Cardiovascular Research Careers For the Clinician-Scientist

"The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden."
– Lucius Annaeus Seneca

If you are a cardiologist in training or early career cardiologist contemplating a career as a clinician-scientist, you might be wondering how to get started. In this series, I share insights gained while conducting cardiovascular research and caring for patients during the past decade. The methods used in cardiovascular research require specialized training; I will focus on concepts that are useful, irrespective of the research methods you choose to learn.

Part 1: The Mentor

The first and most important step in establishing a career as a clinician-scientist is to identify a mentor who will introduce you to the conduct of research. The purpose of Part 1 in this series is to help early career cardiologists identify the right research mentor and establish a productive working relationship with that person.

If you have already met an inspiring researcher at your institution with whom you "click" with, you are ahead of the game.

Although you might be on the right track, you still have homework to do. Read her or his three most recently published research papers. If you are not sufficiently interested in the topic, work on something that interests you more. After you understand the papers as deeply as you can, consider whether you are still interested in getting involved. If so, email the potential mentor requesting a 30-minute meeting to discuss research. If you do not get a response to your email, you have learned something, and you should consider a renewed mentor search. More likely, the potential mentor will respond: be five minutes early to the appointment.

If you have not yet identified someone you think might be a good mentor, do not despair.

Check your cardiovascular medicine division's website, which lists faculty and their interests. See if any interests match your own. Also, search the NIH Reporter database for your institution to see the variety of funded research. Identify the senior member of groups whose research interests you. Make a "short list" of these research group leaders. Using PubMed, begin to look at the papers published by the group whose work most interests you. If you find that you can read three papers without losing interest, consider reaching out to the potential mentor.

So, you have scheduled a meeting with your mentor!

During the first meeting, the potential mentor will want to know whether you have a clear career path in mind. She or he will also want to understand how much you know about research in general, and her or his research in particular.

You might be invited by the potential mentor to attend one or more weekly meetings of the research group. If the mentor does not make this offer, ask if you can attend several weeks in a row to learn more about what the group does. If the answer is "yes," attend the next three group meetings.

At the group meeting, introduce yourself to group members before the meeting convenes. If they ask why you have attended, explain that you are learning more about the group as a way to begin a career in research. Do not be surprised if you feel like an outsider. It takes time to become part of a group, and you are not there yet. You are evaluating whether it is the right fit. Watch how the group interacts. Is this an environment in which you could thrive?

Beyond the group meeting, you will also want to see the work-space where daily research gets done. Introduce yourself, being careful not to interrupt work. Talking with members of the research group about their experience is essential. Get the name of at least one person with whom you can have lunch with. At lunch, ask about the experience of working with this mentor, learning as much as possible about how lab members have fared in the past.

Here is what your potential mentor is likely considering during this evaluation period:

During this brief period of evaluation, the mentor will be wondering whether you are willing to commit to the additional training required to conduct research independently someday. A tightly circumscribed commitment on your part will be met with a similarly limited investment of time and resources on the part of the mentor. For example, consider the implications for the mentor if you wish to do one month of research as a stepping stone to subspecialty fellowship. In that instance, the time spent training you will not yield much in terms of research results, and you will not have developed any new skills of substance. Sooner or later, mentors will want a substantial time commitment from you. This is reasonable since they are committing to training you.

There are some things you need to consider before committing to a course of action.

To conduct research, you need protected time. Negotiate with your mentor how your protected time will be arranged. When your clinical effort is reduced, your salary will be lower compared to peers who do not conduct research. Only you can decide whether the relatively low salary earned during research training and a subsequent research-intensive career is acceptable.

The duration of research training you need for long-term success is a key question. A 1-year training experience should typically be viewed as a first research training experience, not complete training for independent research. Discuss the period of training required to provide you with genuine independence and define the nature of that training, including didactic coursework.

Decide whether you will pursue a degree (e.g., in clinical research or public health) and discuss this decision with your mentor. Before committing to a degree program, contact the program's administrator to request a list of prior degree recipients and their current employment. Compare where they work, their published research and their funding in NIH Reporter to your own career goals. Ask other researchers their perception of the degree, as well, to round out your understanding. A key question is who will pay tuition for the degree; in many instances, it does not have to be you.

The most relevant evidence for the mentor's willingness and ability to fully train people is a recent track record of training independent, funded researchers. Ideally, the mentor should draft an Individualized Development Plan for your career to serve as a reference point for whether you are on track.

You have worked out a commitment and you are ready to begin working with your new mentor.

Now that you are working with your mentor on a project she or he has suggested, your interactions with the mentor should reflect how busy she or he is. A simple rule of thumb: value your mentor's time more than your own. Read voraciously about your project while you work diligently, and stay tuned for Part 2 in this series!

This article was authored by James Brian Byrd, MD, MS, FACC, a physician-scientist at University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, MI.

The author would like to thank members of the New PI Slack Group and William E. Byrd, PhD for helpful feedback about this post.