How to choose a research project for surgery trainees?

This post represents my personal opinions based on my experiences as a researcher, supervisor, academic surgeon, grant reviewer and mentor

Choosing the best project as a relatively inexperienced surgical trainee can be very difficult. It is always flattering to be asked to participate in research and easy to become enthused about other peoples’ pet projects. So how do you decide and how do you make the right choices?

A good place to start is with yourself. Ask yourself why do I want to do research, what kind of person am I  and what am I expecting/hoping that it will give me? The first question really relates to why do you want to do research? It could be because you have a genuine fascination with how things work, how to develop new treatments or how to assess outcomes from changing things around. This desire to understand is a feature of human kind and is to be actively encouraged. In my view we all possess this desire to a greater or lesser extent and demonstrate this from cradle to grave. If you want to do research purely to tick a box and obtain a higher degree then you need to be careful that you choose a project that will keep you motivated and you may be better considering a different strategy such as a clinical project with a distance learning type degree.

What you think you might like to do in the future? If you already know that you want to be an academic surgeon then the decision to undertake a period of research is easy. If you want to work in a teaching hospital it is likely that to be competitive you will need a higher degree and some research publications and again the decision to do research is fairly easy. If you are unsure what you want to do and what kind of surgeon you want to be then that is more difficult. Many people who go into research unsure come out passionate and engaged. In my experience it is rare for people to have miserable time in research and I think everyone can learn something valuable from the experience. The amount of time that people spend in structured research may vary depending on their level of engagement, interest and aspirations and this is entirely appropriate.

At the very minimum a period of dedicated research should offer you training in research methodology, design and analysis. This in itself is valuable but the project should also lead to a higher degree and ideally give rise to publishable material.


Do not underestimate the potential difficulties in funding a period of medical research. Research Councils and charities look at funding in 3 principal domains. You, your project and the research environment.


This is important because this is something which you have the greatest influence over. Your CV is important and determines your personal competitiveness. If you are very forward thinking and are reading this as a medical student, there is no doubt that undertaking an intercalated BSc will offer competitive advantage at later research fellowship competition, provided that you achieve a 2:1 or better. Look out for prizes that you eligible to apply for or try to think of achievements that will make you stand out. All doctors qualify with essentially the same degree, it is the other things that create the differences. Being involved in audits or other research projects in special study modules or similar will also offer you a competitive edge. Remember that in the case of audits people always want to know if you closed the loop and what the impact or change was that arose from the audit. Publications either from previous lab research or clinical projects are also valuable as they provide evidence of experience in the scientific process and in scientific/medical writing.

Your project

The best projects are ones that you believe in and are genuinely interested in.  Talk about questions that underpin a project. Consider what the outcomes might be and what the next question and the next question might be. A project with longevity is better than one where there appears to be a simple yes no question.

Is it important? This sounds like an odd thing to say but research funders are being asked to consider their funding in the light of its future potential impact. Looking at determinants of liver transplant outcomes in atypical haemolytic uraemia syndrome may indeed be very interesting but it is such a vanishingly rare event that the impact of such a project on society is questionable.  Looking at outcomes in breast cancer clearly has the potential for bigger impact because the disease is so much more common. You must fully understand your project and you should take the responsibility for writing it up.  Even if you don’t understand it to begin with and it is a very painful process you must write it yourself because this is the only way to really understand what you are proposing.

Should you choose a project because it is already funded?

This is a difficult one. Occasionally a project will be already funded from a research council such as the Wellcome Trust or MRC. In this case adverts are usually put out for competitive interview and if you win the interview then you will have earnt the prestige of having that fellowship since in effect the Research Council is devolving responsibility to the project organization for appointing that fellowship. More often funded research fellowships do not fall into this category and you should beware of projects which are part funded or are funded by industry. Part funded projects can be difficult because of the obvious question, where will the rest of the money come from? Charities and research councils are sometimes wary of supporting part funded projects because of potential conflicts of interest around a number of areas. Industry funded projects may be very good but may also impose restrictions on the scope of research or on the publication or release of data and the drivers and outcome expectations of industry can be very different from those of academics.

Prestige fellowships

All money is gratefully received, lets be clear on that but some fellowships are worth having more than others. Research council fellowships  have value to the institution because they often include overhead costs (FEC) that contributes to the running of the institution. They also tend to be more generous in running costs such as consumables and equipment. To the individual some research fellowships are considered more prestigious than others and this may be the subject of a future blog.

Research Environment

This is often crucial and can be a deal breaker on it’s own. Research Councils want to know that their money is invested safely and that you will be in an environment where there will be adequate research support for your project. Research support does not just mean supervision it means administration, technical expertise, equipment, core facilities and so on. That is why research centres are often so successful at competing for research, not only do they have excellent staff but all of the core facilities are usually in place.

Ask yourself can you do the research you want to do in your geographical location? If the answer is no or yes but with difficulty, consider moving somewhere else for the duration of your research fellowship. What better way to make yourself more attractive as a future employee than to go away and bring back some unique skill or expertise that is not currently in your available in your current location? This requires an element of courage and personal strength in seeking out opportunities in an unfamiliar environment, but as it is often said, fortune favours the brave.


In terms of supervision you need to ask what is my proposed supervisor’s track record? How many PhD’s or MD’s has he/she supervised and how many have completed and been awarded? How much time do they have to supervise me and do they have other students or technical staff that can help me get established or show me new techniques? How successful are they in terms of grants and publications and what is their National or International reputation? Do they have any other associated indicators of performance e.g. editor of a journal. International advisor to grant awarding bodies etc? Crucially, are they the best person to supervise me? Remember that research seniority does not always equate with clinical seniority. For example someone may be a consultant surgeon and therefore clinically relatively senior but their research activity may have stopped early after their thesis was published in which case they would be considered an early post doctoral fellow. Research councils want at least one supervisor to be an established principal investigator and that demands further research training beyond a doctorate level. Should you have more than one supervisor? Ask your proposed supervisor but also ask a number of other people such as their research director or someone you trust from another branch of surgery or medicine.


I cannot emphasize enough the importance of forward-planning for research. From the date that you submit a research proposal it will take a minimum of 6 months for the submission to be processed, reviewed, interviewed, awarded and for the administration of your institution to process the award to your payslip. That assumes of course that you are successful! So lets work back. Allowing 6 months as above and 6 months to write up a project, the very minimum you should think about research is a year ahead of the date and I feel much more comfortable with 18 months which offers the opportunity to apply for a larger part of the funding cycle and builds in a couple of failures. Failure in grant applications doesn’t mean you weren’t any good or the project was rubbish it may simply be a question of priority for the council of competing projects in that round. The majority of people who keep applying are ultimately successful.


You should choose a research project which offers the opportunity for you to take it further should you so wish. A doctoral project which is successful may lead on to further projects and allow you to consider developing a unique but related theme which may be important if you decide that you want to be an academic and train as an emerging PI (principal investigator) through a Clinician Scientist fellowship. Even if you do not want to take things to this level you may still have unfinished business or unanswered questions relating to your project which may be taken on by your replacement. Involvement in their progress and development can be personally rewarding as well as rewarding you with further publications.

Future posts will include:

When to do research in surgical training?

What kind of higher degree?

Writing a grant?

Being interviewed for a research fellowship


© 2012 SJ Wigmore

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