Clinical Leadership in the NHS : An interview with Bernie Divall

Bernie Divall is completing a PhD in Clinical Leadership in the NHS. Her work is split between WBS (Warwick Business School) and the School of Nursing and Midwifery (Nottingham). Interview by Thomasin Bailey, PhD student in English & Comparative Literature.

Why is collaboration important?

One of the things about midwifery, as a profession, is that we’re very inward looking, so when you’re doing research, a lot of it is very focussed within midwifery. Having gone out to a business school to do my PhD, I’ve ended up with a very different framework. There’s a lot of emphasis on theory that probably wouldn’t have been there to the same extent if I’d done the PhD within Midwifery. In my opinion, with any kind of research, the more sources you can go to the better.

Doing a PhD is massively isolating, because you are becoming expert in a field in which, a lot of the time, there are very few experts. From my perspective, Midwifery Leadership has only been looked at once before, ever, and that’s a very small scale study and isn’t really about leadership anyway. So if I’d been stuck in Midwifery I would have been a little bit perplexed as to how to do it. Everybody meets methodological issues when they’re doing a PhD – it doesn’t matter what [discipline] it is. For instance, I’ve met people who are doing History PhDs, for example, and I said, “So, you’re using narrative research. How have you found it?” We’re doing different subjects but with a shared methodology. And it makes life more entertaining frankly!

Talk about a collaborative project you’ve been involved in.

When I was an ambassador at the Wolfson Research Exchange, during my second and third years, I was put in touch with various people by Fiona [responsible for the concept behind Piirus], because that’s what she’s brilliant at, and we came up with looking at narratives of childbirth. It never actually came to fruition, because one of the group went to work abroad, but it’s still there as something we can do in the future. Essentially, we all had a similar thread, even though we came from very different research backgrounds. One was in Health Psychology, one was in Literary History, there were two Medical Historians, and me in the business school. You’d think that we would all be vastly different, but you could link together what we were doing really well. It was really great to meet people and do something surprising, and to make those connections that you didn’t know would be there.

What are the benefits of working with others?

I like to be with other people. I don’t really flourish on my own. All my friends are midwives, and frankly not interested in the academic side of what I’m doing – they’re interested in the research because it affects them – but they’re not interested in the methodological conundrums that you meet along the way. As for my poor family, if they hear one more word about this thesis I think they might kill me! So when you have that chance to collaborate with people in an academic setting, it gives you an outlet that you might not have at home.

What are the pitfalls of collaborative work?

For me, the biggest potential problem is time. One of my supervisors keeps saying to me, “Stop thinking, and write!” Sometimes, if you are working collaboratively you can sometimes get a bit side tracked. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Although it’s a pitfall, it’s only a pitfall from a time perspective. It’s not a pitfall from the point of view that I like to learn new things. Doing the PhD has been very much an immersive process. Keats said something along the lines of, if you dive into a lake, you don’t dive in just to swim back to the other side again. You dive into a lake because you want to be submerged in it, and to enjoy the sensation of being in the lake. Collaboration can give you that, but, if you are on a tight timescale, it can be a little bit distracting.

Do you have a favourite historical collaboration and why?

I’ve just read a book called The Song of Achilles. I read the Illiad when I was about ten, my mum gave it to me, I remember really enjoying it. What I got from The Song of Achilles, that I hadn’t thought about before, was that collaboration of all those armies that had to come together and work together, and they were so vastly different. That to me is the ultimate collaboration.

How could a service like Piirus help you?

Since I’m about to go out into the big world after PhD, I want to build collaborations because of the sort of work that I’ve done. I worry, a lot, about getting trapped into one discipline. I want to carry on with collaborative work and keep those connections going, and that what Piirus is about, building connections and sharing knowledge. For a PhD student Piirus will be invaluable. I don’t think you can overestimate how valuable these things are.