how what you learn links to the day-to-day. The NHS arranges accommodation but I’m lucky to be in commuting distance, saving the NHS some money!”

“In our Trust it kind of comes in chunks, so after the week at uni we have a couple of weeks to prepare for exams. Other Trusts arrange it differently, so they’ll do one day a week, they’ll say, Okay, Friday is my uni day. Being a national program, you’ve got a certain amount of things that you need to tick off, and a lot of your time is spent fulfilling those tasks to get the registration to practise”. 

“When we’re not in Liverpool, we’re basically at the Christie all the time learning from, speaking to scientists, actually doing things like watching scans, observing treatments. As you start getting more competent, they’ll start giving you responsibilities like kind of routine work or things for the department. For us, this could include performing image checks on MRI scanners,  assisting in determining whether it’s safe for a patient with a pacemaker to have a scan, or helping implement new MRI technologies to speed up scan times.  So, you’ll have to also start doing the job and continue doing the study as well. It all does contribute, even like the routine tasks, contributes to training.”

“I really like the rotation side of things. You get to see different areas; radiotherapy and nuclear medicine have been really interesting. Most of it is reflective, so we watch something like a scan and then we kind of have to reflect on that in our learning. And I guess the medical side as well I really enjoy, the other week I got to go into a meeting with oncologists and doctors and listen to what they’re saying about patients and how they’re managing their treatment. They ask physicists for advice on how we deliver the radiation and we can advise them on best courses of patient treatment as part of a multidisciplinary team. So, if you like medicine, I think you’ll enjoy the career. I could have probably been a doctor in a different life, I think it’s really interesting!”

“I’ve gotten to go into like theatres to see surgery. I’ve had opportunities to observe breast cancer treatments being done. Had to climb onto the hospital roof to help measure the radiation that comes out of a Radiotherapy machine to check it’s safe. Also been given a chance to get involved in brachytherapy, so it’s like doing cancer treatment, but instead of from the outside, you kind of treat from the inside, I went to surgery and got to see them position the radiation, which was exciting!

The Application Process

“It’s very, very long, like the longest application you’ll probably ever do! It starts in January and doesn’t really finish until July.” Joe explains there’s an application form, personal statement on how your experience meets the criteria, personal specification around scientific skills and NHS core values and a situational behavioural judgement test, all of which results in long listing and a detailed look at your application questions to be shortlisted. “They’ll then start allocating interviews to people based on your score in the application process. There’s no guarantee on location unless you position number one in the national applicant ranking.” Joe was very pleased to get his first choice at the Christie as there were only 7 places in his speciality. 

“I think the major point that got me on was choosing my specialty and having experience in that speciality as opposed to just applying generally. Because, actually, I did apply twice on the general program after my undergrad and after my masters, and they didn’t accept me, I think, mostly because of the increased competition, and perhaps my lack of specific experience at the time.”

The Physics Connection

“In terms of undergraduate, I think it’s mostly kind of transferable skills. So, coding and research skills are most used by clinical scientists doing research in the hospital. It can be a big part of the role and those kind of skills are a good kind of baseline when you go into the career I would say. The program is designed to start you from a fundamental physics knowledge and to build you up into a scientist from this baseline, so no specific physics knowledge above a general degree is needed. Although, knowledge of magnetism and imaging definitely helps for MRI! I think at undergraduate stage your primary goal should be thinking about what really interests you and exploring different options.” 

“The Masters I did was quite useful, as it was kind of more specialised, and gave me a year to focus on MRI. So, I have built up kind of a decent knowledge base going into the STP.”

“The STP and even the role of the scientists is pretty self-directed with a lot of different elements to it, so time management skills you pick up at Uni are really useful to carry into the program. And yeah, all the research skills again. Just knowing how to write scientific reports and navigate different tools like reference managers are amongst the most useful skills to have as a trainee.” 

Any Advice?

“In terms of benefits, you’re not likely to get better to be honest, it is a very well structured and funded program for graduates. So, a fully funded Masters and the salary as well, it’s one of the best paid graduate schemes available.”

“I guess specific to the program, I’d look at the competition ratios because I could have applied to the one that was easier to get into and probably got into it earlier. But it is a long programme, so make sure it is right for you before going for it! When you have found one you like, try get any experience you can in it by reaching out to departments and current trainees, everyone is always happy to help new people into the profession.”.

“Generally, I think quite a lot of the graduate schemes are kind of hyped up a bit, and sometimes that can get to you, as though it’s almost not something that’s achievable. And when you’re actually on the program, you realise that everyone else is just like me, the same experience as me, or even less in some cases. So, I guess it’s that mindset of like you’re not any worse than anyone else, you can get on the program, and you can succeed on the program. And just having that mindset. Especially if you fail once or twice, keep in that mindset that you can actually do it.”

Next Steps

Although the STP doesn’t guarantee a permanent role at the end, Joe is keen to continue on this path; “I’ve been enjoying working in the NHS as a whole, being a scientist, I kind of knew that was always what I wanted to do. I just enjoyed research and this way I get to do research, as well as something I feel is meaningful as part of my day-to-day work – I feel like the work I do genuinely helps improve people’s lives. So, I definitely want to continue as a registered scientist. Quite a lot of scientists also do a PhD as well alongside their role in the hospital.” So that avenue is still open should Joe wish to complete a PhD after all!

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