PracticeUpdate: Dr. Pal, why is getting involved in research an important part of training for medical students and early-career physicians?
Dr. Pal: I would say that research is one of the great ways to balance one's career. I'm in oncology, and oncology can be an incredibly emotional field. I can't think of a day that goes by when I'm not giving bad news to a patient, and having research, for me, has been an outlet to really sublimate some of what I'm experiencing in the clinic: taking all the negative emotions from those end-of-life conversations and turning them into something positive. It adds diversity to my career. It gives me a focus outside of what I'm doing in the clinic. And it gives me some sense that, as dismal as outcomes may be for patients with cancer nowadays, maybe the work that I'm doing is contributing to enhancing patient outcomes in years to come.
PracticeUpdate: How should medical students and early-career physicians get involved in research?
Dr. Pal: The best thing to do is to identify an appropriate mentor, and this can be through social media and through personal interactions with individuals at your institution. When I look for an ideal mentor, I look for three things. I look for whether or not the mentor has published extensively him/herself—and this is pertains to a research career, not mentorship and other domains outside of research. To do research, you've got to have a mentor who has published extensively. Otherwise, you can almost be guaranteed that you're not going to be publishing yourself.
PracticeUpdate: Why is it so important to see research projects to completion and obtain publications?
Dr. Pal: It’s critical that folks really take projects and research from start to finish. I think that, for one thing, if you're using research potentially as a vehicle for career advancement, people don't like to see a quitter. If you were reviewing someone's application, and you see a long laundry list of projects that are pending results, you become a little bit skeptical. You think, is this person who wants to join my group going to bite off more than he can chew and not take projects to fruition?
Now there are examples of projects that simply fail based on their scientific merits. And those are absolutely fine, but it's important that you see those projects through and at least make some effort to publish them. I think, nowadays, there is increasing recognition that projects that produced negative results or no results still have merit when it comes to publication. So, it's key that you make an effort to push those sorts of publications through, and, frankly, I think that those are a testimonial to perseverance. When I’m reviewing a CV, I'm not always looking for big, landmark, positive studies. I'm also looking for negative studies that reflect the individual's penchant for publication.
PracticeUpdate: How can students or early-career physicians use conferences to maximize their research exposure and further their career opportunities?
Dr. Pal: Pre-COVID, I would argue that the best way to engage at conferences is to hang out at the poster sessions. Poster sessions are such an amazing way to really gain a deep dive into individual projects, to spend a couple of minutes individually with potential mentors who are focused on areas of research that you're interested in. Those poster sessions offer a rare opportunity to get a captive audience with some of these really prominent individuals within the research community, and I think that's why those prominent individuals seat themselves there—to have that sort of very helpful exchange. In the era of COVID, of course, things have changed. There is still an opportunity for the interactions to occur. I would suggest that trainees focus particular attention on networking sessions.
I did a networking session recently, which only engaged two or three individuals from the junior faculty and trainee community. I have to tell you that, while I was disappointed not to see more people in that session, we were able to spend a lot of individual time with each mentee, tailor career plans, and so forth. So, it turned out actually, I think, to be a trove of information for the mentees and junior faculty who participated. I encourage folks when they are looking at the schedules of virtual conferences to focus in on those trainee sessions to see whether or not they might possibly offer some of these really unique one-on-one mentoring opportunities. It's still possible with COVID.