What is a clinical academic?

Clinical academics are clinical professionals working across healthcare providers and academic institutions. They have a dual role combining their clinical career with a research career. They work in health and social care while researching ways to improve patient outcomes.

Clinical academics will have joint appointments between a health and social care provider and an academic institution. Generally, one organisation will hold the substantive contract and the other an honorary contract. With the development of their research career in association with a Higher Education Institution (HEI) there may well be teaching commitments along with the research commitments.

Why do we need clinical academics?

Clinical academics advance practice and improve care through research. They also:

  • contribute to new knowledge about care and treatments to improve patient outcomes
  • have the skill sets to take ideas and provide evidence to support or refute them to a wider audience
  • design appropriate studies, build multi-disciplinary research teams, secure research funding, deliver the studies and communicate their results

Communicating the results of their research involves publishing them in journals. This allows the evidence to be picked up and used by healthcare systems around the world. By this route, the skills of clinical academics not only improve care in their local setting but allow the improvement of care nationally and internationally as well.

Having clinical academics in a department allows their skills and experience to be accessed by others in the department. Through encouraging and giving opportunities to others they build the department’s capacity to support research. This fosters a culture of improvement in departments and facilitates the adoption of innovation.

At an organisational level, the presence of clinical academics and their research makes departments exciting places to work which helps with staff recruitment and retention. Their engagement with cutting edge thinking and practice development allows departments to be early adopters of proven improvements.

There is a growing body of evidence that greater research activity in healthcare provider organisations correlates with better health outcomes from those providers.

How do you become a clinical academic?

There is no one path to becoming a clinical academic. Not everyone will start from the same place or finish up at the same end point. Different individuals will engage with research at different levels and at different stages in their professional development.

Our Scientist Training Programme and Higher Specialist Scientist Training programme are training programmes that provide knowledge and skills to become Clinical Scientists and Consultants. Research skills and knowledge are an integral part of these programmes.

Leaders in research will further develop their research practice, skills, and knowledge by applying for and taking up other funding, training, and development opportunities. They will build relationships with key partners such as academic groups and institutions. This set of interconnected development opportunities and betterment can be thought of as a career pathway.

Clinical academic careers have been achieved in multiple ways and are very much determined by local circumstances and the opportunities that are sort out. Clinical Academic Healthcare Scientists describe their journeys in our clinical academic profiles below.

What does it take to become a clinical academic?

Healthcare scientists are naturally curious and well-rehearsed in the scientific method to take ideas and test them to further medical knowledge. They have a sound understanding of the scientific and clinical basis of their specialties which often span multiple different clinical disciplines. Healthcare scientists are ideally placed to understand the scientific and clinical questions arising from their practice to develop the research to answer them. Becoming a clinical academic is a natural progression.

It is key for clinical academics to understand their local work setting and to get to know what is going on around them. Exploring and talking to people in your local setting is essential to understand how things work and what opportunities are out there. This will involve a great deal of networking and building relationships which may become research collaborations or otherwise enable research ambitions.

Learning how the academic world works compared to the clinical environment is important to enable effective selling or yourself and your ideas to funders and colleagues in other institutions. Reaching out to build working collaborations beyond local institutions further expands clinical academic research interests and influence.

An additional characteristic of successful clinical academics is resilience. When applying for research funding and publishing research outputs there is plenty of rejection to manage along with the successes. Continually adapting and respond to those stimuli will become a way of life.

That said they are rewarding careers, allowing for greater job satisfaction. Hear what Clinical Academic Healthcare Scientists have to say about their careers in our clinical academic profiles below.

The HEE Clinical Academics Career Framework

Recognising the important role that clinical academics play in the NHS, and the absence of a clear pathway, HEE wanted to develop a ‘multi-professional Clinical Academic Careers Framework’ for the benefit of patients.

HEE published a ‘Clinical Academic Careers Framework’ in 2018 as a key objective from their previously published Research and Innovation Strategy. The framework aimed to streamline existing schemes and coordinate their development, whilst maintaining the flexibility to meet the needs of the different professional groups.

The framework is intended to enhance the understanding and planning of individuals seeking a clinical academic career in research and education. It outlines funded integrated clinical academic career programmes for healthcare professions.

The opening paragraph in that framework reads:

The opportunities to introduce the advances and innovation in medical science, diagnostics and treatment spanning all areas of healthcare including biology, physics, engineering and physiology for the benefit of patients and healthcare services have never been greater.

The programmes are divided into two:

  • Integrated Academic Training (IAT) Programme for doctors and dentists in training (funded by the Department of Health and Social Care and managed by the NIHR)
  • Integrated Clinical Academic (ICA) Programme for other regulated healthcare professions including healthcare scientists (funded by Health Education England and managed by the NIHR)

The HEE funded NIHR Integrated Clinical Academic Programme

The Integrated Clinical Academic (ICA) Programme is a series of funded internships and fellowships aimed at professionals at different stages of their careers. As regulated health professionals, healthcare scientists are eligible to apply.

The different levels of these awards have different eligibility criteria and different funding commitments. They are not intended to be necessarily stepped through in turn from one to the next in a continuous manner but are available at different stages of career progression. Click below for further information about this programme.


These are aimed at giving healthcare professionals a taste for research and experience of a research environment to see if it is for them. They are funded and run regionally by Health Education England (HEE) and a partner higher education institution. Click below for further information about internships.


The following fellowships are funded by HEE and administered by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Academy through the ICA Oversight committee:

  • The Pre-doctoral Clinical Academic Fellowship (PCAF) replaced a funded MSc Scheme and is aimed at giving people the grounding to go for a Doctoral Fellowship
  • The Clinical Doctoral Research Fellowship provides for the completion of a PhD

These are followed by the lectureships (Clinical Lectureships and Senior Clinical Lectureships) which support Post-Doctoral career development.

Other routes to becoming a clinical academic

It is important to recognise that HEE’s Clinical Academic Careers Framework is just one way to support the development of a clinical academic career. There are a wide variety of routes that healthcare scientists have taken, some of which are described here.

There are other opportunities available to develop research interests which will contribute to developing a clinical academic career. Many professional bodies administer research funding grants of various sizes and the charities sector is another funder of research. Another scheme available to consultant level healthcare scientists is the MRC Clinical Academic Research Partnership (CARP) Scheme supported by the MRC and NIHR. Taking on these opportunities means you are taking incremental steps along the journey of a clinical academic career.