It’s week four of our YSP career tips for success series and we are now looking at projects, and which ones we should do , this time with Atte Meretoja from Helsinki University Hospital, Helsinki, Finland.
Choosing your first research project is not the most critical decision you make, but choosing the next few will be. Successful researchers always have multiple projects going on simultaneously. Many, if not most projects will fail, some will became moderate successes, and some will make your career. As there is no certain way of telling which project will go bust, you need to throughout your career 1) diversify the risk, 2) consider cost-effectiveness, and 3) seek mutually beneficial collaborations.
Diversifying risk relates to combining high risk and low risk research. High risk projects, typically interventional trials or long-term prospective observational cohorts of rare cases, will take years of full time work to complete, will test a single novel hypothesis which if proven will change clinical practice globally, but if negative will be of little interest to anyone. Low risk projects, typically retrospective observational studies, will collect over a few months or a year a dataset of consecutive patients in routine clinical practice and then report numerous hypothesis generating observations of associations in that dataset. Earlier in one’s career, with less opportunity to bear failed projects, it might be wiser to emphasize low risk.
Cost-effectiveness relates to the ratio of time invested per scientific output. Output can be measured with quantity and quality, but in reality measuring the former is easier. Therefore early in one’s career one has to emphasize quantity. Getting a few papers out will prove that you can write and publish, which will then get you a little funding to buy you time to do a few more projects, with an aim of getting on to the first solid ground of a few years of secure funding. For this reason, you need to think quick returns initially. Start off with multiple projects that can be completed in a year. Congress abstracts and articles in stroke journals will give you hints on topics others find worthwhile just now, then find your own twist to these.
As quantity is not everything and we need to compete in an increasingly competitive funding environment, it is crucial to include in your first half-a-dozen or dozen papers some that will be clearly novel and original. Systematic literature reviews may be helpful in identifying areas with little or no previous observational work. Over time it might be wise to increase the number of high-risk projects, as these when successful will get you to faculty positions.
The most cost-effective studies are those done in collaboration. Once you have collected a dataset, be that observational or trial data, make sure you reach out to others working in the same field. Most people will be happy to share their data for a chance of publishing a research project together, especially if you will do the analyses and write the first draft. You might find it much easier to publish research that comes from multiple sites due to external validity. Inviting others into your projects will often result in counter-invitations.
In summary, do not put all of your eggs in one basket but rather diversify by taking many projects early on, emphasizing first those with likely quick returns and then making sure you have some with totally novel outputs. In the long run collaboration will be most cost-effective approach.