Some thoughts on a future research career

Domhnall MacAuleyDomhnall MacAuley is a CMAJ Associate Editor and professor of primary care in Northern Ireland, UK

Speaking to your colleagues at your own national conference, there is no hiding place. No longer the “expert” from abroad with dodgy ideas and a foreign accent, they know who you are! Invited to give some perspective as a medical journal editor, what did I say? First, I don’t have all the answers; some are certain to be wrong — perhaps all of them. But it’s the conversation that matters. See what you think:

Believe in yourself

Your research ideas have the same merit as even those of the most esteemed academics. As an editor looking at the volume of published work, original research ideas don’t occur that often. If you have one truly novel idea, you will have a great career; if you have two, you are deemed for stardom; if you have three, you are a genius. So, if you have an idea, do follow it though. But there is a tension, as Tom Fahey outlined during the discussion, between developing an individual’s new idea and building the incremental knowledge base from within the critical mass of an academic department.

Create excellence

If you are going to do something, do it well. From an editor’s perspective, this means submitting the best paper possible. Research takes a lot of money and requires huge goodwill from patients. You owe it to those who have made such a big effort to contribute to science; and to the taxpayers who have funded your work, to do the best that you can. As an editor, we only see the finished product and can only judge what you submit. It is frustrating to see a research group complete what we know to be a great project, but to send us a poor paper. Universities invest heavily in accessing grant funding and in teaching research methodology, but [teach] almost nothing in how to communicate and disseminate findings. Learn how to write, teach your researchers how to write, set up writing workshops or, at the very least, follow the advice offered by many journals. Even if one person writes the manuscript, ensure everyone in the team has an opportunity to critique each draft. It may be helpful to invite colleagues from another department to provide critical peer reviews of your papers before you submit. Don’t leave it to the journal editors and their reviewers to find problems that you should have sorted out beforehand. Make it as easy for journals to accept your papers.

Work together

Research is not a cottage industry. It’s a collaborative partnership across disciplines, at a national level and with international partners. Create a critical mass of researchers within your group with a range of different skills. If individual university departments are small, it is essential that departments in different universities work together to develop ideas, access patient numbers, and produce quality work. There may be fewer researchers in total in a small country than in a single department of a large international institution. You need to collaborate and develop a corporate identity.

Develop people

Think about the next generation. Encourage and facilitate travel, build opportunities to spend periods abroad, create exchanges with other countries, and ensure that people have a job to return to. It is as important to invest in developing people for tomorrow’s initiatives as it is in undertaking today’s research project. But, remember, it is not enough to say “you should go away.” A research career is insecure, almost always less remunerated than a service job, and that critical time in a researcher’s career is often a time of considerable change in their personal lives. Create the environment that you would have liked to have had for yourself.

Think strategically

Find an area where you and your team can be a world leader. Stay away from the crowded research areas — what is published today happened yesterday, and those research groups have already moved on to the next phase. And, by now, they will have larger and better-trained research teams than you. Try to anticipate tomorrow’s research areas. Build partnerships, establish international links, foster creative environments. But also remember that your research findings need to be heard, so think about how you can ensure your findings are disseminated. Publishing a paper is not the end. Work with journals to produce podcasts, videos, augmented material. Be prepared to speak to the press, and to work with the media and your university public relations team in dissemination.

Aim high

Don’t settle for mediocrity. Aim to be the best researcher you can, work with the best people, and try to introduce best practice at every opportunity. Create the complete research study in the best journals together with videos, audios and augmented material. Thinking about what is best for patients and how to best inform your colleagues; ensure that people can access your complete work and avoid the temptation to look for the maximum number of papers. Share your data and remember: if it wasn’t published, it didn’t happen.

Aspire to be…

If you focus on your career, develop your own personal portfolio, set achievable targets, protect your intellectual property, limit your distractions and decline commitments that don’t fit with your plan, you will have an impressive curriculum vitae — and no friends. But if you facilitate others, share ideas, develop your team, say yes when you can and always keep an open door, you will create a culture of collaboration, build successful teams and leave a wonderful legacy. Aspire to be a truly great researcher.

One thought on “Some thoughts on a future research career

  1. Jordan

    Great thoughts here. I know of many people interested in research careers who definitely need to read this – deciding to go into it isn’t something that should be done lightly. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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