How to Become a Wildly Successful Researcher

15 May 2014

by: Marie Crandall, MD, MPH, FACS

So, I can’t honestly claim to be a wildly successful researcher, but I understand, in principle, the effort required. I have slogged away at an academic career for the past decade, becoming modestly successful. With that disclaimer, I think some of this might be helpful to those starting out.

The world of academic surgery is absolutely broadening. Historically, academic surgeons wrote about a particular clinical question or perhaps ran a basic science lab. Now, there are many paths to academic achievement; some of the more common being public health, outcomes research, innovation, business, and policy. When I was a resident, I was selected to go into the lab and I said, “Bleah! Can’t I get an MPH instead?” Well, it turned out I couldn’t do it then, but three years later, I was fortunate enough to be selected as the trauma fellow at the University of Washington. UW had an NIH-funded training grant that paid for my MPH, which laid the foundation for my ensuing research in topics like domestic violence, gun violence, and disparities.

Which leads to the first principle:

Figure out something you like.

If you HATE staring at Petri dishes or massacring rats, and find endless negative studies unrewarding, then you should probably not pursue basic science. Conversely, if you are deeply passionate about toll-like receptors, but the idea of testifying before Congress members about gun violence researchers makes you want to heave, then the lab is the place for you.
I will detail a few common research career paths. However, understand that there are ALWAYS exceptions to these rules, and your most heartfelt passions of today may seem, I don’t know, trite in a decade. Anyway, that was my second disclaimer.

Basic Science: To become a successful basic science researcher, you must somehow obtain the skills and the mentorship to pursue this path. If you want to go down this path, generally, you must match in a residency program that will allow you to do research. That area of research may not define your career, but the 1-2 years will help you learn how to design experiments, understand rigorous research methodology, and the importance of persistence and repetition. If you enjoy it, as you finish your residency, think of areas of research interest that are relevant to your career, and look toward mentors at your institution or other institutions for potential research fellowship or junior faculty positions. The mentors are absolutely key because basic science research is EXPENSIVE. You will need grant money, and most of it comes from sources like the NIH, DOD, or major foundations. The 3-, 5-, and 10-year plans for basic science researchers are outside the scope of this blog, but a simple Google search can provide more information.

Clinical Research: This is probably the most familiar type of research.  Ask a clinical question, devise a retrospective or prospective study to answer the question. It seems fairly straightforward, yet can be challenging to do well. Most high-impact researchers today have advanced degrees in statistics, health services research, epidemiology, or other such disciplines. Or, they have research partners with PhDs in one or more of those areas. If there is a productive clinical research team at your institution, and you have the time and interest, it can be an invaluable experience to participate in one of these projects. It can afford you basic statistical and data manipulation skills, as well as let you know if sitting on your butt in front of a computer all day during your research time is the right career path for you. Many residency and fellowship programs are supporting residents to obtain Master’s degrees during their research years, while working on clinically relevant projects. Areas like public health, public policy, and outcomes research would also fit into this category.

So, let’s say now you’re on this path.

What next?

Writing is deeply under-appreciated. Some people enjoy it, others hate it, some are wonderful wordsmiths, others are abysmal writers. You would think enjoyment or at least being prolific would correlate with skill, but you instinctively know that’s not the case if you’ve been forced to read Dickens ever in your life.

Anyway, the key is to keep it simple and here is my formula:

  • Abstract = usually structured, usually <250-300 words
  • Introduction = 1-3 pages that state the importance of the problem, overview of the current literature, GAPS in the current literature which inspired your research question, hypothesis
  • Methods = 1-3 pages, your methods.  Really, I can’t help you with that
  • Results = 1-4 pages that iterate your important findings.  Don’t hesitate to use graphs and tables, but try to keep it to a total of 5 or 6.  That’s the max that is usually acceptable for print
  • Discussion = 1-3 pages summarizing the MOST important of your findings, then the limitations of the study (after the biggest limitations, state arguments right there why that limitation is irrelevant), then come back around to the importance of the work and future directions

Cardinal rules:

  • Do not plagiarize
  • Authorship is intricately political and complicated, figure it out ASAP!! I have been irate at people for years (and people have been justifiably irate at me) for author order disputes. Don’t let it happen to you.

I just realized I’ve used up two single-spaced pages, which is really excessive for blogdom. Ah, well, the topics of “finding an academic job,” “finding grant money,” and “shameless self-promotion” will have to be covered at another time.  In the meantime, keep researching and remember the fame-worthy words of my former Chair, Ron Maier, “Success is directly proportional to your ability to tolerate rejection.”



Marie Crandall, MD, MPH, FACS is an Associate Professor of Surgery and Preventive Medicine in the Division of Trauma and Critical Care at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She is originally from Detroit, MI, a product of Head Start and local public schools. Dr. Crandall obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Neurobiology from U.C. Berkeley in 1991, and completed her M.D. in 1996 at the Charles R. Drew/U.C.L.A program in Los Angeles. She finished her General Surgery residency at Rush University & Cook County Hospital in 2001, and in 2003, completed a Trauma & Surgical Critical Care Fellowship at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, WA. During her fellowship, she obtained a Masters in Public Health from the University of Washington. Dr. Crandall performs emergency general and trauma surgery, staffs the SICU, and is an active health services researcher. Dr. Crandall loves travel, triathlons, hiking, and is a passionate animal rights activist; you can follow her on Twitter @vegansurgeon 

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