Vikita Patel, BMSA Promotions Committee Member
February 10, 2018
Lab coat and pipette. That's what comes to mind when you think research. That's what I thought too. But little did I know that “research work” encompasses so much more.
Research is often associated with wet lab work — a fundamental step for making medical advances because the research tests out basic theories and sets the stage for future studies. We commonly see this scenario in educational institutions, which is why our perception of research work is so heavily centred around the laboratory setting.
However, most of us haven't experienced clinical research, where the basic research done in labs becomes translated to applications in health care to ultimately benefit the patient.
When I was applying for a research position, I wasn’t actively searching for a clinical position. Instead, I was willing to take any opportunity I could get my hands on. Maybe if I had done wet lab work, I might have liked it too. But here is why I absolutely loved doing clinical research:
It gives you first-hand exposure to a hospital or clinical setting.
Sure, you can watch as many Grey’s Anatomy episodes as you want but you will never truly know how a hospital is run unless you experience the environment for yourself. Clinical research gives you an opportunity to do research and shadow a health care professional at the same time. Best of both worlds!
Conducting studies means you get to interact with patients, doctors, nurses and families. Don’t get me wrong, you definitely have to interact with your peers if you are working in a wet lab, but the kind of interactions you encounter at the hospital are much more diverse.
Your work is a little different each day.
My favourite part of the job was the uncertainty of how my day would turn out. Clinical research is very patient-oriented, so your schedule depends on the schedule of the hospital, while wet labs have more standardized hours.
If there are delays for a surgery or procedure, you might not be able to leave as early as you thought you could. But if you have a slower day with fewer patients, you might end up finishing early. You also never know what kind of patients you are going to meet or what you'll learn from them.
You learn a broad set of skills.
You are given a responsibility, and unlike school, you are not taught how to do everything. Most clinical researchers are also physicians that work at a hospital, so their study will most likely be with patients in their department.
No one is looking over you, and the fate of your Principal Investigator’s study is essentially thrown into your hands.
The number of patients you recruit and the amount of data you collect is up to you, and that will contribute to the progress and validity of the study. The process has a steep learning curve. And you will make mistakes as you go, but having such a great responsibility pushes you to face uncomfortable situations and overcome problems on your own.
You learn to cooperate with other staff members. You learn to adjust and find a balance between being too needy and too shy. You also learn how to talk to the patients and their families.
It is a rewarding experience.
Clinical research evaluates the effectiveness of new treatments or hospital protocols on human patients, and if proven effective, these changes can be implemented in that hospital.
The physicians working on the clinical studies aim to improve the health care they provide. So all the hours you put into collecting data can make a real difference.
Aside from that, there are other perks. With a lot of down-time between patients, there are opportunities to watch procedures. Your PIs know you are here to learn so if you show enough interest, some would be happy to let you observe.
Moreover, if you are a people-person and you enjoy the human interaction, you will love working in clinical research. And even if you don’t consider yourself to be a people-person, you will still learn a lot from the experience.
The sheer exposure to the environment is eye-opening and can help you narrow down your interests in health care. The same thing goes for wet lab research. You might not know what you love about it until you try it out.
Although both types of research are very impactful, there is definitely one that is more suited for you. I didn’t intentionally seek a clinical research position, but I should have, and if you find yourself agreeing with most of the statements in this post, you should too.