Getting the Most out of your Research Experience

by Kanchan Chitaley, Ph.D.

It is nearing the end of your second year of Urology residency and you’re feeling like you may finally be getting a handle on things. Just as you begin to exhale, you receive an e-mail from your advisor asking whether you’ve chosen a focus for your research year. At first you may be confused, “Research year? Isn’t that more than a year away?” Then, you may be pissed, “When the heck do they think I have time to decide on a topic for research year?” Finally, as you accept the task amongst all else you are given to do, you may start to panic.

For the fortunate few, who’ve felt passionate about a topic for quite some time this may be easy. Maybe your grandfather had prostate cancer and you’ve wanted to investigate molecular mechanisms of cancer metastasis ever since you witnessed his battle. Or, perhaps you were inspired by the work of a senior attending in a particular specialty from the early days of your residency. However, for the vast majority of you, research likely hasn’t been a thought since pre-med/med school lab rotations, and narrowing down your interests is a daunting task.

For those in the former categories, I congratulate you. Although an early plan for your career path is commendable, you may still want to follow the steps defined below and fully explore all of your options. These guidelines may help you fine tune (or change) your choice, and at the least, will add well-informed confidence to your decision. For the majority of you, following these simple steps and tips should help decrease your anxiety, jump start your search, and ensure a productive and enjoyable research experience.

Step 1: Pick Your Pathology  The hardest part for many may be settling on a research topic area. By now you have an understanding of the breadth of urologic disease. You’ve been exposed to a handful of conditions in the clinic and OR and have attended one or more years worth of departmental conferences. The problem may be that you find many (or all) of the topics to be equally interesting. Ask yourself these questions: Did you find one (or a few) type(s) of case(s) to be particularly fascinating? Was a certain lecture topic always intriguing? Have you noticed a plethora of unanswered, important questions surrounding a specific condition(s)? Start with these questions to help focus your thoughts. Utilize your departmental and university websites to get a grasp of the focused research expertise at your school. Most of all, talk to people!. You may not know all the research going on in your department, but somebody does. Ask around, and when a faculty member is mentioned, e-mail them to set up a time to talk further. At the end of Step 1, you may still find you have 2 or 3 broad areas of interest. That’s OK. The next steps will help you narrow your search further. (Note: These days, NIH funding is almost entirely disease oriented. Therefore, I recommend selecting a disease focus to start your search. However, you may find starting with Steps 2 or 3 to be more helpful. Nonetheless, you’ve started the process, so you’re already better off than yesterday).

Step 2: What Type of Question Do You Want to Ask? Diverse questions can be asked about each condition, and various types (and sub-types) of research can be used in isolation or combination to achieve answers. Basic science (or wet-lab/benchtop) research can be broken down into sub-categories such as molecular biology, genetics, physiology, and bioengineering, to name a few. Many labs use a combination of these techniques, but some may possess expertise in one or two. Research also includes important work done out of the wet lab. Such “dry lab” work includes outcomes studies (prospective or retrospective) as well as clinical trials. These types of work may be more directly related to patient care, though much basic science research also involves the study of human samples and may be highly translational. Think about what technique/tools or experience best suit your research question as well as what compliments your expanding skill set. Are you interested in (or averse to) working with animals? Do you want more experience in cell culture techniques? Do topics like the cost-effectiveness of health care or epidemiology of disease fascinate you? Are you mechanically inclined and have an interest in technological development? Do you want to continue to work closely with patients or human samples?

Step 3: Find Dr. Right Choosing your mentor can be almost as important as your choice of Mr. or Mrs. Right. The right mentor will match your learning style. Do you prefer independent learning and want the challenge of working through projects on your own? Then a more hands-off mentor, perhaps in a larger laboratory, may work best. Alternately, perhaps you have little previous research experience or prefer close guidance throughout the learning process. Younger mentors, often with smaller laboratories, may be your best bet. Be sure to talk with prospective mentors not only about project details, but perhaps more importantly, about what their expectations of you would be, and yours of them. Is the daily work schedule flexible? Will you work directly with the mentor or with lab personnel? Will you be the project lead, or a collaborator? Will you be encouraged to present at meetings and publish your work? These key discussions may seem awkward at first, but will be critical to ensuring that your experience is a positive one.

