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So You Say You Want To Be A Clinical Researcher?

December 30, 2021
Mikkael Sekeres, MD, MS
Director of the Leukemia Program at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio

Perhaps you've just finished your hematology/oncology fellowship a year or two ago. Or you're still a fellow and, having completed that intensive first year of inpatient consults and the speed dating outpatient rotations in different specialty clinics, you've just woken up to the realization that you have to apply for jobs in a year. Or maybe you're a really motivated resident and have already been labeled as that "hem/onc" gal or guy by the drones in your training program who decided shortly after they developed the fine motor skills to hold a compass that they wanted to become cardiologists. (Remind them that they're about to dedicate their lives to studying a single muscle. Whatever.)

And suppose you also know you want to be an academic hematologist or oncologist, but have recently discovered that wet benches give you hives. Or maybe you realized this as far back as medical school and get really jazzed at the thought of conducting research that involves large populations or directly benefits individual patients (as happened with me).

But the path to becoming the next Rich Stone, Eli Estey, Wendy Stock, Alan List, Stephanie Lee, or Alan Burnett (to name just a few of my heroes) seems a murky one, indeed.

Then this just might be the essay for you. Come, take my figurative hand, which I recently excoriated with repeated exposures to alcohol-based disinfectants while on service, as we review Ol' Doc Sekeres' fail-proof tips for clinical research success!

Tip #1: Find a good mentor.

Anyone who tells you this without providing you with concrete assessment tools for what constitutes a "good mentor" is, by definition, not being a good mentor to you.

Good mentors help develop interesting research questions, provide clear guidance without telling you what to do, create opportunities for you by removing obstacles, and put your interests first, especially by making time for you.

Sounds easy, right? Not so much. These people are hard to find, and you'll have to make a judgment call if you identify someone with some, but not all of these traits.

Start with word of mouth. If you're a resident, ask fellows at your institution. If you're early in your fellowship, ask senior fellows or faculty you trust. Most people aren't eager to badmouth another person, so pay attention to hesitations before people answer you or neutral responses.

Do a PubMed or Google Scholar search. If a candidate mentor does not have a proven track record of publishing him or herself, it is unlikely he or she has the skills to mentor another person in research.

Look for a mentor with senior author publications in which trainees or junior faculty are first authors. If many publications have trainees as middle authors, and the potential mentor is first author, this person will not put your career development ahead of his or her own.

If a potential mentor does not answer your email requesting a meeting to discuss a project, or it takes weeks to arrange an appointment, this person is too busy to mentor you, or he or she is not interested in mentoring you. If it takes a lot of effort to engage someone with this first step, it will take a lot of effort throughout a project.

I trained with someone who really wanted to work in a famous researcher's lab, but that researcher ignored her email. So she sent that researcher 30 emails in a row with the same request, reasoning that he couldn't avoid her email if 30 copies of the same one filled his computer screen. For anyone not paying attention, this is an example of exerting too much effort to engage someone.

Tip #2: Personality matters

Let's face it: You don't want to spend the next couple of years, or couple of decades, working with someone (be it a research colleague or mentor) whose personality doesn't complement your own or whom you don't respect. If your stomach turns every time you think about meeting with an individual or a group, it's time to reassess your career direction.

I knew I had found the right mentor in medical school when I walked into his office and saw a life-size poster of the character Kramer from Seinfeld hanging on his wall. I knew it in fellowship when I discovered someone who had the same Borscht Belt sense of humor as me, as did others in my chosen field. Now, both also fulfilled all of the other qualities of outstanding mentors. But I can honestly say I looked forward to seeing these people, and others in hematology, all of the time.

Tip #3: Define yourself by disease interest or research methodology, and sometimes both.

I found, early in fellowship, that I loved interacting with my patients who had myeloid malignancies, and I loved the research questions that these diseases spawned, be they clinical trials, epidemiology of risk factors, development of prognostic tools, quality-of-life assessment, understanding decision-making, or the clinical intersection with genomics. It's what I call my acquired, adaptive, research ADHD.

Others identify themselves by their research skillset, and may be gurus in, for example, working with SEER-Medicare data, and don't particularly care what disease is the focus of the week. A rarer subset have a disease and a research methodology focus and might, for example, concentrate on patient-reported outcomes in non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Any one of the above models is fine, just be thoughtful in deciding which suits you best.

Caveat emptor; it is very hard to establish yourself as the maven in both disease-specific and research methodology–specific academic circles, as you will have to attend twice as many conferences and publish in twice as many journals to both move your field forward and maintain your reputation in both camps. And I've recently learned, there are just so many hours in a day. Who knew?

Tip #4: Be deliberate when you go to meetings.

By the time you read this, you already know if you're the person who first started thinking about the ASH annual meeting on December 1, or if you've been mulling over your meeting game plan and assiduously putting in Outlook calendar appointments (in Pacific time zone) for months.

If you're a young clinical researcher (or an aspiring one), and you've been invited to a clinical consortium meeting, or a company advisory board, or a clinical trial investigator meeting, or you're attending a symposium, or an oral abstract session, do your homework: Find out who else is going to be attending, and introduce yourself to those people with whom you may want to collaborate. Bring ideas for research projects, even if they are only tangentially related to the small meeting you're attending. This is how I met many of the people on my "heroes" list. I had seen their names on important journal articles and was thrilled to actually get to meet them. The poster session is ideal for this type of interaction, as a lead author will be a captive audience for 90 minutes. You can even bring along your complimentary soft pretzel and beer!

If you fancy yourself a clinical trialist, a conference is also the time to meet with pharma and pitch ideas – of novel therapeutic interventions or indications, or of ways to analyze established databases. Don't be shy about initiating a meeting – enthusiasm is often rewarded with enthusiasm.

Tip #5: Be a short order chef.

At any restaurant, the multiple components of a meal should be timed so they are all ready at approximately the same moment, to be served hot. If your fries will take 10 minutes to cook in the fryer, and the burger takes six minutes on the grill … you get the point. From the moment of conception of an investigator-initiated trial to the publication of the manuscript describing its results spans roughly five years. Have other projects on the stovetop constantly simmering, so your productivity doesn't ebb and flow. Review articles are okay, as are retrospective studies (some of which can be quite high quality) while the prospective investigations mature. Get your name out there in a disease specialty, even on social media. You will find that publications beget publications.

Just make sure you have the capacity to deliver on each of these projects, lest your collaborators come away feeling burned.

The content of the Editor's Corner is the opinion of the author and does not represent the official position of the American Society of Hematology unless so stated.

Have a comment about this editorial? Let us know what you think; we welcome your feedback. Email the editor at


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