The world of academia provides many career opportunities alongside clinical practice, says Dr Vincent Singh. Claire White interviews the multi-hatted biokineticist, physiotherapist and senior lecturer
Young Vincent Singh was feeling sorry for himself in a waiting room ahead of treatment for a recurrent shoulder dislocation sustained while playing rugby when came the lightbulb moment that would inspire his career in physiotherapy.
‘I was reading all the signatures and notes on the wall written by national level athletes and then the therapist walked out in shorts and trainers,’ he recalls. ‘I thought “I could do that!” I don’t want to be working in a suit and tie all day. From that point I was quite determined that I would become a biokineticist.’
So he duly trained to master’s level and practised as a biokineticist in his native South Africa before arriving in the UK in 2004 and switching to physiotherapy. And now Vincent is Dr Singh after he was awarded a PhD by the University of Bath last year. He even managed to avoid a suit for the ceremony as Covid-19 meant it was awarded virtually.
Biokinetics, Singh’s initial area of speciality, focuses more on middle to late-stage rehabilitation than physiotherapy, and promotes exercise as a means of improving physical function and healthcare. His combined expertise he feels has given him lasting insight into the benefits of specialists from different professional backgrounds working together for the benefit of the patient: ‘Multi-disciplinary approaches have much more benefit than one profession thinking they can offer everything,’ he said. ‘I don’t think it’s a case of who is better than the other; it’s about everyone contributing to the patient’s holistic care.’
That multi-faceted approach to care is reflected in Singh’s academic life, where he juggles his own research with his role as senior lecturer and admissions tutor in sport rehabilitation at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol.
He is also the evaluation lead for the School of Health and Social Wellbeing at UWE, which involves looking out and applying for evaluation tenders and bid opportunities.
He welcomes practising physiotherapists as visiting lecturers at UWE and urges anyone considering an academic career to use it as a way to test the water.
We’re increasingly open to the fact that we don’t know all the answers, and we benefit richly from graduates coming back to share their experiences from practice.
It’s also useful when they point out that students might not appreciate why they’re doing a certain thing now but when they’re in practice the penny will drop!’
Clinical practice and academia
Although he advises recent graduates to gain practice experience first, Singh says there are many routes into academia, centred around teaching, research and management. ‘People who have skill sets around statistics and qualitative research may be well-suited to research,’ he says. ‘For teaching you should have practice experience.
In a trust setting, for example, it’s good to get involved with delivering in-service training or supporting students on placements. Approach your university to help out with practical sessions or even deliver a session yourself.’
Singh registered as a physiotherapist in the UK through the Health and Care Professions Council’s rigorous international application process and continued to practise until recently. He initially also worked as a locum cardiac technician at hospitals in south west London before taking up lecturing, then also the programme director role at St Mary’s University, London. He then moved to UWE, where his increasing responsibilities - and a young family – led to a re-evaluation of his career.
‘I came into academia because I was particularly inspired by my lecturers who were also practising clinically and it was a model I thought offered the best of both worlds. It’s rewarding to help students earn a professional qualification and, particularly as a personal tutor, to see them persevere to overcome challenges and still go on to achieve the best grades. I also enjoyed leading the degree programme through numerous curriculum revalidations, when we have to anticipate the future demands of healthcare and the population and how we’ll equip graduates for employment. But there are times when you become snowed under with the administration behind it all.’
Singh took the decision to step back from practising and from his programme leader role at UWE, while retaining his other responsibilities. He is now also focusing on research, with the ultimate aim of working towards an associate professorship.
‘I’m very aware that I’m at the early stages of my research career but I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a great number of colleagues who are directing me along the path, which is really helpful. At the end of the day what we do in practice needs to be supported by research and to be further involved in that is fantastic,’ he said.
Research with an impact
Painful memories of that shoulder injury which put paid to his rugby career have also been a driving force. His PhD, funded by the Private Physiotherapy Education Foundation, was on shoulder injury prevention in rugby – and he is delighted that a fellow PhD student at the University of Bath conducted the research which has changed World Rugby’s injury prevention routines. ‘Having the opportunity to influence practice, be it sport or healthcare, is a huge motivation,’ he said.
Singh also recently led a research project with the CSP exploring the role of exercise professionals in allied health professional support worker roles. It was an area he felt his background as a biokineticist and programme director gave him added insight into. ‘My training placed a strong emphasis on the role of exercise and physical activity in the prevention and management of a range of different conditions,’ he said. ‘In South Africa it’s something which is included within different treatment options, but in the UK we’re still far from that stage.’
Given the huge rehabilitation demand in the population, Singh sees that it’s particularly pressing for physios and exercise professionals to work together to meet the need.
But he acknowledges concerns about the need for a consistency in standards of care. ‘Skills and training are needed to ensure we have the right people going into the right roles, with safety a big factor. And when they are in place we need to support exercise professionals properly, and not view them as a cheaper alternative to physio.’
Singh’s main interest is in musculoskeletal rehabilitation, looking at shoulders in particular. He was recently awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Early Career Researcher award at UWE, which supports preliminary research into areas identified as priorities by the university. It will allow him focus on adherence to shoulder rehabilitation exercises in people with shoulder pain, taking him right back to that waiting room in South Africa where his journey began.
‘I’m really pleased and so very grateful for this opportunity,’ he said. ‘I feel I’ve been really fortunate with everything and I owe a lot to the support I’ve had over the years, especially from my mother and from colleagues who have been really supportive. I’ve also been really lucky to have worked with people who are real leaders in their field, and admire that even though they’ve reached such high levels they’re still down to earth, have time for people and support as much as they can.
I’m really grateful for all of the blessings that I have.’
Claire Fordham, CSP professional adviser says:
Dr Singh’s professional journey showcases the many routes into academia and how this career option combines well with continuing to practice clinically.
His varied practice experiences also provide credible insight into how vital it is that the profession pursues working effectively with a whole range of professionals in order to meet a massive demand for rehabilitation.
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