A lot that I write about on this website is focussed on getting involved with research so it’s finally time for a blog post on academic careers as a medic! I’m slightly biassed because I’m now taking time out of my degree to do a PhD but I hope to provide a balanced view on what doing research as a medic can lead to and why it is a path worth considering.
What is Research?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines research as “a detailed study of a subject, especially in order to discover (new) information or reach a (new) understanding.” (1) Simply put, research is the process through which you carry out to discover new knowledge.
The sky's the limit when it comes to the type of research you can conduct. Types of research can be classified in various ways: wet lab (where your work involves going into a lab and doing experiments) VS dry lab (where your work is computer-based e.g. coding for bioinformatics, advanced statistics, epidemiology), quantitative VS qualitative research based on the type of data you generate, pre-clinical VS clinical research, the list goes on. There are lots of perhaps lesser known areas in which you can do research, for example: medical education, widening participation into Medicine, service evaluations e.g. audits, quality of life studies, and evaluating technology for clinical use.
These ways of classifying research are not mutually exclusive: for example, I have had experience working with clinical research projects using clinical data (quantitative) whereas my PhD project is largely wet lab and pre-clinical work. Research does not necessarily have to be done with an educational institution or hospital, there is the opportunity of working with industry partners such as pharmaceutical companies and startups depending on the research you want to do.
Why Do Research as a Medic?
These are my own reasons but I enjoy tapping into a different side of my thinking and I get a lot of personal satisfaction from overcoming the challenges I face when doing research to produce some sort of output.
I find Medicine to be an all-encompassing field - you basically learn a whole new language and the nature of the work is so different from other non-healthcare fields, so it is such a breath of fresh air to engage with people from other fields and learn from them while getting a break from clinical Medicine. Working with individuals who have a purely scientific background is a whole experience in itself, as I am learning through my PhD!
I develop different skills through doing research. It broadens my horizons and provides opportunities that I would not get if I was doing pure clinical work. The obvious example is the opportunity to lead my own research group in the future, potentially as a university-employed academic but there are also opportunities to go into industry or tech.
And Why NOT Research?
My experiences, especially in the past year have shown me that there are numerous challenges you face when taking on research projects. There’s a steep learning curve when learning how to conduct research and it can take time for things to move forward with your projects. I’ve had to learn how to manage my expectations when taking on projects. For various reasons your projects may fall through or things might take longer than you’d like to move forward. This will happen even with the most research active individuals and organisations offering projects.
It can be competitive doing research, whether this is in terms of securing funding, positions on programmes, or putting your work forward for prizes. Impostor syndrome is a very real thing.
If you are a doctor doing an academic programme, you may be paid less during your research time because you’re not doing out of hours work, not to mention all the things you might need to balance on top of your research whether these are your clinical responsibilities, med school, or simply being a functioning adult.
How to Get Involved in Research as a Medic?
I have previously written about how undergraduate students can get involved with research but specifically as a medical student there will be research-based assignments built into your curriculum which you can take further upon completion of the assignment. You can also find a research supervisor and start a project with them in your own time (blog post on that incoming!) or look into doing an intercalated degree.
As a doctor, there are opportunities to join academic pathways throughout your training. (see figure below) These give you protected time throughout your training to do research and you do not need to stay on the full pathway once you join a programme. Other opportunities to do research as a doctor also include taking time out of training to do something like an F3 year so you can spend more time teaching/doing research, or doing a MD/PhD.
Academic Training Programmes for UK Medics. Adapted from (2) and (3).
It is quite common for people to undertake doctoral-level research in the form of an MD/PhD in some specialties such as Oncology, however I also know a number of research active trainees and consultants who do not have an MD/PhD. It is not necessary to do an SFP, ACF, or CL to incorporate research into your career and I hope that I have provided a balanced narrative as to why research may or may not be for you. Until the next blog post!
Research [Internet]. Cambridge Dictionary. [cited 2022Dec25]. Available from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/research
Specialised Foundation Programme (SFP) [Internet]. NHS choices. NHS; [cited 2022Dec25]. Available from: https://foundationprogramme.nhs.uk/programmes/2-year-foundation-programme/specialised-foundation-programme/
Integrated Academic Training [Internet]. NIHR. National Institute for Health and Care Research; [cited 2022Dec25]. Available from: https://www.nihr.ac.uk/explore-nihr/academy-programmes/integrated-academic-training.htm