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Getting started in research – Part 1

Authors: Graham Johnson & Andrew Tabner / Editor: Charlotte Kennedy, Govind Oliver / Codes: CC20 / Published: 02/10/2018

You don’t need to be an academic to start doing research. Lessons and reflections from our journey

Welcome to a series of articles about getting started in research. We are two jobbing emergency physicians in the East Midlands with no particular academic background but lots of enthusiasm. We had an idea for a study 5 years ago and through a great deal of trial and error, gentle encouragement and a lot of late-night coffee, we have been awarded a National Institute for Health Research for Patient Benefit (NIHR RfPB) grant.

We want to offer some guidance and advice to those who might be in the same position we were in a few years ago or who may have come to academia later in their careers. As a specialty we’re lucky enough to have some clearly defined pathways to an academic career in the United Kingdom, including Academic Clinical Fellow (ACF) roles and NIHR development grants but for a variety of reasons, including timing and factors outside the workplace, these do not suit everyone. This is the first in a series of blogs that we have written aiming to demystify the research process and help share the hints and tips we have picked up along the way.

Our journey

We have made many (many, many) mistakes along the way, starting from the early days of puppy-like boundless and unrealistic enthusiasm. With hindsight, planning to develop an international multicentre randomised controlled trial in our spare time as registrars, all with no research experience, MAY have been slightly optimistic. We’ve chased inappropriate funding sources and produced poorly written grant applications. We’ve put on costumes and embarrassed ourselves on stage in the name of research (thanks CEM Dragon’s Den 2014), and we’ve applied for enough seed grants to sow a meadow. As time has progressed we’ve identified an appropriate team, collaborated with senior investigators and advisors, and produced a well rounded and properly developed grant application that was ultimately successful, albeit on the second attempt. Whilst undeniably “fun”, this was primarily an exercise in stamina and prolonged attention span. The latter of these is not necessarily a quality the majority of emergency physicians possess. It’s also not necessarily the most efficient way of getting started in research; we’re hoping that our experiences can shortcut this process for you a little.

The beginning: you have an idea, what now?

We thought that for the first instalment in the series, the best place to start was at the beginning. You’ve had an idea, it’s a good one, but you’ve never “done research” or worked in a “research active” department before, and you don’t know where to start What do you do now?

Well, you’ve got a decision to make. Research is neither quick nor easy, and there are far easier ways to bulk out your CV. However, it’s endlessly rewarding, can really help patient care, offers the opportunity to engage with some of the brightest minds in the country (and us), and gives you the chance to develop an entirely new and varied “string” to your career “bow”. If you still think that your idea is worth pursuing then it’s time to engage some support and advice. A mutually interested colleague is a fantastic asset: a co-conspirator is great for keeping you on track, especially if your attention span is as limited as that of many emergency physiciSQUIRREL!

Ahem Onwards.

Support available

As a novice researcher, it’s entirely possible to waste years of your life (literally) unless you get appropriate support early in the research process. However, it needn’t be painful. There are a huge number of avenues of support open to you but it will be up to you to access them.

Your first port of call should be your department research lead, should you have one. Depending on how well established research is within your department, this may well be the single point of access required for advice, guidance and introductions to the various research mechanisms active within your trust.

However, not every emergency department is research active (okay, quite a few emergency departments aren’t research active, or are struggling to remain so due to the existing healthcare climate). Don’t give up! There are loads of other avenues of support open to you and yours may be the study that gets things going for your department or team.

Research and Development

This may be branded as Research and Innovation, R&D or R&I depending on your local structure. The exact set-up will vary from trust to trust but this will likely be a combination of statisticians, methodologists, trial managers, data managers and other people you probably had no idea existed, yet who are absolutely key to the running of studies in the NHS. They should be able to advise you on the best way to get started and will most likely provide you with a very daunting-looking document called a “Protocol Template”. Don’t be put off by this behemoth, as it will become invaluable to you over the coming months. R&D will also be familiar with the active researchers in your trust and might be able to sort out mentorship for you if this isn’t available locally.

Research Design Service (RDS)

Another option as a “first point of contact”, and certainly one you should access at some stage in any case, is your local RDS. These are arranged on a regional basis: for example, ours is RDS East Midlands. They are funded by the NIHR (the “overall-research-managing-and-funding body in the UK health setting” – more to follow in a later blog) and their sole raison d’tre is to assist researchers in the development of research projects (including getting them funded – again, more to follow.)

Trainee Emergency Research Network (TERN)/RCEM Clinical Studies Group (CSG)

We’re lucky to belong to a specialty with an incredibly research-focussed college. The recently inaugurated Trainee Emergency Research Network (TERN) is tasked with improving trainee engagement in research, increasing national research capacity within Emergency Medicine and generally making it easier for novice researchers to get involved. They may not be able to support you with the details of your study, but they’re a fantastic point of contact for general advice, information, mentorship and direction. Email tern@rcem.ac.uk, follow them on Twitter (@TERNfellow) or have look at their TERN, Breaking Evidence and Academic Careers pages here on RCEMLearning.

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine Clinical Studies Group (CSG) and the associated trainees’ meeting, the Academic Trainees Day, are a great way of engaging with emergency physicians and academics who are trying to develop research in Emergency Medicine. They both currently meet once a year (usually in January), and are another potential source of support and expert mentorship. There may well also be an active call for abstract submissions: check the RCEM website. Even if you don’t have anything to present, go along to network, meet potential supervisors, get feedback on your project idea and become part of the UK EM research community.

Further blog posts

Potential sources of research funding and how to access them, the approvals necessary to conduct research within the NHS, issues surrounding the NIHR portfolio and the Clinical Research Network (CRN), and “What I wish I knew a few years ago” will be covered in later blog posts. For now, make sure you take your idea and get help developing it from the beginning; it’ll save you countless hours and a lot of heartache!

Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions; we’re more than happy to help!

Graham Johnson – graham.johnson4@nhs.net

Andrew Tabner – andrew.tabner@nhs.net

Getting started in research – Part 2

Getting started in research – Part 3

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