By Ajay K. Singh, Senior Associate Dean, Global and Continuing Education
For many clinicians, research is considered primarily in the context of interpreting the medical literature for individual patient care. For others the opportunity to design and implement studies that will answer important clinical questions represents an exciting and fulfilling career opportunity. Both pathways require foundational training in clinical research.
What are the steps to becoming a clinician-investigator?
Step 1 – Get as much research training as you can.
The more skills that you have, the more likely that you are going to be competitive in our current research environment. There are a lot of people going after a little bit of money. The better qualified you are, the more likely you are to succeed.
Step 2 – Try to find a good mentor.
Try to identify a research supervisor who is supportive, who is doing excellent research and who is willing to put you in the spotlight and support your career. Speak with your colleagues to discover whom they have worked with that may be a good mentor in your institution or city.
Step 3 – Get protected time.
There are many countries where the notion of protected time for research does not exist. Clinicians are faced with the competing tasks of taking care of patients on the one hand and trying to do research on the other. You can only be successful if you have lots of time to pursue your research. Make sure you have at least 70 percent protected time away from clinical responsibilities. Time to think, time to derive testable hypotheses, time to think about how you can implement your research project.
Step 4 – Get funding for salary support.
You know you are a valuable commodity. You are well trained, went through medical school, took care of patients and learned how to do clinical research. Now you are a person who is in short supply. Insist on not only protected time, but on salary support as well, at least at the beginning. This will help get your research career off to a good start.
Step 5 – Don't let them get you down.
You will encounter disappointment in your research career, especially early on. In many ways developing a research career is not much different from trying to become a successful artist – there is plenty of opportunity to fail, to get rejected. You have to keep your head up.
Remember, grants will be rejected. Many times the reviewers will tell you that you 'lack experience' – do not let that get you down. You will conduct your research, then write the paper, and the paper will get rejected. And you will scratch your head and say, ‘I spent three years working on this project and I have not been able to get it published'. Don't worry. Keep trying. Your paper, as long as it's good, will get published somewhere. The key is to keep pushing.
Rejections, unfortunately, will continue throughout your research career. You just have to get used to it. This is the natural history of a career in research. Rather than getting discouraged, think positively, get motivated, apply again and make your proposal better. Try and identify what was wrong with your proposal. Why did it not get funded? Ask some friends, colleagues and family members to read the proposal and tell you what they think about it. Was there a problem with flow? Was there a problem with the design? Now apply again and keep at it. The only way to succeed, whether it's in proposal writing, becoming a clinician investigator, or writing papers, is not to give up.