Are you so overtasked with clinical work that your dreams of groundbreaking research have taken a back seat? Is finding the perfect research project harder than you expected? Are you facing funding challenges? Or, do you just feel plain unmotivated? You're not alone – and you're not out of luck. Although today's anesthesiologists face a greater workload, higher pressure, and a busier schedule than ever, the opportunity to incorporate research in your work is possible, and maybe even easier than you think. By strengthening your professional connections, following your passions, and digging deeper into your everyday work, creating space for research is not only possible, but entirely achievable.

Finding your passion

“Someone once told me that you can practice anesthesia for your whole career and do a great job of practicing it – or you can change the field of anesthesia altogether,” Sasha K. Shillcutt, MD, MS, FASE, cardiac anesthesiologist, tenured professor, and Vice Chair of Strategy and Innovation in the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said. “Research allows us to change anesthesia practice and improve it – it makes a difference in the lives of every patient.”

Sasha K. Shillcutt, MD, MS, FASE

Sasha K. Shillcutt, MD, MS, FASE

Though there are a potential myriad of challenges for those seeking research opportunities, when beginning a new project, Dr. Shillcutt noted that taking small steps can lead to significant results. First, identify your passion. “It's important to learn early in your career what excites you and motivates you,” she said. “If the project you're working on doesn't light your fire, you won't go very far, so it's important to identify what you're curious about. If you can do that, you'll have a fruitful and long research career.”

Of course, finding that fire while tackling an already busy schedule can be intimidating, so Dr. Shillcutt recommends looking at your current work first. “If you're a busy clinician, try finding an area of research that complements what you do clinically so you can make your work count twice,” she said. “There are often a plethora of scientists looking for a clinician to help them answer a clinical research question, such as quality-of-life data or patient outcome scores. By simply looking around your facility or campus, you may find someone who studies something that blends your research passion with work you're already doing.”

Creating a team

Taking the time to identify others who share your passion is one of the most important things you can do when finding or starting a research project, Dr. Shillcutt said. “The biggest factor in succeeding with research is to find a team,” she said. “As anesthesiologists, we are often used to working without other anesthesiologists in the OR, but when it comes to research we need teammates – people who think differently than us and have different experiences, but who have the same passion.” Begin by speaking to people in other departments, attending meetings for established research teams in your facility, or going to seminars related to your area of interest to connect with colleagues who have similar passions. By building an established team, it can be easier to find leadership support in your professional environment, later helping in challenges such as securing funding or a dedicated research space within your facility, Dr. Shillcutt said.

“Often, institutions have internal funding for starter grants or junior investigations to start up, clinical training programs have applications for dedicated time and funds to complete pilot studies, and several anesthesiology subspecialty groups have different research grants for early career investigators,” she said. But to secure that funding, a team is key. “In order to obtain funding, you must have a concrete display of compiled data and some completed research,” Dr. Shillcutt said. By working with a larger team, compiling research and project details can be easier, faster, and more effective. “It all comes down to a strong team, supportive leadership, and creativity,” Dr. Shillcutt added.

Perfecting the balance

If you think starting a new research project sounds overwhelming, you're not alone. Because adding research to an already busy schedule or seeking new projects can be hard, Dr. Shillcutt said that strong support is the key factor for long-term success. “When I was first starting out, I was the only clinical researcher in the department,” she shared. “I was young, I didn't have a mentor in my department, and it was difficult from a morale standpoint for a number of years.” Those feelings of stress or burnout can be common and persistent – but with a strong support system, balancing research and clinical work can not only strengthen the individual anesthesiologist, but also contribute significantly to the field as a whole.

“Your colleagues and others in the department likely appreciate the work you do as an anesthesiologist in the clinical setting, but unless they are involved in your project, they may not know what you're doing in the research space, and that can be very isolating and lonely,” Dr. Shillcutt said. “It's important to find someone in your department with whom you can talk, share the struggles of your project, and discuss common research woes. Everyone needs a battle buddy to tackle research with; and taking the time to connect with your colleagues in this space can save you from feeling burned out, unsupported, or withdrawn.”

Ultimately, creating a balance between clinical work and research can be a rewarding endeavor both personally and professionally. By finding your passion, creating a reliable team, and sharing your struggles, anesthesiologists can effectively and enthusiastically combine research and clinical practice without overburdening themselves or their time. “Remember, medicine is a dynamic career and something that waxes and wanes with your effort,” Dr. Shillcutt said. “Find your passion and your niche. Give yourself space to fail and recognize that research is a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “You will succeed if you give yourself the space and the grace to grow.”

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