Being a Mental Health Nurse and PhD student: Working, studying and evolving identity

This weeks’ blog, and the first as part of our Early Career Researcher theme, is from Zoe Dodd. Zoe is a part time PhD student, a registered Mental Health Nurse and also works full time in a leadership role in a Mental Health Trust.

Since starting my PhD in 2020, there has been a significant shift in how I view myself as a ‘nurse’, a ‘researcher’ and a ‘leader’. This has impacted upon my identity and how I present myself in these three arenas. Holding these identities and the balancing demands these roles bring is not easy, and as both my career and research has progressed, this has become more complex.

When starting my PhD, I saw being a nurse and a researcher as two distinct entities. I was a complete novice in the research world and was working in a clinical role in a team where I had worked for a number of years.  My identity, as I saw it, was almost completely that of a mental health nurse. This is a common experience for nurses engaging in research. Nurses tend to ‘hold’ their professional identities as they make the transition into academia and see their researcher role as complementary to the nursing one1. I would describe my PhD to a few colleagues as an ‘odd hobby’ but said very little about this. In fact, most of my peers had no idea I was doing a PhD. Reflecting on this, I did really see it as such, something which I was enjoying and was passionate about but had no real influence on me at that time.

My PhD is exploring the transition period for newly registered mental health nurses and the impact on values. I have undertaken a literature review and secured ethical approvals and I am just coming to the end of nearly year-long data collection. It is fascinating topic area and especially important as in practice we need to retain MH nurses. As a Mental Health Nurse, I have been through the same transitional period of the participants I am interviewing and my  ‘insider’ status or position provides me with some insights and understanding of their world. Insider research works in a person-centred way and the importance of lived experience research and hearing stories 2 . Even though our experiences might not be exactly the same this is a strength of being a mental health nurse researcher. My research method which aligns with this and allows me to reflect on my positionality throughout and the impact this will have on my study.

It is an exciting time to be researching particularly about workplace culture, retention and experience as it is such an important topic and it feels a privilege to be able to contribute to this. I am so engaged in this research, I have wanted to share my work and talk about it everywhere including the workplace.  I now speak about my research often to colleagues and am proud to be doing it and love it when I am given the opportunity to share learning when it comes to practice.  I have been asked to speak at conferences, with the nursing council within my own organisation, and I have spoken to the Deputy Director of mental health nursing for NHS England and colleagues in the RCN about the findings so far.

Alongside this, since starting my PhD my job and role has completely changed. I have taken  on board a professional leadership role with additional responsibilities with less free time and different working patterns. This has meant lots of new and extra things to navigate which I did not foresee at the beginning of my PhD.  Time constraints continue to challenge me,  as I have such a strong commitment to both my full-time role and research. When a lot is happening in both areas it can be so hard. Prioritising can be near on impossible and Institutions are not always set up to accommodate this. I recently had three weeks to complete four assignments in a part time capacity whilst also working. I would never have been able to fund a full time PhD and not have an income, it does require commitment but working in this way also gives flexibility.

Picking yourself up and motivating yourself is required – often. I remind myself often why I am doing this work and try not to be too hard on myself. Sometimes 48 hours of not working on either can feel like it sets back, but I remind myself that I am a part time PhD student so do have more time and space to complete the work.  Being a part-time PhD student, gives me the best of both worlds.

I have also had more opportunities for development. This has included teaching final year mental health nursing students and presenting at different events. This has been a huge learning trajectory for me which has impacted on myself and the possibilities I foresee for my future. The point I am at now as a person from when I started my PhD is substantially different, I love how my worlds connect and merge. How I respond to situations or how I feel about myself can be a real point of reflection or learning.  I know I am not alone in having imposter syndrome, something found in nurses throughout their career path from student to chief executive 3. I often think that someone is going to ‘find me out’, that I am not good enough to be a researcher or a leader or a nurse. Discussing this in different spaces and with other PhD students and supervisors has definitely helped me to view this differently and how I work with this as I move forward.

I now feel part of three different paths; nurse, researcher and leader all of which mean so much to me although I still have no clear idea where I want to go next. I will soon be starting the write up stage of my PhD, my career is going well in the NHS and I change my mind every day about my dream role. I want to be able to merge lots of areas I am interested in although I am not sure how.  I love it that this could be a possibility.  What I am sure of is that my identities as nurse, a leader and a researcher strengthen each other and despite the challenges doing a PhD, it is one of the best decisions I have made.


  1. McIntosh GL (2023) Nurse researcher identity and reflexivity in interpretive phenomenological analysis: a personal narrative. Nurse Researcher.
  2. Berkovic, D., Ayton, D., Briggs, A. & Ackerman I (2020) The View From the Inside: Positionality and Insider Research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods (19) 1-4.
  3. Cartright A (2022) Can I really do this? Imposter syndrome in nurses and midwives. Royal College of Nursing

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