How to Pick the Best Clinical Research Project: Part 2

June 1, 2014 at 12:09 am

J. Randall Curtis

J. Randall Curtis, MD, MPH

By J. Randall Curtis, MD, MPH

Last month, we discussed conducting picking a research topic, obtaining preliminary data, establishing a network, and forecasting the impact of your research project. If you missed it, read it here. The next steps we will cover are just as important, as they will reduce the amount of stress and frustration that you may encounter, save you time, and help you meet your deadlines.

Focus on What is Feasible

Many fellows may find that their initial research questions are novel, but not feasible given the resources that they have. To really answer your question, would it require a multicenter randomized controlled trial that would require millions of dollars in funding? You’re not going to be able to pull that off, so be realistic about how much time and resources you have. For most fellows, your primary resources are your own time and energy.

Some fellows may need to complete their project in a year, so that they can build on it, get it published, and write grants. Research always takes longer than you think. If it must be done in a year, shoot for a project that you think you can have done in six months.

Build on an Existing Project

Your mentor may have a research question that you can answer with some data that they have collected, which is great option for a number reasons. If the mentor is a funded researcher, those projects will often be well conducted and supported, and it’s easier for the fellow to develop a high-quality project from a mentor’s research or database rather than start from scratch.

If the research project involves human subjects and your mentor has existing data, he or she will have the necessary Institutional Review Board approval. This means you can be up and running in the first couple of weeks. If you go it alone, you have to devote a significant amount of time and effort to earning IRB approval. In some cases, approval can take three or more months.

Get Training in Research

The best projects are produced by fellows who have a systematic plan to get trained in research methods. What that training plan looks like is going to vary depending on the person and area of research. If they are involved in health services or clinical research, many times that training plan may involve course work in epidemiology, biostatistics, and health services research. Those who choose this route are often positioned to earn a master’s degree in research as well. This can be very helpful provided that the focus of your time is not on just getting another degree, but rather on getting the tools you need to conduct high-quality research.

Finding a project that meets all of these criteria can be very challenging, and you may have to generate10 ideas before you hit on that one that will be novel, interesting, and feasible. But once you have positioned yourself for a successful and efficient investigation, you can truly focus on your attention on your research project.

J. Randall Curtis, MD, MPH, is professor of medicine and director of the University of Washington Palliative Care Center of Excellence in Seattle. He is also head of the Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Section at Harborview Medical Center, and the A. Bruce Montgomery, America Lung Association Endowed Chair in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. He also served as ATS president in 2009-10. His research is focused on measuring and improving the quality of palliative and end-of-life care for patients with critical illness, chronic lung disease, and other chronic illnesses.


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