Intended for healthcare professionals

Careers

Research options for doctors in training

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e6858 (Published 24 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6858
  1. S Chadwick, clinical research fellow in burns and plastic surgery12,
  2. T Madura, specialty registrar in burns and plastic surgery13,
  3. S Enoch, director of education and research4
  1. 1Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, University of Manchester, UK
  2. 2Burns Service, Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, Central Manchester Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, UK
  3. 3North Western Deanery, Manchester, UK
  4. 4Division for Academia and Research, Doctors Academy International, Cardiff, UK
  1. Correspondence to: S Chadwick slchadwick{at}doctors.org.uk

Abstract

S Chadwick and colleagues outline the research options open to trainee doctors and how to secure a place

Before the introduction of run-through specialty posts, combining postgraduate training with a period of dedicated research was customary among junior doctors, particularly those in competitive specialties such as surgery, acute medicine, and anaesthesia. In recent years, however, the relevance of research during medical training has become ill defined, and there has been little guidance from governing bodies as to its value in career progression.

The decision to do research should be made only after careful consideration, because its commitments require time off from clinical training and there is the risk of a reduction in earnings. This article aims to answer key questions that trainees considering research might ask and provides practical tips and useful resources to help people applying for a research programme.

What is research?

Research, broadly speaking, is “any gathering of data, information or facts for the advancement of knowledge.”1 More specifically, it is “an art guided by skills of inquiry, experimental design . . . measurement and analysis . . . interpretation and presentation.”2 It is the discovery of novel ideas and solutions to previously unanswered questions that sets research apart from clinical audit (“a quality improvement process that seeks to improve patient care and outcomes through systematic review of care against explicit criteria”3) and service evaluation (“a set of procedures to judge a service’s merit by providing a systematic assessment of its aims, objectives, activities, outputs, outcomes, and costs”4).

Is it right for me?

Research can be rewarding, both personally and professionally. It allows for ongoing learning and the pursuit of knowledge, together with the development of new skills such as reading and writing research papers; improved analytical thinking; and the opportunity to tackle and succeed in new challenges. These skills can be of immense value on your return to the clinical setting and can lead to a huge sense of personal achievement as well as an enhanced CV. Professionally, clinicians who undertake a period of research have the potential to develop their skills in team working, communication, and time management.

There are myriad issues, however, that can make doing research frustrating. It can be stressful, especially when time is limited, experiments won’t work, patients drop out of studies, and deadlines are looming. Careful planning is therefore imperative, and before embarking on a research programme candidates should evaluate critically their interest in a project, the time available to do the project, and their proposed career path.

The skills required to be a successful researcher, such as team working and good communication, are well grounded in medical professionals, making them ideal candidates for postgraduate research. Being open and adaptable are valuable attributes in research because unexpected results are often the most interesting and can change the direction of the research. Scientists also need to be analytically minded and good at problem solving; well disciplined and motivated; and have good oral and written communication skills, which can be invaluable for presenting in scientific meetings and writing grant applications, papers, and a dissertation or thesis.

Choosing a research degree

It is important to consider which postgraduate research qualification to obtain. A master of philosophy (MPhil) degree, a medical doctorate (MD), and a doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree all have slightly different requirements and take different amounts of time (table). Taught postgraduate courses (MSc, MEd, MA) are also widely available and may be done as part time or distance learning courses. These differ from research degrees as they have a required taught element, and students must pass modules to gain a required number of credits to complete the degree programme.

Types of research degree

View this table:

Identifying an area of interest is the first step in picking a research programme and is essential for ensuring that you enjoy your research. A thorough review of the literature will help you establish a gap in the existing scientific knowledge and will highlight institutions that are already working in your chosen area. Many institutions will have interesting research projects up and running and will be seeking interested people to join their team. Alternatively if you have a burning question or hypothesis, you should identify a suitable institution or university and an appropriate supervisor with whom to carry out the work (box 1). A small, well thought out project with narrower scope that can be completed within the allocated time is more likely to yield presentable, publishable results than an exceedingly ambitious project that never gets finished.

Where you choose to carry out your research will depend on whether you are doing a clinical or a laboratory project. Both types of project will need to be affiliated with a supervisor and registered with a university but will differ in the type of work. For example, a purely laboratory based project may involve techniques such as histology, cell culture, or molecular studies (among others), whereas a clinical project may revolve more around patient demographics, interview data, and clinical tests rather than laboratory investigations. Some projects may overlap, which would be interesting for clinical researchers looking to gain additional laboratory skills (box 2).

Jobs for clinicians seeking research posts can be found on medical recruitment websites such as BMJ Careers (http://careers.bmj.com) and NHS Jobs (www.jobs.nhs.uk). Similarly, the New Scientist website (www.newscientist.com) has vacancies for clinical research fellowships, and the Academy of Medical Sciences website (www.academicmedicine.ac.uk) lists research opportunities for medically trained undergraduates and postgraduates.

