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Research success during residency: Seven useful strategies


Urologic oncology fellow, Ariel Schulman, MD, shares some tips to help residents make research a positive experience.


Ariel Schulman, MD
Dr. Schulman is a urologic oncology fellow at Duke Medical Center, Durham, NC

“Research” brings up a spectrum of sentiments among trainees. For some, it is simply a prerequisite, while for others, it sets the foundation for an academic career. A yearly project is usually required by most programs, but actual training in research practices varies in both quality and quantity. Similarly, the pre-existing skill set of residents is highly variable.

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) requires that some members of a faculty demonstrate scholarship through obtaining funding, publication of articles, presentation at society meetings, and/or participation in national committees or educational organizations. The American Board of Urology defines the minimum time in training and case requirements, but research requirements are left to the discretion of each program director.

Across all programs, there are several steps individual residents can employ to make research a positive experience that enhances training. Here are seven general strategies I have found useful:

  • Be proactive. Projects related to my own ideas and initiatives have always been more fulfilling, better received by faculty, and more clinically relevant then those assigned to me by others. Identify your own interests and look for “gaps” in knowledge that need to be addressed. Direct your research activities to these areas. Look for mentors and resources with similar interests.

Have you read: Consider Choice E: Effective learning during residency

  • Find good mentorship. It is critical to identify mentors that have successfully integrated research activities into clinical practice. Interestingly, successful academic clinicians have widely diverse skills and interests. In other words, there is not one recipe for success. Aligning yourself with someone you can relate to is often more fruitful. Also, it is critical to differentiate mentors whose career you would like to emulate from those who can help you bring projects to completion through ideas, resources, and relationships. Ideally, you should find both.

  • Start early and create a long-term timeline. Research activities, both basic science and clinical, take time to develop. If you are starting a new project, administrative processes alone can take several months. I try to consider new projects on a 9- to 15-month timeline including a target meeting for presentation and manuscript for publication. Display submission deadlines in a visible place to keep projects moving ahead.

Next: Broaden your exposure


  • Broaden your exposure. Many programs are particularly strong in two or three subspecialty areas, but it is important to also consider topics relevant to the national urology community. One invaluable resource is archived video sessions of recent AUA annual meetings. These are freely available to members through the AUA website. Proceedings from the plenary sessions cover the most important issues in urology today. In addition, look for opportunities to collaborate with colleagues in different specialties within your hospital (anesthesia, ob/gyn, surgery) who may be addressing topics related to urology and can offer a unique perspective. Broadening your research circle typically harnesses skills and resources that may not be available within your particular division or department.

  • Work with a statistician. Sound trial design and statistical methodology are critical components to all research projects and should be delineated from the start. A collaborative working relationship with a biostatistician is invaluable. Most statisticians will help you understand the fundamentals of the analysis. This will allow you to truly understand the meaning of your findings and help you build your own statistical skill set.

Read: Use new data to inform unique patient group

  • Use a project management tool. There a number of project scheduling tools used in various industries to keep activities on track. The Gantt chart is one example. Break your projects down into the critical sequential steps (administrative approvals, data collection, statistical analysis, etc.) and create an estimated timeline for completion. These tools make larger projects less daunting and allow you to identify your progress and needs across the life of a project.

  • Get rewarded for your hard work. Some advanced planning can lead to presenting at national meetings, giving you exposure to a larger peer group. Well-done projects may introduce you to the thought leaders and fellowship directors in your area of interest. Further, specialized knowledge and skills acquired during research engagement may offer strategic advantages in the job market.

Success in research endeavors during residency is similar to success in acquiring surgical skills-a proactive approach can make all the difference in your experience. Focus your efforts in areas of clinical interest and find good mentors to emulate to help get your projects done. Be sure to get rewarded for your hard work, because it is almost time to start thinking about next year’s research project.

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