Do research backwards

Pick your goal and work backwards to fill in the pieces
tagged: medicine, research
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Research experience is highly valued in competitive graduate programs, medical schools, and surgical residency programs. Engaging in research demonstrates your commitment to learning and advancing your field. However, getting started with research can feel overwhelming, especially as a trainee when you don’t have perspective to know what’s important. In this blog post, I propose a unique approach to conducting research by starting with your goal in mind and working backwards to fill in the necessary pieces. This approach will help you navigate the research process more effectively and increase your chances of success.

Target A Journal. To begin your research journey, choose a journal that aligns with your field of interest. Let’s say you are a neurosurgical resident. You might explore the latest issue of the Journal of Neurosurgery (JNS) or Neurosurgery journal. Skim through the articles and identify one that catches your attention.

Suppose you come across a study on the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in preoperative planning for brain tumor resection. Study this article diligently, either in digital format or by printing it out and marking it up. Take notes, highlight important points, and pay attention to the study design, methodology, and results.

While studying the chosen article, resist the temptation to immediately chase down every citation mentioned in the text. Instead, mark the citations that you believe are important but hold off diving into them right away. At the end, select the three most crucial citations and study them with slightly less intensity. This approach allows you to focus on the most relevant and impactful references.

Copy structure. Create a new document and use the outline from the article you are studying as a starting point. Include sections such as abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and any figures or tables. By adopting the structure of a published article, you gain insight into how to structure your own research. Additionally, for each figure or table, start a spreadsheet to organize the corresponding data. This step ensures that you can easily reference and analyze the data during the research process.

Remember, you can accomplish all of these steps without a mentor initially. Once you have completed these tasks, approach a mentor and seek their guidance on the topic. Ask them if they have encountered the subject matter, possess relevant data, or consider it important. Their expertise can provide valuable insights and direction for your research.

Target A Conference. Conferences provide an excellent platform to showcase your research and network with professionals in your field. Start a document where you compile a list of upcoming conferences along with their dates for the next 12 months. Websites like or the official websites of neurosurgery professional organizations can help you find relevant conferences.

For each conference, create bullet points outlining the abstract or project you intend to submit. As your research progresses, you can modify and rearrange these bullet points accordingly. Sharing this document with your advisor keeps them informed of your research direction and enables them to provide feedback and guidance.

To stay organized, hyperlink the document to the current version of your submission. You can use cloud storage platforms like Google Drive or Dropbox to store your research documents and easily share them with collaborators or mentors.

TBD. At the bottom of the document, create a section labeled “To Be Determined” where you can jot down long-term ideas and plans for future research projects. This section serves as a repository for potential research directions that may not be fully developed yet. It allows you to brainstorm and revisit these ideas as your knowledge and skills grow. In MS Word, I created an autocomplete so that anytime I type “###” it automatically changes it to be highlighted in yellow so these spots stand out.

Identify mentors. Finding influential individuals in your program or field who are working in areas that align with your interests can be immensely beneficial. Stay updated on their latest work by following their publications and attending any seminars or presentations they give. For example, if you are a neurosurgical resident interested in neuro-oncology, you might identify a senior attending who has published extensively in that area.

Approach these individuals and express your interest in their work. Share your thoughts and insights on their latest research findings or innovations. By showing genuine interest and knowledge, you demonstrate your commitment to the field and create a foundation for collaboration. Consider proposing a research project or asking if you can assist them with their ongoing studies.

Peer collaboration. Build connections with peers who have similar research interests. They may be excellent collaborators and co-authors for your projects. Attend departmental meetings, conferences, and research seminars to meet and network with like-minded individuals. Engaging in research with your peers not only enhances the quality of your work but also fosters a supportive and collaborative environment.

Embarking on a research journey can be a daunting task, especially for graduate students, medical students, surgical residents, and early career attendings. By adopting the “do research backwards” approach, you can navigate the research process more effectively. Start by targeting a journal, study an article that interests you, and create a structured outline based on the article. Then, set your sights on conferences and begin outlining potential abstracts or projects for submission. Finally, identify influential individuals in your field and establish connections. Remember, research is a continuous learning process, and your persistence and dedication will propel you toward success in your academic and professional pursuits.

tagged: medicine, research