Building an academic portfolio during medical training: Part 3 – The art of reaching out

A year ago, I started a blog series about how to build an academic portfolio during medical training. After the first 2 blogs, COVID-19 hit us hard, and I felt the need to switch gears to address more pressing issues. Now that things are starting to finally move in the right direction, I thought it would be a good time to pick up where we left off.

In Part 1, I discussed why I believe that it is important for medical students and trainees to consider research collaborations outside their own institutions, and what types of research studies can be performed using this type of collaboration between young researchers. In Part 2, I expanded on the different ways you can find established multi-institutional teams of young researchers.

Once you have decided on the researchers that you would like to collaborate with and join their established teams, the next logical step in this process would be to reach out. What is the best approach to use when reaching out, and how can you maximize your chances of success? The following tips may help you achieve this (Figure*):

  • Be as detailed as possible. When reaching out, it is essential that you provide as many details as possible: who you are on the professional level (level of training, career plan, etc..), what area of research you are interested in, how novice or advanced you are in the field of research (prior experiences) and what research skills you possess (basic data collection, literature review, statistical knowledge, experience with particular software or database, etc..). The more details you provide, the more likely it that you will receive a favorable response to your request. It also ensures that you join a team that constitutes the best fit for your career goals, and increases the likelihood of this collaboration being productive.
  • Be honest. As much as it is important to present yourself in the best possible way, it is even more important, to be honest about what you are able or not able to do, and what you are willing to learn. One of the crucial aspects of collaboration is reliability.
  • Don’t be afraid of presenting ideas. If you happen to have some research ideas that you would like to pursue, don’t be afraid of bringing them up on your first contact. You don’t have to provide all the details of what you have in mind, but simple broad lines about some of the areas that you would like to explore may help the person you are contacting in evaluating the utility of potential collaboration.
  • Ask about what the team needs. If you are really serious about joining a specific research team, it may be a good idea when you first reach out, to inquire about the skillsets that the team is currently looking for in a collaborator. This not only shows how dedicated you are but increases the likelihood of having a productive collaboration.
  • Reach out to more than one team/ person. Research is a very dynamic process, and at any given time a certain team may or may not have an ongoing project with room for additional collaborators. Therefore, reaching out to more than one team is a reasonable approach to avoid a long waiting time before embarking on your first project.
  • Circle back. For the same reason mentioned in the prior comment, it is common that you will receive a response like “we would be happy to collaborate, but we don’t currently have a new project for you to join”. Don’t take this as a polite rejection, because it usually is not. Circle back in a couple of months and ask nicely if the situation has changed. In the meantime, you may use tip #4 to make use of the waiting time in a way that shows dedication and improves your portfolio.

Importantly, keep in mind the general rules for teamwork. As much as teams are looking for someone who is valuable and resourceful, they are also looking for someone who is easy to work with. Being professional, collegial, hard worker, flexible and enthusiastic always goes a long way!

Figure created with BioRender.com



Building an academic portfolio during medical training: Part 2 – finding your research team

In my previous blog, we discussed why it is important for medical students and trainees to consider research collaborations outside their own institutions, and what types of research studies can be performed using this type of collaboration between young researchers. In this blog, I will focus on how to find potential collaborators and/or join a multi-institutional team of young researchers.

Once you decide to explore this non-traditional way of doing research, the first challenge you will be facing is how to find potential research team members. At this point, you need to take a step back and ask yourself 2 essential questions:

  • “What area(s) of research am I interested in?” – This will largely be dependent on the particular specialty you are interested in pursuing as a career, and whether you have a general interest in this specialty or a more focused area that you would like to explore.
  • “What skillsets can I bring to the table in such collaboration?” – No matter how novice you are in medical research, you can always be a valuable team member provided that you are willing to learn, work hard and acquire new skills. But it is essential for you to know exactly what you can or cannot do, to be able to find your right position within a team. A successful research team requires a myriad of skills, some are basic, such as searching the literature or collecting data, some are more advanced, such as conception of research ideas or scientific writing, and others are specialized, such as relevant statistical knowledge and competency in using a statistical software or experience with using one of the databases that we previously discussed e.g. National Inpatient Sample (NIS).

Answering these 2 questions will help you present yourself in an honest and practical way to your potential collaborators, and will ensure that you achieve the 2 fundamental goals of any collaboration: to benefit and to be beneficial. It also gives you an idea about what potential skills you can work on acquiring to increase your value as a team member.

Now that you know what you want and what you can offer, it is time to find your collaborators. The easiest and most straight-forward way is to collaborate with people that you had previous experience with, like your medical school colleagues, or co-residents from your previous training program who have similar research interests. However, this may not be an available option to you, so what to do in this case? – If you are still taking your very first steps in the research field, you would be better off joining a team that is already established rather than building a new team. There are several ways to identify multi-institutional research teams that are already up and running:

  • Word of mouthyou may have heard about one or more resident or fellow who does this type of research, and in that case, you could reach out directly to them.
  • Medical literatureyou could search within your field of interest for recently published meta-analyses, systematic reviews, or articles that use one of the publicly available databases that we mentioned, and examine the authors’ list. What you would want to look for are articles that are authored by people affiliated with different institutions. Next step, would be to look up some of these authors on PubMed and see if that same group of authors (or some of them) publish these types of articles frequently together. Once you identify a particular group of collaborating authors, then you could look them up to check if they are mostly residents and fellows.
  • Social mediathis is another great tool for research collaboration. Twitter, in particular, is becoming an invaluable platform for sharing medical knowledge and recent research articles. Many of the currently active research groups promote their work on Twitter, and using the same process we just discussed, one can easily identify active members of these groups and reach out to them directly. Further, many researchers nowadays reach out on Twitter when they need young motivated medical trainees to help out with ongoing projects. So I would strongly encourage you to get on Twitter if you haven’t already done so and to start following people with similar research interests.

At this point, you know your research field of interest, you are aware of what you have to offer as a research team member, and you have identified potential research team(s) that you would like to be part of. You should be ready to reach out. What is the best way of presenting yourself? How can you maximize your chances of success in joining a team? This will be the topic of my next blog. So stay tuned…


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