The Two Most Important Questions

I’ve been working with other psychiatry residents to put together a document outlining advice for residents interested in research. Though we wrote it as part of the psychiatry residency research program, I think that some of the advice is helpful to all residents/graduate students interested in research. The full FAQ is here.

Of the whole document that we’ve put together I think we have included two of the most important questions every beginning researcher should try to answer: “How do I pick my research supervisor?” and “How do I pick my research project?”

Our answers are written from our own experience in a particular field (i.e. clinical psychiatry) which may not be as relevant to other fields. However, I think that the framework that we have used is relevant to many areas of medicine.

Hopefully you find it helpful.

-Tyler

How do I pick my research supervisor? This is one of the most frequently asked questions by residents in the CSP – and for good reason as it is one of the most critical parts of becoming a clinician scientist!

There are many factors to consider when choosing a supervisor, but we recommend considering three principles: interests, compatibility, and resources/track record.

Interests

  • Hopefully coming into the CSP you have an idea of the type of work you are interested in. For example some residents come into the CSP very interested in imaging, while others come with an interest in qualitative research. A major strength of our program is its breadth and depth. There are opportunities to pursue a diverse range of research topics and methodologies.
  • When picking a supervisor, we advise incoming residents to find a supervisor with at least some overlap in research interests. However, you may not find a supervisor who shares every single one of your interests, so you will need to be somewhat flexible. It is important that your supervisor has the expertise in your area of interest so that they can properly supervise you and your project.

Compatibility

  • We recommend that residents meet in person with potential supervisors to see if there is a good “fit” between you and your potential supervisor. This is important because, if all goes well, you may be working with this person for most of your residency program and you want it to be someone you can get along with.
  • The best research supervisors take interest in developing you, the resident, into a productive clinician scientist. This often goes beyond advice on specific projects and can involve mentorship on career guidance, work-life balance, and time management.

Resources/Track Record

  • Residency is a busy time, and while you will have protected time for research, it is quite a small amount of time compared to full-time graduate students. Nonetheless, this is a challenging reality for practicing clinician scientists. Therefore, in order to be productive in your research, you need a supervisor who is also productive in their research. We suggest looking at their recent publications both their quantity (i.e. how frequently do they publish), and quality (i.e. is it a good quality peer-reviewed journal). Another important aspect to consider is whether residents are given authorship, and in particular, listed as first-author in presentations and publications.
  • You can also speak to former students of your potential supervisor. They will be able to share their perspectives on their experience with the supervisor. Former students will be able to give you a first-hand account of the supervision they received and if it enabled them to be productive. Some supervisors may have also had previous clinician scientist residents. These can be very valuable people to speak with. They will be able to tell you first-hand how the supervisor was able to support them during their clinical training.

 

I’ve got my supervisor. Now how do I pick my research project?

After picking a research supervisor, picking a research project is the next most important task in the beginning of your research career. There are two parallel considerations in choosing a research project: short-term and long-term goals. It is important to have the opportunity to be productive in terms of first-authored scientific presentations and publications. This will allow you to have responsibility for an aspect of a project, to go through the experience of peer-review, and to help you develop your CV. It is also important to have longer-term goals such as: learning about specific research methods; learning how to frame a question and initiate the steps that would lead to a grant submission; learning how to manage a research team and have a role within a research team; learn how to develop a research portfolio that has an “identity” or clear thematic link that brings different projects together. Of course there are many goals in addition to these examples. The main point is that one needs to balance efforts and time investment so that there is both evidence of productivity (using traditional metrics) and evidence of progress and growth in research skills. These concepts can also be described using the CANMEDS scholar and leader roles.

We have a few suggestions that we recommend to residents in selecting their projects, and yet we recognize that picking a project is a very individual-specific process. These suggestions do not cover all possibilities because there are a large number of factors that go into selecting a research project. However, hopefully they may be helpful for you in selecting your project.

Start small

  • Some residents enter their research career in residency wanting to complete large, ambitious clinical trials or intensive lab work with animal models. That enthusiasm is great! From our experience, we have found that when residents start out tackling large, complicated projects it can often lead to frustration because of road blocks that appear early on. Therefore we often advise residents, especially when first starting out, to start with small projects such as a dataset analysis of an existing trial, or a chart review. This allows you to get started in your research career and determine what is manageable with residency training.

Balance learning and productivity

  • Residency is a very busy time! In your PGY-1 year you have 2 months of dedicated research time, and then half a day per week for the remainder of your residency. This is not a great deal of time, especially when added to your clinical duties. We want you to gain experience in the research process of analyzing data, writing manuscripts, and presenting abstracts. Although it is important to also gain an understanding of data collection, if too much time is spent collecting data (e.g. recruiting participants, patient interviews, laboratory experiments), this may make it difficult to make progress with data analysis and writing.
  • Therefore, we highly recommend that you select a project for which there is some easily accessible data (i.e. a pre-existing dataset) that you can analyze or where data can be collected in a short period of time (i.e. a small chart review). This is not to say that a project where you collect data is not possible, it is simply more challenging to complete. Many residents become involved in more than one project during the course of their residency. We encourage a “balanced portfolio” of longer term projects along with projects that can yield research productivity in the current year.

Be location independent

  • Clinical work tends to operate on a set schedule with well-defined hours, while research work operates on a very flexible schedule (i.e. much of research happens outside the 9-5 hours). There will often be times that you will not be able to get into the lab for a number of reasons (i.e. the lab is only open during times you are in clinic or you are placed at a clinical site far from your research site).
  • For these reasons we generally recommend that you pick a project you can work on remotely from home or your clinical office. This will allow you to make progress if you choose to work on research outside of your protected half-day.

Follow your passion

  • All of the above guidelines are general principles that we have recommended to residents in the past. However, the most important aspect of picking a research project is passion. Passion is important because you may be working on research in the evenings and weekends, and there are often challenges in research such as having papers rejected. Passion about your project can help reduce the strain experienced during challenging times.

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