The case for research
Andrew Shennan offers advice to students who are interested in research
Andrew Shennan is professor of obstetrics at King’s College London. He qualified with an MBBS in 1980 from St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, and became a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1991, and fellow in 2001. He was awarded a research MD from Imperial College in 1997, on measurement of blood pressure in pregnancy. He leads the clinical research programme in the Women’s Academic Health Centre at Kings Health Partners with a particular interest in early birth. Shennan sits on the research and academic committees of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and is deputy director of research and development for Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation Trust. He has a track record of supporting and encouraging research in undergraduates, and he has published more than 200 research papers.
Why did you decide to follow a clinical academic career?
I realised early in my career that research and disseminating best practice to others would help far more people than I could as an individual. It is exciting and varied. I think I get bored easily and this is the perfect antidote.
Can you describe a typical day?
The beauty of my work is it’s never typical. This week I’ll do an operating list, deliver babies, run clinics, do a scanning list, do interviews with the media, plot research, write up results, apply for funding, teach both undergraduates and postgraduates, give talks at two national conferences, and make several international conference calls. I’ll cycle to and from work each day (20 miles), make Sunday lunch, referee rugby at the weekend, and beat my eldest son at tennis—that’s wishful thinking.
What do you love the most about your job?
I love the people, particularly the patients. Losing multiple pregnancies is hard, and seeing women through to a successful outcome can’t be beaten as a reward. My research staff are also a great bunch to be with, and nurturing successful outputs from them is superb.
Is there is anything you would change about your job?
I hate bureaucracy—after a hard day, to have two or three hours admin is soul destroying. The explosion in mandatory training has been devastating to time commitment in senior academics, particularly in high risk specialties like maternity. I don’t have the luxury to spend whole days learning how to supervise or update on skills—an hour would easily do. Senior people might need more focused training in the future.
Why should medical students do research?
I believe all doctors should have a fundamental understanding of the principles underlying research and development to appreciate how evidence based medicine—the hallmark of modern medicine—is generated. This includes governance structures surrounding research as inevitably all of us will have some contact with this. Some of us might want to pursue academic careers and without some insight will not know whether this is a career to pursue. Clinical academia is an exciting and varied career. I’d been a clinician for more than 10 years before I went into academia.
Why do you include students in your research team?
Apart from the obvious rewards in educating and nurturing the next generation, medical students will often be productive, enthusiastic, capable, and good value. If appropriately directed their outputs can be substantive and therefore mutually beneficial.
How can students conduct worthwhile research with the time constraints they have as undergraduates?
The important feature of research undertaken by an undergraduate is that it has a meaningful beginning and end and can be achieved within the time frame available. It would be up to the supervisor to judge this, but over the years many of my students have produced important publications. My first undergraduate medical student during a BSc generated a Lancet paper after an eight week project. Every year about two or three of my papers will be published by undergraduate medical students.
What should a student look out for in a supervisor?
Supervisors who have previously had successful students are a good bet as this will demonstrate their commitment to them and their ability to have ideas that generate the appropriate outputs for a student. Other than a track record it would be important that you get on well and that the research is in an area that you are interested in.
What does a supervisor need from a student?
Most of all hard work and commitment—someone who is prepared to go the extra mile. Time is probably the most precious asset a student has and those willing to give time to their project will invariably generate far better research. Flexibility and commitment are therefore essential qualities for budding students.
What would you advise students who want to carry out a research project?
Talk to your appropriate mentor and in particular their previous students. Look for opportunities to undertake projects. This may be under special study modules already ringfenced by your university or during a more substantial spell as a BSc in an intercalated year. However, in my experience, students will generate excellent papers just by working in their own time. Summer studentships are often available and you might be able to earn money doing research rather than a summer job. Although finding time can seem difficult as an undergraduate, it will be worse later. Achieving research outputs at this time will always look good on a CV and may be even easier to achieve than later in your career. Getting selected for an academic foundation year 1 job may not be easy and you need to be able to demonstrate something of your potential and your aptitude. There is now huge opportunity for training in academia—unlike previously. Structured programmes of academic clinical fellows and academic lecturers have opened huge opportunities for people to pursue careers in clinical academia. I’d highly recommend it.Niovi Papalexopoulou, fourth year medical student
1King’s College London Medical School
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2013;21:f2408