How to move into medical research – guidance for doctors

There are various reasons why doctors consider carrying out a research project: to learn new things; to improve career progression; for a change in life style and to try out a life in academia while still paying a mortgage.

There are also many benefits to doctors of undertaking an academic position including getting research published, understanding statistics and IT, attending conferences (some abroad), improving presentational skills and making new contacts.

Choosing a supervisor

The first step for a doctor is to choose a supervisor. Your choice of supervisor is intimately linked with your project – their interests will soon be your interests. If you pick a clinician, they may be around a lot less due to their clinical priorities, but they may understand you better and will be essential if your project is clinically based. If you choose a scientist, they are likely to be around more and will probably supervise you more directly. Things to consider include: what is the set up, location and size of the lab, will you and your project fit in with others? Is there a track record of medics in the lab?

Choosing a project

When deciding on the type of project you want to carry out, it’s a good idea to approach established labs or groups who you have a link with. If you don’t have a link already, manufacture one by asking for introductions through colleagues. Discuss your interests with theirs and see if you can come up with something suitable. Often, supervisors have several projects in mind that they’ve been looking for someone to carry out, but they’ve not found a home for yet. The important thing is to make sure you are actually interested in the project enough to spend a few years of your life on it. Other points to consider include:

1. Implications for the rest of your career.

2. Will it involve whole animal work?

3. What are your priorities?

4. Is it relevant to your clinical interests?

5. Will it lead to publications and conference presentations?

6. Do you want to do a PhD or an MD?

Clinical projects

Doctors should be aware that clinical projects tend to take a long time to get going. There can also be lots of hanging around waiting for ethics approval and the recruitment of patients. However, the results can be easier to get published (though may not be as well respected).

Basic science projects

There are advantages. As soon as you start, you start. There is a lot of opportunity to learn new techniques and skills and become immersed in science. Your research may be more widely respected, and mini clinical projects can be pursued at the same time. However, a doctor going into a science project will have to be more self-reliant.

Sorting out the ethics of a medical research project

All research ethics is now done centrally via the National Research Ethics Service.

Filling in ethics forms can be a long-winded process, but is also an essential one. You will need one for anything involving patients, or their tissues, or their genetic material. This is a legal requirement and cannot be dodged or applied for retrospectively. You also need to state it in all publications.

Finding funding for medical research

In the first instance, ask your supervisor what’s suitable and available. Use search engines, such as Google, and check as many websites as possible. Academic Clinical Fellowships and Academic National Training Numbers are a great spring board to a Clinical Research Fellowship.

Otherwise, it’s worth considering local sources: “soft” or “funny” money. These may be specific to the lab, department or your current institution. They may also be specific to your original medical school. Doctors should hunt their websites, ask experienced supervisors and the research grants department or librarian for tips.

The next step is to contact organisations specific to your subject such as societies and medical charities. The big players include the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, and Diabetes UK.

Alternatively, doctors should contact general medical research bodies such as NIHR, MRC, Health Foundation and The Wellcome Trust.

Early career grants, essay prizes and travel grants may be available. Doctor’s should check their specialty websites.

Finally, it is worth checking the BMJ careers section. Within this lies the university research and fellowships section. This may carry adverts for: clinical PhD studentships, clinical research fellows, clinical teaching fellowships, research and teaching registrars and others, any of which may be enough to start you off.

Eligibility to do medical research

Generally speaking, there are no specific skill requirements. Fellowships often require a degree such as an intercalated BSc. They are also usually aimed specifically at either medically qualified or non-clinical graduates. Remember, a ‘clinical’ research fellowship does not necessarily mean the research is clinical.

Practicalities of funding applications

Read the small print. The main submission is usually huge and requires detailed costings and timings. You will need several people’s help with different sections so start well in advance, for example with finance. Your project may also impact other departments, such as biochemistry and histopathology, so get approval.

Writing a grant proposal

Have a go; it is your project and should be your work. But be prepared for it to be significantly changed. Ask your supervisor for comments and read someone else’s successful submission as a guide. A good tip is to tailor your project proposal for different funding bodies – just as you would change your CV for different jobs. Remember the grants panel is made up of lay members who are not experts. You will also need to fill in a ‘Public understanding of science’ section. Get help if English isn’t your first language or, indeed, if IT isn’t your first language either.

Always ask a non scientist to read through your application and, once it’s nearly ready, ask a neutral expert or successful candidate to read it too. With no experience of writing or researching, don’t expect to get everything first time. If you don’t get it first time, discuss it with your supervisor, and try again.

The medical research interview

After short-listing, again read as much as you can and discuss it as much as possible with colleagues. Talk to people who have been through this interview, even if unsuccessfully, and it’s a good idea to arrange mock interviews with as many nasty and experienced people as you can persuade to help. Finally practise in the mirror, wear the right clothes (conventional suit will always go down well) and be early.

Read more on general interview advice.

Further information

Before moving into medical research, it’s worth considering the challenges the sector faces and the potential frustrations for a doctor. The bureaucracy involved in setting up and managing research is a particular issue that many organisations are currently campaigning over.

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One Response to “How to move into medical research – guidance for doctors”

  1. Isaac says:

    Can a medical student go into any form of research?

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