When starting your career, the idea of handling research, clinical responsibilities and your personal life may seem close to impossible.
In addition, being a physician-scientist is the perfect definition of an antithetical relationship: As a physician, you want to apply established clinical skills; as a researcher, you want to disrupt clinical practice by improving upon existing treatments and discovering new therapies. So, how do you achieve success in these opposing worlds?
The answer is simple. As someone who serves as a bridge between the clinic and research, your priority is to treat your patients, but also to identify the deficiencies in our treatments and in our knowledge of disease.
Physician-scientists are drawn to improving the lives of our patients by identifying unmet needs in medicine and then applying the scientific method to address these needs. As ophthalmologists, our opportunities can be found everywhere. Whether our goals are to improve vision, stabilize vision, or prevent vision loss, every subspecialty of ophthalmology can identify an area where clinical care can be improved by combining your clinical and research expertise. This is the main reason why merging these two worlds is such a fulfilling, stimulating, and satisfying career.
Excited? Here are some tips on how to start a physician-scientist career:
Choose Something You Are Passionate About
Deferred gratification is the hallmark of any physician-scientist. One must be smitten by the science bug to be able to see the magic behind clinical research. Clinical research is a complicated, messy, and convoluted path for a clinician, but the rewards are enormous for patients, society, and yourself.
It’s the passion that will get you through all the background research, the failed investigations, and frustrations. If you aren’t passionate, then your first experience in clinical research may become your last. My approach was to think about my clinical and research interests and just merge them into a career passion.
In the scientific world, I was thrilled about technology and imaging. My research activity has been focused on the optical coherence tomography/angiography and its role in studying the natural history of retinal and systemic vascular diseases.
Clinically, I was fascinated about the retina. Merging these fields was the perfect merger of my interests, but it was the clinical interest that came first. There are many clinical and research niches in the world of ophthalmology, and you only have to find yours!
Find a Great Mentor
This is, by far, the most important step. A great mentor will provide you with the insights, the expertise, and help you to find opportunities. Most importantly, your mentor will teach you how to formulate important questions and show you how to design your research to address those questions. It’s so easy to lose your way by losing your focus on the question that motivated you. Mentors will become role models that will guide you throughout your efforts and career by providing you with the tools that you need to ask any question throughout your career.
However, do not forget that this relationship is a two-way street: If you want a good mentor, become a good mentee. Show your genuine interest and commitment in becoming a lifelong learner. Ask questions, challenge dogma and be honest about your goals and struggles.
Be Curious and Resilient
Start questioning about the why and the how. Be critical when the results you see are not those you expected. In addition, be persistent and trust your ideas. At the same time, be confident enough to ask questions and learn from your peers. Do not be disappointed by setbacks, they are major learning opportunities. Hard work will eventually pay-off, but it takes time. Remember, you learn the most from the ideas or experiments that fail.
Join an Association or Committee That Supports Researchers Starting Their Careers
The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) was a major driving force for me. It affords several educational opportunities on eye-related disease, clinical research, literature reviews, ethics, and grant writing.
In addition, it provides you with unique networking opportunities, not only at its annual meeting, but also throughout initiatives such as the ARVO Global Mentorship Program. This virtual program matches experienced mentors and mentees starting their careers to provide guidance towards developing their professional goals and preparing them for the challenges they will face when starting a research career.
If you are not aware of an academic department or clinical research practice that you can affiliate with in your area, ARVO may be the vehicle that you need to find future opportunities.
Finally, it’s never too late to become a physician-scientist, but the sooner you do it the better!
Acknowledgements: I thank Drs. Manuel Falcão and Philip J. Rosenfeld for inspiring me as mentors and encouraging me to become a physician scientist.
The Academy’s YO Info Editorial Board is collaborating with YO leaders from our subspecialty and specialized interest society partners and thanks the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology’s (ARVO) Members in Training Committee Chair-Elect, Kara Cavuoto, MD, for recommending the author for this article. ARVO will hold its virtual annual meeting, May 2-6.
About the author: Rita Laiginhas, MD, is a member of the ARVO Member-in-Training (MIT) Committee. She is a retina clinical research fellow at the University of Miami/Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, Miami. She is also a Portuguese ophthalmology senior resident and a PhD candidate in clinical research and health services at the faculty of medicine at Porto University, Porto, Portugal.