Dr Valerie Finigan MBE

When it comes to inspiring PGR Success Stories, Dr Valerie Finigan MBE, is most definitely a top contender. As the first Consultant Midwife for Infant Feeding in the UK she works strategically with UNICEF, the Department of Health, and Royal College of Midwives’ Editorial Board, in addition to her role with Pennine Acute NHS Hospitals Trust. She has also been widely published in peer reviewed journals, is a peer reviewer and abstract writer for both the British Journal of Midwifery and the Midwives Information & Resource Service, and is the author of ‘Saggy Boobs and Other Breastfeeding Myths’. All this, as well as being the mother of “2 lovely children”.
The question one has to ask, then, is how does she do it?
The answer seems to be a mixture of passion for her subject, determination to see through what she’s started, and a flair for time management; “I really knew what I wanted to research before I accessed the Doctorate; I just needed guidance to develop the right research methods and to understand qualitative research more fully. I am passionate about mothers and their partners receiving the right help to build strong meaningful relationships with their infants and feeding their baby is part of this journey”. Valerie’s own journey however did not start in the world of academia, “I come from a large Manchester working class family. I left school with 3 O level qualifications grade B and C. I began working life in a factory in Middleton packing bottles of detergent, and then I accessed nursing as a health care support worker age 18”. And nursing has been Valerie’s vocation ever since. She initially took the traditional route of State Enrolled Nursing training, progressing on to the Registered General Nurse degree when the opportunity arose, and then completed a paediatric ENB course before settling on midwifery; a field she has now worked in for the past 20 years.
Once qualified as a midwife, Valerie did not rest on her laurels, and her pursuit of excellence in her workplace led to further academic qualifications with a Diploma in Midwifery and a BsC in Leadership from the University of Manchester, and a Master’s degree in Midwifery and a Professional Doctorate in Health & Social Care at University of Salford. She also undertook a rigorous learning programme to become an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. All this studying however was not done in isolation, as Val put her expertise and in-depth knowledge to good use, “I led a fundamental change in practice implementing the UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative across 4 maternity units, and also directing the then 5 PCTs that surrounded us to do the same. I also worked with the leads at the University of Salford to help them to become an accredited facility”.
So having spent a lot of time at Salford, what does she think about the place? “I like the University’s philosophy; they put learners at the centre of what they do and are flexible and supportive”. This is why, in 2008, Valerie embarked on her PhD at the University of Salford, under the supervision of Prof Tony Long (“I have a fantastic supervisor… he keeps me on track”). For Valerie, there was no question about the direction her research would take; “I knew that an area of care that was under-researched was how women experience immediate skin-to-skin contact with their baby from a more diverse cultural view. This was often used as a barrier to implementing intimate care between mother and baby as assumptions were made and women were stereotyped that they would or wouldn’t like this and even might be repulsed by it”. Therefore her thesis title of ‘Women’s experience of immediate skin-to-skin contact with their newborn baby immediately following birth from the perspective of three diverse population groups’ was easily agreed upon.
However, Valerie did encounter her own challenges, and without any study leave, time was the biggest problem. Typically though, she found a way to fit in everything she needed to do “fortunately sessions that had to be attended were mainly in the evening.  I used holidays very effectively to conduct the study and to write up the data as I went along”. Any PhD candidate managing a job and a family, as well as their studies, would do well to take a leaf out of Valerie’s book; “I found that having drawn up a plan of how I would achieve my objectives at the start of the course kept me on track. I am highly motivated, so I went into the course with my eyes open; I put in my ethics application together and submitted it long before I needed to and began to develop my tools for the research early. I kept references of what I read and quotes that might be useful in a file fax for later retrieval, I am still using these as I write up papers for publication now.” Given that by 2011 she had completed her PhD, this approach obviously worked! For others thinking of undertaking a research degree, Valerie offers sound advice “Only enter it if you are committed to see the course through.  I think it is sad that so many people take up places and then drop out when others would love the opportunity.  Start everything early, read the list of books and keep records for later use. Be prepared draw up a plan and stick to it.”
Valerie’s own plan did not stop at the award of her PhD though, as she had a very definite idea of what she wanted to do with it “When I began working in infant feeding there wasn’t any specialist roles. Midwives did the job of implementing change with no recognition or time for what they were expected to achieve.  I fought hard to develop infant feeding adviser’s specialist roles, then an infant feeding coordinators role and my ultimate goal was to put infant feeding as high on the agenda as possible. After the PhD I worked with the Head of Midwifery and Director of Nursing to develop a business case for a Consultant Midwife for Infant Feeding post.  I now am the successful post holder, the first post in the UK.” She also maintains her links to Salford as an honorary research fellow with the Children, Young People & Families research team, developing future proposals linked to infant feeding.
As for the future, there’s much more in the pipeline with Valerie’ agenda being : “To carry out more collaborative research with the Acute Trusts and University working together; continue to publish (I have a book in mind); to support other learners to achieve PhD success; and to improve care and services for mothers, babies and families”. And there’s no doubt in our minds that she will achieve all of these things and then some. Forget the MBE: for us a more appropriate title would be ‘Dr Valerie Finigan, Force of Nature’!