Sunday, May 23, 2010

Why not research?

When you go on an interview for med school or residency, the interviewer will always ask you if you have any questions. (I recently drew a cartoon to that effect.) My advice is to have questions. At the very first med school where I interviewed, I was asked that question and I honestly just didn't have any questions.... I had already spoken to half a dozen med students, gotten a tour of the hospital, and had an interview with another person. So I honestly answered, "No, no questions."

The interviewer looked at me in complete and utter horror. I was later rejected from that school.

So I came up with a few go-to questions. One of them I always asked was, "What are the research opportunities like at this school/residency program?" I had absolutely no interest in research. But interviewers like it when you seem interested in research, because it brings prestige to the hospital.

Years later, I found myself in a research fellowship, finally putting my money where my mouth was. I applied for an award that would have paid my salary for several years and launched me into a career in research. I convinced myself that research was what I wanted to do, that it would be great for my resume and that it would allow me flexibility in my life more than a clinical career. It also seemed like research was a good career for a mother. It actually surprises me that so few women do it.

Unfortunately, my application for the award was promptly rejected. "Too many applicants, blah blah blah." I'm not used to academic rejection and it felt awful. As I read the email in disbelief, I decided that I couldn't live my life this way. I would not apply for future research awards. I would be a clinician, not a researcher.

Because I like to make lists, these are the reasons I ultimately decided research was not for me:

1) I don't like the feeling of being rejected, which I'm told is something you have to get used to in research (and love).

2) Although few jobs are permanent, living from grant to grant is nerve-wracking, I've heard.

3) Due to the economy, I've seen a lot of research departments getting served with major cutbacks. This might be a bad time to start being a researcher.

4) I do think a job in research lends flexibility, but it also results in a workday that never ends. When you're a researcher, you're basically always working or feeling like you ought to be. For the first time in my life, I'd like to be able to get home from work every day and just be able to relax.

5) I miss treating patients for the sake of making them better, rather than eying them as research subjects.

6) I personally don't get excited about research. I don't think research protocols are cool. I mostly think they're agonizing and have lots of frustrating red tape. I could spent hours whining about my 100-page IRB application, but I think I've already gone on for too long.

I do want to continue to publish interesting case reports, but I think my research experiment is officially over.


  1. I remember someone told me that I shouldn't do research because once you're a PI you never actually *do* your own research. You have project managers who do it for you. You become a professional grant /presentation /paper writer.

    I was like, "Really? You mean I won't have to do my own patient recruitment anymore? SIGN. ME. UP."

    Writing grants is tough, but eventually you begin to get a command of the literature and what will sell, and you can start to get promiscuous with them. And you get to test out YOUR ideas and manage the people under you. Unlike patients, they actually have to do what you say. ;-)

    I hear you about the hating rejection thing though. It IS a hard time to be a researcher, and you really never do leave work. I guess for most people who do research, it doesn't really feel like "work" to them though. It's their "fun." I could never do something for 60-80 hours a week that felt like "work" for my whole life. If research starts feeling that way, I'll probably end up a clinician as well.

  2. I know it will get easier because just over the course of the year, it's gotten easier. But I see my colleagues struggling to put together protocols that will get accepted and I just feel sick. But I was never that excited about research to begin with. I think you gotta really love it to wade through the bullshit.

    (Also, I knew you were the only one who was going to comment on this post :)

  3. "It also results in a workday that never ends. When you're a researcher, you're basically always working or feeling like you ought to be."

    I'm neither a (medical) doctor nor a mother, though I have Ph.D. and hope to be a mother someday, and this description of a life in research really resonated with me. You've really got to love research to make that your career (inside or outside of medicine) because it will suck up your entire life. (The number of theorems my husband has proved in the shower is astonishing.) It helps when your partner is also on the research track, because then you've got someone who understands why you can't really leave work at home.

    It also means that you might spend a gorgeously sunny and warm Saturday which is also your 6th anniversary sitting next to each other on the couch frantically finishing up a paper which is due midnight that evening, but I have to say, there's probably worse ways to spend your anniversary than doing something you love with someone you love surrounded by cats and in the sun.

  4. I am currently at the end of the 2nd year of my 3-year fellowship (1st year clinical, 2 years of research). Recently lots of people have been asking, "so what's next?" since the end is getting close and I *should* probably be thinking about jobs.

    10 months ago (before my daughter was born) I was super gung-ho about basic science research, I thought I was going to be a lab geek for the rest of my life and love it...but something changed once my baby girl entered my life. I found it extremely difficult to leave my baby and spend 10-12 hours a day dealing with negative results on a daily basis, watching cells grow on plastic plates, getting excited about protein bands on gels. So now, I don't know what I want to do when I "grow up" in a year from now.

    Your post was very helpful to read because it's been difficult dealing with the decision of whether or not research will be in my future career plans. Sometimes I feel like I am being "lazy" for not pursuing my goals of basic science research, but maybe it's just that my priorities are different now.

  5. I don't like research (for me) either and I knew this before entering med school. My aspiration prior to entering medicine was to become a botanist, so I pursued a masters in the field. I had a horrific experience and hated my supervisor and everything he stood for. And the grant money for botanical research was just not there. After my MSc - I thought maybe clinical research would mean more to me so I went into orthopedic clinical research....never again. So now, 10yr later, I am a part-time family doc and quite happy with my decision. I find that my department is constantly encouraging us to do research, but frankly it is just not for me and I don't feel bad about it at all.

  6. Oh, I am so through with my research fellowship. All I have left is the data analysis (ergh). I have a fantasy that I still may be interested in clinical research. It may maintain that false enthusiasm at least through my interviews.

  7. Oh I loved research. God I loved being a lab rat (no wonder I chose path!). Liked to write papers. Loved analyzing all the bogus vs. real statistics - I tutored stat in college. Loved the thrill of molecular research. Handling delicate RNA. Screening molecular libraries. Extracting DNA from paraffin blocks. So exciting and adventurous!

    Then I was the innocent victim of a nasty smear campaign. All over research. Mortified and hurt. A little jaded. I too applied hard for a research grant and didn't get it. Rejection and pain. Blech. I walked away, and am happy. But still thankful for all those dogged, thick-skinned researchers out there - without them there would be no miracles.

  8. Before I left the dark side and went into pharmacy, I think I lived every single one of your points--18 grants or papers in 18 months, only a few of which got accepted, my salary mysteriously morphing into the equipment budget, cutbacks, 38-hour experiments where I brought my pillow to the lab, never seeing a living soul, and wondering why why why anybody would be interested in one protein at one receptor.

    That all being said, I sometimes look back and sigh for the good old days! (especially during the summer while looking out the drive-thru window!)

  9. I should add that while I'm 90% happy that I'm leaving research, I'm 10% a little sad and regretful.

  10. I just have to add on to Old MD Girl's post... For some of us, research is awesome, and the key to happiness :). For me, an emergency physician, it provides me with an ability to escape the "groundhog day" sensation that the ED often creates, and helps me to feel that I'm making a difference on a bigger level. It's also the only way I can guarantee that I'll be home for dinner 5 nights a week. And, most importantly, I love it. Like MD Girl said, it's the excitement of the chase, and the excitement of discovery... (I am a clinical researcher, not a basic science person; like many of you I could never get excited about cell-lines, where I *can* get excited about new strategies to effect behavioral change.)

    Anyhow, my take away point is different strokes for different folks. Although I applaud you, Fizzy, for recognizing what you really want, I also don't want your post to scare off any budding physician-researchers reading this blog!

  11. You have done a good research.I like your post.

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