June 26, 2017

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Hi Everybody! Today I am posting on behalf of Jack Brzezinski, who today is writing about integrating clinical and research interests. Take it away Jack!

It can be tough to be a successful scientist at the same time as you carry on a clinical practice. On one end, you have the same responsibilities to your patients as any other clinician. On the other end, you are trying to compete for the same grant money as pure scientists who can focus on their science and don’t have a clinical practice to worry about. However, there are also distinct advantages to being a mixed clinician-scientist and with a little bit of time management you can use the job mix to your advantage.


  • Your patients are your best source of research questions

In health sciences, research questions arise directly from issues encountered by patients. Maybe your patient’s non-response to therapy that usually works leads you to investigate resistance mechanisms. Maybe you notice a pattern of patient presentations that has not been previously described and leads you to investigate the underlying biology and clinical implications of this pattern. These questions and research projects are much more available to those who work with patients directly. Although a clinician could team up with a scientist to ask and answer clinically-relevant questions, a scientist working directly with patients is even more likely to identify hypotheses that are both novel and answerable with current techniques.

Perhaps more importantly, your exposure to patients exposes you to the priorities of the people you are trying to help with your research. You may originally think that finding a few more targetable molecular alterations is the most important research goal but then find out that your patients are more bothered by the side effects of the therapy they are already on. When you know the priorities of your patients, you also have an inside track to knowing the priorities of funding agencies – many of which are patient-sponsored or driven. You have an amazing resource for research questions in your clinic. If you tap into this you will gain an advantage in the scientific world.


  • Take advantage of every spare moment

As somebody with two job profiles, your day will be more fragmented than you would like. There are some ways to mitigate this (see below) but you also have to accept this reality and work with it. Always have a list of short tasks that you can do on the fly. Are you in clinic with 5 minutes between patients? Sign off a dictation. Do you have a long walk from your lab to clinic? That’s a good time to check your e-mails or make a short phone call. Do you have to incubate some samples for 3 minutes with no other bench work? Great time to sign some insurance forms for patients. By filling your spare moments with the easy shallow work that needs to get done you will be able to devote longer stretches of time to the more difficult tasks that need concentration.


  • Dedicate time for deep work

Many of the things you do are important but are easy and won’t define your career. Nobody writes “best at filling out forms” on their CV. For that matter, nobody really retires with a goal of being the best at following a particular lab protocol. It’s the deep and difficult work that will set you apart when you do it well. This includes writing grants, writing papers, designing new research projects, and thinking about the implications of your data. These tasks can only really be done well when you are able to concentrate on them with no distractions. If you have a grant to write, set aside time where you will be uninterrupted. Maybe this is 2 hours every day, maybe it is 2 full days in a row. Obviously this will all depend on your particular schedule. The important thing is to make sure this time is devoted only to your deep work on grant writing. Don’t check your e-mail, put your phone on “do not disturb”, turn off your pager if you can, don’t schedule any meetings, and try to find a quiet place where nobody will find you. You will accomplish much more in two hours of focus than you could in 4 hours filled with distractions and interactions. Your time is precious so make sure you use it well.


  • Have fun

Many people would be thrilled to have a single career that is challenging, fulfilling, and frankly fun. You have two of them! You get the immediate rewards of clinical work and the delayed rewards of completing a strong research project. Being a clinician-scientist is probably one of the best jobs in the world so even when you feel like your time is stretched as far as it can go – it is at least stretched by a rewarding and amazing career. So go out, take control of your schedule, and enjoy your amazing job.


  • Postscript – 2 Books I’ve found very useful for managing the demands of a dual career:

Getting Things Done by David Allen 

Deep Work by Cal Newport

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