One thing that I have always been passionate about is resident research. I think this likely originated during my own time as a research resident. Even though I felt that I learned a lot, I did not publish many papers. I worked on projects but did not know how to translate that into the credits of success – presentations and manuscripts. I felt somewhat adrift. Fast forward 13 years and I am now the Assistant Program Director for Resident Research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Over the years, I feel that I have learned about how to succeed and how not to be successful in research. I have pushed hard enough and been lucky enough to attain some of the metrics of academic success for myself including NIH funding, promotion, and successful trainees. I have interacted with many research residents who are trying but the outcome seems variable – some are incredibly successful during their research time and others, not so much. In general, I think we focus on the ones who seem to innately understand what to do, leaving behind those who lack the skills they need. So, when I came to UAB, I thought I would try and help improve the experience, help level the field. Luckily for me and the residents, several of the elements that seem to be important were already in place like residents and mentors who were vested in each other’s success and an administrative structure to work with residents on grant and T32 submissions and, perhaps most importantly, a Department Chair who invests fully in molding the next generation of academic surgeons.
My personal goal is to give the residents the tools they need to succeed. While I want them to attain funding and have abstracts and manuscripts accepted, these are mostly just the byproducts of the ultimate goal: learning to develop a clinically relevant hypothesis, carry out the research to test that hypothesis, and then to write about their findings in the context of what others have done. In my view, the pathway to success for research residents is made up of 4 things: planning, mentoring, expectations and goals, and skills development.
There are multiple aspects of planning but I will focus on the this in relation to mentor selection and setting a curriculum for skills development. A year and a half before our resident are to start their research time, my Chair and I meet with each intern individually. We discuss their clinical and research interests (topic, basic vs education vs outcomes vs clinical research), how long they want to do research, whether they want to get an advanced degree, etc, and assign them each at least 3 potential mentors to meet with (based on their interests and our perception of their needs from a mentor). We have follow-up meetings with each intern to help finalize their research and mentoring plans. Next, a program coordinator develops a grant submission and T32 plan for each of the interns and meets with them to go over it and other things like whether they want to obtain a secondary degree during their research time. During their second year of residency, they work with their mentor to write grants and T32 applications. This is, of course, to try and obtain funding, but it is also to teach them how to write and to try and finalize their plans for their research time. In order to develop the skills they will need to succeed, we have each resident attend the AAS research development course at the American College of Surgeons meeting. In addition, I run a didactics series focusing on skills development. We also have sessions to practice talks before the ACS and ASC meetings. Each resident is expected to submit T32 and grant applications before their research time begins and during research, they are expected to submit papers and abstracts each year. When they begin their research time, they are expected to have regular meetings with their mentors and to formally write about their goals and plans using an individual development plan. The mentors are critical in the success of our residents. They each invest countless hours working to help their mentees to develop.
I think these are the elements that help our residents to succeed: planning, mentoring, developing the skills they need, and working towards goals. This is just one way, one program. There are multiple programs around the country who each likely have a somewhat different approach to training academic surgeons. I think it would be very helpful for us to share what we each do and what has worked as well as what has not to help us each attain our mutual goal of training the next generation.