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Including PhDs on the Clinical Research Team

By Tyler Barker, PhD, Lynette L. Craft, PhD

    • Research

Now more than ever, institutions and funding agencies are emphasizing the need for collaborative, multidisciplinary teams to answer challenging medical questions and improve clinical care.

Similarly, the recent focus on translational research and the desire to move from bench to bedside often demands collaboration between clinicians and scientists of varied backgrounds and expertise. Ultimately, these collaborations can increase the innovation and impact of your work, and importantly, benefit the patients we care for. Medical research groups may welcome the opportunity to grow and expand their teams and programs but may not appreciate the importance of including PhDs or understand the unique skill set they possess. There are various roles and benefits that PhD professionals or scientists contribute to a clinical research team.

Roles and Responsibilities of a PhD on a Clinical Research Team

A common role of a PhD professional or scientist on a clinical research team is as a scientific and research leader. This leadership role requires expertise in generating and collaborating on research ideas, study designs, and protocol development; all of which a trained PhD possesses. Along these lines, PhDs routinely mentor and oversee research staff. This, in turn, contributes to the ability of PhDs to advise and lead various research projects, including quality improvement initiatives assigned by hospital administrators or executives in healthcare. Scientific writing is another strength of a seasoned PhD, and if well-developed, this strength can be leveraged into leading, collaborating, and mentoring in the writing of manuscripts and grants.

Parallel to a scientific and research role, PhDs possess high-functioning organizational skills and are experienced in simultaneously managing multiple projects that require different responsibilities and levels of prioritization. This administrative experience facilitates the daily oversight of clinical research operations. Also, PhDs are trained to actively identify and seek research funding opportunities. Similarly, many PhDs have advanced grant management skills (e.g., budget development, post-award management of funds, supervision of junior staff, identification, and maintenance of ancillary relationships with vendors, hospital staff, etc.) that enhance the management and effectiveness of clinical research teams. These research and administrative responsibilities, among many others, create a distinctive niche for a PhD to serve as a scientific liaison to and for physicians, clinicians, administrators, and industry partners in clinical research.

Benefits of a PhD on a Clinical Research Team

Historically recognized for expertise in basic science research, it is becoming increasingly known and respected that PhDs offer additional benefits to a clinical research team based on their different scientific backgrounds. Whether it is through their ability to identify gaps in our knowledge or if it is through appropriately designing and conducting clinical studies, PhDs provide senior level research and scientific benefits to a research team.

As knowledge evolves, it becomes increasingly important to develop a deeper understanding of mechanisms contributing to an injury, illness, disease, and recovery/rehabilitation in health and wellness. It is, therefore, necessary to implement the appropriate analytic procedures to address the question at hand. Fortunately, PhDs are equipped to delve deep into complex problems using current procedural and analytic methods, including basic and applied science approaches. Examples of applied science PhD support includes, but is not limited to, statisticians, bioinformaticians, nutritionists, and physiologists.

With the diverse backgrounds and expertise of PhDs, the ideal PhD suited for a clinical research team will depend on the underlying team needs. For instance, a PhD-trained clinical psychologist might be ideal for a research team investigating mental health during the recovery from various injuries, whereas a PhD-trained molecular and cellular biologist might be appropriate for a research team examining the cellular mechanisms contributing to a post-operative infection. Whatever the desired background, the complementary addition of a PhD to a clinical research team has the potential to synergistically harmonize the research collaboration between physicians, clinicians, and researchers with the terminal goal of improving healthcare delivery and patient outcomes.

Finding a PhD Collaborator

If you are considering adding a PhD to your research program, you will first want to identify where gaps and areas of opportunity exist within your team. Further, it is important to delineate if the gaps/opportunities require someone with a terminal degree and experience in research. For example, do you need assistance with identifying and applying for external funding, interfacing with funding agencies, advanced methodology and data management, translation of findings (forward [bench to bedside] and backward [clinical insights to new basic science questions])? If you decide a PhD is appropriate, locating and engaging the right person can be accomplished in several ways. Look within your home institution first. There may be PhDs in other departments that have similar interests and would welcome the opportunity to participate. Word of mouth from colleagues can point you in the direction of investigators with a reputation as successful scientists and partners. Authors of publications in your focused area are also a great resource. Networking within medical and scientific societies to communicate the desire for a collaborator can also be effective. Keep in mind that the opportunity for career growth and development will make your research collaboration more desirable to a PhD. This includes the opportunity to participate in publications, new grant submissions, and to infuse the new collaboration with the PhD’s own research interests and ideas.

Societies like AOSSM can play a significant role in facilitating research collaborations between PhD trained professionals and physician scientists. Emphasizing the PhD’s role and contribution to research in clinical settings can begin immediately. In addition, success stories of MD/PhD research collaborations can be highlighted in newsletters and other member communications. Creating a welcoming and inviting environment for PhDs to engage with physician members is another great step. This could take the form of special networking events at the Annual Meeting (e.g., morning coffee breaks, integrative programming with time following for interaction), involving PhDs in specialty conferences and Think Tanks, opportunities to participate on committees, service as research mentors, or creating a research network (similar to an Interest Group) where folks can share ideas, identify collaborators, etc. Another suggestion is earmarking grant funding that requires collaboration between MDs and PhDs or provides seed funding for new MD/PhD partnerships.

PhD professionals and scientists are uniquely trained to assist, collaborate, and lead clinical research by contributing to the entire research continuum process, from ideation to dissemination. If you are a PhD and have not considered an AOSSM membership, let us know what AOSSM can do to secure your involvement. If you are an MD with a productive PhD collaboration, tell us your success story. We would love to hear from you!

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