Box 1: Qualities of an ideal research supervisor and setting

Supervisors
Track record
  • What is their research experience, and what and where have they published?

  • Are they currently supervising other students or postdoctoral researchers?

  • Have previous students completed their degrees and successfully obtained presentations or publications?

  • Did previous students progress in their clinical careers?

Availability
  • Do they have time to adequately supervise the student? (This may be difficult for full time clinicians or research scientists who have a number of other commitments and projects.)

Working relationship
  • Can the student and the supervisor work together? (Differing personalities and work ethics could mean an unhappy working relationship and consequently an unsuccessful project.)

  • What are the supervisor’s thoughts about ownership and authorship of any published work?

Setting
Teams
  • How many people currently work in the group? (Some people thrive in large bustling teams, whereas others prefer smaller groups.)

  • Will training and support always be available? (This is especially important if new techniques are expected to be undertaken.)

  • Do they collaborate with other (international) groups? Is there opportunity for the student to spend time with collaborators?

Expertise
  • Is assistance from other departments or laboratories required? Are these facilities available within the university or institution?

  • Do the other research groups have enough interest in the proposed project to remain enthusiastic and supportive until completion?

Logistics
  • Where is the laboratory or office? Is the laboratory close to the hospital? Is it easily accessible for early starts and late nights?

Money matters

Funding is often the greatest hurdle to obtaining and keeping a research post. The ideal post would be fully funded by a grant and would pay university fees (about £2000 to £4000 a year) and a salary. If trainees are interested in setting up their own research project rather than joining an established team, they may need to secure funding themselves.

A key website for looking up biomedical research grants in the United Kingdom is the RD Funding site (http://rdinfo.leeds.ac.uk). Several research councils provide support for postgraduate research in the United Kingdom, such as the Medical Research Council (www.mrc.ac.uk) and the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (www.bbsrc.ac.uk). Each research council has annual strategic priorities (which are freely available through their websites) detailing their funding interests for the coming year. To increase the chances of success when applying to a research council for funding, therefore, it is a good idea to submit an application that relates to one of these areas of interest. Applying for research grants can be a time consuming process and realistically may take several months to complete, so it is important to plan carefully and ahead of time.

Charitable organisations such as the British Heart Foundation (www.bhf.org.uk) and Cancer Research UK (www.cancerresearchuk.org) are also good places to seek funding support. They may be able to part fund PhD or MD positions or offer short term grants and travel awards to attend conferences or to work abroad.

To support themselves financially, trainees may have to undertake clinical work alongside research. It must be appreciated, however, that although two full days of clinic work a week will help to maintain clinical competencies, it will also make it difficult to plan experiments in the laboratory.

Box 2: A day in the life of a postgraduate research candidate

The daily routine of researchers varies depending on the stage they are at in their degree: at the start, candidates might be researching literature and setting up experiments, whereas those further along could be analysing and presenting results and writing up the thesis.

A typical day
  • 9 am—Lab meeting. This is a weekly opportunity for all research group members to meet, present and discuss work, get feedback, and plan experiments.

  • 10 30 am—The rest of the morning might be spent carrying out experiments in the lab, collecting data from patients, or working on analysis of results and writing them up.

  • Lunchtime—Seminar series will often run over lunchtime and early afternoon. These are usually presented by invited speakers and are a good opportunity to learn how to present as well as being a chance to hear about associated work in your field.

  • Afternoon—Continuing lab work, clinical data collection, results analysis, writing.

  • Other events throughout the week may include:

    • Meeting with supervisor—One to one meeting in which progress is discussed and further work is planned. This is also a good chance to go through any future papers or presentations and to get feedback.

    • Teaching—There are often opportunities for research students to lead undergraduate practical sessions, which as well as being enjoyable and useful teaching experiences are also often paid so can help to boost your finances.

    • Training courses—These run throughout term time and are useful (and often mandatory) for completion of the degree, for example those on reading and writing research papers, thesis planning, and grant and ethics applications.

Conclusions

Research is hard work but very rewarding. And remember: research is a marathon, not a sprint; pace yourself, don’t burn out too early, and get plenty of fuel and rest along the way.

Useful websites

  • The Research Professional website (www.researchprofessional.com) emails funding alerts when relevant opportunities arise.

  • The Pub Crawler website (http://pubcrawler.gen.tcd.ie) searches Medline and Genbank and alerts users to the most up to date research in their field.

  • Vitae (www.vitae.ac.uk) is a very useful website with guidance on a number of areas such as funding, writing skills, and post-research jobs.

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: None declared.

References

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