At last, you’ve picked your pathology, research type, and found a well-matched mentor to guide you, leaving you poised to finish that exhale. Indeed many find the pace of their research year to be a welcome relief from the workloads of the clinic and OR. But in reality, this year is a gift that will go fast. Use it as an opportunity to increase your skill set. It’s a time to not just master research techniques and the scientific method, but also to jump start your career as an academic urologist. If you use this year wisely, you will be a step ahead of the game. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your research year.

Tip 1: Be patient! For those of you with little previous research experience you may find your first days, weeks or even months, entirely frustrating. This is normal. Although you’re mastering clinical residency and can tie a one-handed knot faster than all others, the lab is a different world with a different language and even a different culture. For example, by rule about 80% of experiments fail. You’ve never gotten less than a “B” in your life, so you feel dejected and not cut out for research. Although 20% success won’t get you through medical or graduate school, it is par for the course when it comes to the implementation of science. Be patient. Your experimental technique WILL improve, as will your ability to ask the BEST questions. Before you know it, you may find your lab coat fits just as well as your clinic one!

Tip 2: Practice Makes Permanent You’ve finally gotten the knack of things and actually have some interesting findings. Data is meaningless as a secret, so be sure to get it out there. Practice presenting your findings locally and, if possible, nationally, as much as you can. Practice not only makes perfect, it makes “permanent.” Unfortunately, the more talks you give with your hands in your pockets, using over-packed slides, and throwing the pointer around like a lightsaber, the more that will become your unsavory style. Practice in front of your peers and senior colleagues and ask for feedback. After a few dress rehearsals, there is no better arena than the real stage of scientific meetings. I guarantee that after a handful of rounds in the ring, your nerves will disappear and you may even savor the chance to present your hard earned findings.

Tip 3: Network, Network, Network! It may seem early, but trust me, it is never too soon. Face it, the leaders in your field may not remember your name the first time you meet (or maybe even the second or third). But, if you make it a point to introduce yourself (or be introduced) and chat briefly about your interests, after a while, they will. This may be most easily done in a meeting session where you just presented, or perhaps, just after hearing their talk. Like much in life, it’s not always only what you know, but who you know that matters. So much of success in science is networking. From obtaining hard to get resources and fine-tuning your ideas to, securing career leadership opportunities, such as editorial board positions, talk invitations and national committee membership, networking is key. The earlier you start making your contacts, and the more practice you have talking with those in your field, the better!

Tip 4: Pay Attention Seminars and journal clubs are more than an opportunity for an hour long day-dream or snooze. Although they may seem irrelevant or boring at first, once you get comfortable with the scientific jargon, you’ll find they can spark some of your best ideas and collaborations. Attend frequently with your colleagues and challenge yourself to ask at least one (intelligent) question per seminar. You may be surprised how energizing they can be.

Tip 5: Model after Your Mentor Hopefully you will respect the mentor you choose. Watch how he/she works. Not just how they navigate the scientific method, but also their take on work-life balance, multitasking, personnel management and career development. In the current fiscal climate, being a successful scientist or surgeon-scientist is no small accomplishment. Your mentor has managed to navigate the path successfully, while hopefully maintaining their sanity and an enjoyable non-work life. Ultimately you’ll find your own style, but instead of doing everything the hard way, use them as a learning example. Were certain steps critical to their success? Was it finding the right collaborators, or setting up an organization/scheduling system? Build this relationship well, as a good mentor will guide you well beyond your research year and may be a role model and advocate for life.

Tip 6: Think About Your Past and Your Future Hopefully you’ve taken the advice above, and your research year was extremely fun and rewarding. But, there are no guarantees in life (or research), and you may come away feeling less than fulfilled. That’s OK. The year is meant to be one of growth and learning. Perhaps oncology is not as fascinating as you had imagined it to be. Think about why. Was it the particular type of question you were asking or the topic itself? Research topics and types are broad. Don’t give up after one less than perfect experience. With some trial and error, you WILL find an academic niche.

Research year should be fun, exciting, challenging and eye opening! You should come away empowered with not only scientific knowledge, but with important insight into yourself and your potential career trajectory.