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Medical researchers in a hospital

When I grow up I want to be a…. Medical Researcher

by , 29 April, 2016
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As mentioned last week, we’re currently working on a short series of blogs focusing on some of the less well understood speciality pathways in medicine. And although most of you reading this are probably knocking on the doors of medical school, it is never too early to start casting an eye towards your future specialty choice. This is not only important to bring some light to the end of an awfully long tunnel, but also for pragmatic considerations as for a vast majority of specialties you need to plan early. Long gone are the days where a recently post-graduate, junior doctor could stick their hand up and enter a training program – in the current environment, there are hundreds of hopefuls every year vying for the 1-10 training spots nation-wide in each specialty.

This blog will focus on the career of a medical researcher to give potential medical students some food-for-thought as to what they could eventually become upon their completion of medical school. Similar to the Medical Administrator specialty, the career of a medical researcher is one that is not highlighted a great deal in medical school, and is often not considered by students as they move through the program. However, a medical researcher is not only an exceptionally important career in the scheme of community health and progression of the science, but also a highly rewarding one that is much different than a traditional clinical role. 

There are a few individuals who actually go into medical school with the specific intention of being a medical researcher at the other side, or at least, with the desire to engage heavily in research. Indeed, this is an important point – there are no specific colleges that are in place for medical researchers, and they may technically not be classified as a ‘specialty’ by themselves. That is, medical research may be a career choice for some, but it's not considered a speciatly in itself. Individuals who delve into medical research are typically concurrently practicing clinically, or have academic positions at a university. Although this blog is slightly different to previous pieces, in that a ‘medical researcher’ is not a distinguishable specialty, it is still important to discuss it here, as it is both under-recognised and under-engaged with by members of the medical profession.

A medical researcher is very similar, if not practically the exact same, as a scientific researcher – the only real, tangible difference is arguably the fact that the medical researcher has medical qualifications. Typically, medical research will be more focused on clinical applications of scientific investigations, and may be also more attuned to public health or policy needs. There are also added advantages that those with medical qualifications have over researchers from a pure science background when it comes to practical considerations such as obtaining human samples from patient populations. Just try suggesting to a lab supervisor that you'd like to take some blood samples if you're a molecular biologist! There are a few other benefits in obtaining medical qualifications whilst performing research, which mainly relate to the ability to obtain funding and secure research proposals. However, a career of being a predominantly medical researcher, or engaging in the practice significantly, can be very challenging and stressful – not only is there uncertainty and apprehension in research generally due to the high level of planning and meticulous methodology required, but also the severe lack of funding for research in this country means there is a huge amount of pressure to obtain money from a very small pool.

Medical research is a career, or at a very basic level a concurrent activity, that a vast majority of medical professionals should engage in, as it enhances medical practice and progresses understanding of the science underpinning practice. For some, research is something undertaken part-time, or in addition to, their time as a resident or registrar, and can often form that extra edge for the CV needed for the next career move. For others, grant-funded research could be the career goal in itself. Either way, it's vitally important for doctors everywhere, in conjunction with community leaders, to advocate for more funding towards medical research in order to attract more medical professionals to the activity. 

Just briefly, before concluding this blog, I get a heap of questions from potential and current medical students as to how to get into research. Research is also a very important aspect of nearly every specialty application, and so it is a great idea to get involved in it at medical school! One of the most basic things you should do, at your university, is peruse the school of medicine/biomedical science staff page, and basically just go through the staff profiles, one by one, looking at their research interests. Once you find a staff member who conducts research that interests you, contact them and express your enthusiasm and willingness to get involved in volunteering to assist with their research.  The more involved you are, the more potential benefits open to you – and you should definitely let them know why you want to be involved, whether this is for a specialty application, or because you want a career in research, as many staff members will assist to get your name on papers and so forth. Many medical school courses offer elective subjects/courses, which are the perfect opportunity to incorporate your first project.

I hope this brief exposé has been useful as a rough guide into medical research, and I hope you will get involved in the scientific community in the future!