Getting a Clinical Research Career Started as an Early Faculty Member

Cara Cipriano MD, FAAOS | Gabriella Ode, MD

November 10, 2021

While there are many challenges to clinical research, especially earlier in your career, there are also many steps you can take to set yourself up for success.

1Before you start your job, decide what kind of ‘research’ practice you want to have

Start thinking about research as you are in the process of looking for a job. When you are interviewing, learn about the track record of others at the institution. Outline your areas of research interest – do you want to participate in basic, clinical or translational research? It is important to know early on if your future job will have the resources to support those interests. Talk to current faculty to understand what has helped them and/or created challenges for them. Find out whether your partners, leaders, and institution will value your contributions to research and not just clinical productivity. Inquire about if research productivity is essential for department promotion.

When it comes time to negotiate your contract, consider asking for protected time, funding, or other forms of support to help you get started.  If you decide that you want protected research time, determine how much you might need at the start – whether it’s a half day a week or a full day per week. It is easier to ask for this time and set those expectations at the start of your job.

2Familiarize yourself with available resources and seek opportunities for collaboration

Make sure that you understand the infrastructure of any research staff at your institution. Understand the role and presence of research coordinators, research assistants and statistical support in your department and division. If you are not already familiar with the institution, learn who else is doing clinical research and meet with them to better understand their interests, goals, current projects, and ideas for future studies. This can also include collaborations with outside institutions or partnerships with local universities. If you can become involved and support the work of others, this will help you achieve early productivity. It will also help you better understand processes at your institution and open the door for ongoing collaborations.  

3Build your platform for collecting clinical data on day one

Patient-reported outcomes and functional outcomes are an important part of clinical research. Determine which measures you want to collect and which ones are already collected within your department.  Then create a strategic plan within your clinical practice which delineates who performs data entry for these outcome measures and how that data is protected. Over the years, you will find that you have created a robust back of information about your patients which can be relevant for answering current clinical questions.

4Make the most of your first months

Unless you are directly inheriting someone’s practice, your clinical volume will initially be low. Instead of worrying if it will ever pick up (it will!), take advantage of that time to plan your research, assess your resources, meet potential collaborators, and get a few projects started.  If you have unpublished research coming out of your fellowship year, this is a critical time to see those projects to the finish line. Your clinical volume will pick up before you know it, and when it does, you will be glad your new research is already rolling and your old research is complete.

5Volunteer as a journal reviewer

Most societies are seeking members to volunteer as reviewers. Reviewing manuscripts allows for opportunities for critical analysis of other studies within your specialty and a way to keep abreast of unanswered clinical questions. Pay attention to how other reviewers critique the manuscripts you are reviewing. This provides valuable insight on how you can execute a future well done study.

6Prioritize your research by protecting your time

Even if you are granted research time, you will need to fight to protect it. There’s always temptation to allow other work to creep into that time, and it becomes a slippery slope. In this respect, we are often our own worst enemies because of our commitment to patient care, as well as other professional interests. Explain the importance of your research to your administrative assistant and clinical team so that they understand it is not just “free” time to schedule meetings and cases, and ask them to help you protect that time. Maintaining designated blocks for research will not only minimize the work you do on nights and weekends, but also help you achieve the momentum needed for a productive research career

7Adjust your expectations

Throughout residency and fellowship, you may have benefited from the ideas, input, and infrastructure of your research mentors. This includes everything from dedicated staff to institutional knowledge about how to get projects through the IRB, all of which makes research much more efficient. In your new job, you may or may not have these advantages. In particular, if you are starting a research program on your own, getting your first projects initiated and completed may take substantially longer than it did when you were in training. We recommend starting “small,” particularly as your clinical practice is growing. This can mean participating in established, ongoing studies, assisting your more senior partners in evaluating and publishing the results of their clinical experience or exploring research in healthcare quality/practice management or the basic sciences. These are important areas in research which may not require a cohort of patients. Ultimately, instead of being frustrated, recognize that there is a steep learning curve to independent research, like clinical practice. Be patient with yourself and persist.

DISCLOSURES: Dr. Cipriano KCI: Paid consultant, Link Orthopaedics: Paid consultant, Musculoskeletal Tumor Society: Board or committee member Dr. Ode This individual reported nothing to disclose.

Read the AAOS Code of Conduct for Discussion Group Terms, Conditions and Disclaimers HERE.

Copyright© 2021 by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

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