Intended for healthcare professionals


Scientific methods and research techniques (SMaRT) course

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 21 September 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e5829
  1. Peter Featherstone, specialty registrar,
  2. Elisabeth Harvey, specialty registrar
  1. 1Department of Anaesthesia, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, UK
  1. peterjfeatherstone{at}

If you have ever wondered what constitutes medical research and how you might establish a project, get ethical approval, organise data collection, analyse your results, or present your findings, the scientific methods and research techniques (SMaRT) course is for you.

Why did you do it?

An understanding of research is essential for all doctors in training. We were both interested in doing some research but wanted to see what it would really be like before taking the plunge.

When did you do it?

We did this course in November 2011, when we were both year 5 specialty registrars in anaesthesia. Although the SMaRT course has been designed for those who have passed the fellowship of the Royal College of Anaesthetists exam, it is suitable for trainees from all backgrounds. Our group of delegates included a foundation year 2 doctor as well as trainees of various grades from medicine, surgery, and psychiatry.

Where is it held?

The course is delivered by the University of Cambridge’s Division of Anaesthesia and is held over three days at the Donald McIntyre Building, University of Cambridge Faculty of Education. This central venue is easily accessible by road and rail.

What does it involve?

The SMaRT course has a strong interactive focus, and a mixture of theoretical and practical sessions. It begins with a broad overview of the various types of research before outlining the ethical principles that govern good practice in this area. Subsequent sessions provide a stepwise guide to undertaking a research project, from posing a hypothesis through to writing the paper. In addition, the course offers practical advice on doing a higher research degree and outlines the career pathways available to clinicians with an interest in medical research.

The course began with a welcome, introduction to the faculty, and distribution of course material. The lectures covered definition of the research question, principles of critical appraisal, planning a research study, and the organisational framework for research. An interactive workshop was held on undertaking a literature review.

On the second day we had lectures on “grant writing for dummies” and funding opportunities; ethical approval—how to make your life easy; types of research—animal research, clinical trials, and laboratory based projects; and commercial applications of research. The interactive workshops covered the Integrated Research Application System (IRAS) procedure; a tour of the IRAS online form; how to design a clinical epidemiology study; and important skills for data interpretation.

On the final day the lecture was an insider’s guide to the peer review process, and the workshops were data analysis using StatsDirect software, producing your findings using PowerPoint and Excel, design of a relational database using Access, and the key principles of meta-analysis.

How much effort did it entail?

No preparation is necessary, and a folder containing comprehensive notes is provided. Each delegate has access to a computer for interactive teaching on data analysis and software utilisation.

Was there an exam?

This course has no exam. However, the course objectives map to the Royal College of Anaesthetists’ higher academic and research competencies for the certificate of completion of training in anaesthesia, pain, and intensive care medicine.

How much does it cost?

The course fee for 2012 is £300, which includes course materials, refreshments, and lunch. Accommodation is not included in the price but is available locally.

Was it worth it?

Although most doctors receive a basic introduction to the principles of research methodology at undergraduate level, this course provides a comprehensive and up to date framework for postgraduate clinical research practice.

The hands-on sessions in which the experienced but approachable faculty members offer practical advice on completing important components of the research process are particularly insightful. These include the application of advanced techniques for literature searching, such as the use of Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), handling data, performing statistical analyses, and presenting results.

In addition, lectures on study design, getting ethical approval, and completing an IRAS form are invaluable for doctors who have had little or no exposure to these potentially complex areas.

The course material is presented in an informal and interactive manner, encouraging lively and fruitful discussion among delegates. A maximum of 20 places are available, which provides a good level of supervision from the multidisciplinary faculty.

We have both undertaken research attachments after doing the SMaRT course. The knowledge, skills, and insights we acquired have been invaluable.

Further information

The programme for the November 2012 session of the course will be announced shortly through the Addenbrooke’s Hospital postgraduate medical education centre. For further information contact Ankita Sahay (tel 01223 274452; as2141{at} or go to


  • Competing interests: Both authors work at the institution that delivers this course, but neither author was involved in its design or implementation.

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