Reflections on research – supervision and deadlines

Flinders street

Like @Elissa_Campbell, five weeks ago, rather than starting a new clinical rotation at the beginning of the medical year, I too embarked on a research fellowship. For the next twelve months, instead of trying to fit in training requirements and research projects around clinical duties, I have the luxury of being able to devote pretty much all of my time to thinking and learning about research, reading studies properly instead of quickly scanning through papers, and talking to other researchers and clinicians – who are almost always encouraging, interested and incredibly generous with their time and advice.

My newfound freedom is both exhilarating and overwhelming. All of a sudden, I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. My days are no longer dictated by consultant ward rounds, family meetings, outpatient clinics or tumour-stream conferences. If I want to start after 9am, I can. If working from home works for me, then that’s fine. Taking a day off to observe at a clinic at another health service? No worries!

But when it comes down to it, there is actually quite a lot to do in fifty-two weeks: design and conduct a research study; analyse and disseminate its results; and hopefully start implementing its findings. For an early early career researcher like myself, this is really quite a daunting (but exciting) challenge.

Elissa has already written about a number of good research habits (here and here). I’d like to highlight a couple more reflections today: the importance of having regular supervision and deadlines.

My project is essentially my own and I love being the one driving it. But to be honest I often feel a bit lost at the wheel. While it’s good to canvass a wide range of opinions and consider different points of view (both in research and in life), this usually leaves me with more questions than answers and without a clear direction. This is when good supervision becomes crucial. Experienced clinical and research supervisors provide perspective, which helps me make sense of the mountain of information and ideas that I have gathered (e.g. which validated survey tools are better suited to my research question). They also dispense advice when required, saving me time and effort (e.g. how to set up a data collection spread sheet so it’s easy to analyse afterwards). Finally, they offer much-needed encouragement, when I feel disheartened (e.g. when I am faced with an unexpected setback).

I have a number of supervisors (including the lovely @AnnaLCollins) with whom I meet regularly. Having more than one works well for me because their different approaches to the same problem helps me develop a solution that is entirely my own. Setting up regular meetings with them (e.g. fortnightly) well in advance is vital to finding time in their busy schedules. And just as every hour spent during study design saves ten hours wasted during recruitment or analysis, I find that time invested in preparing for supervision is time well spent. I always try to prepare a brief agenda for each meeting and email it to my supervisor ahead of time, so we both start thinking about what we’ll be discussing beforehand and make the most of our hour together. I also like to take notes during my supervision sessions and summarise them as soon as possible afterwards, in order to consolidate my learnings and reflections..

Being a massive procrastinator, and with the laissez faire nature of my fellowship, I also find having regular deadlines incredibly useful. By breaking down big tasks into smaller jobs, particularly after discussion with my supervisors, I try to commit to a timeline by which I will try to complete them. Through setting realistic deadlines, I find that I’m less overwhelmed, more productive and the small sense of achievement I get when I tick something off gives me a bit of a boost, which helps me launch into the next task. At the end of the week, when I’m usually feeling like I’ve not done much, I’m often surprised at how much I’ve actually managed to achieve. As Paul Kelly sang: “From little things big things grow”

1 thought on “Reflections on research – supervision and deadlines

  1. Thanks for sharing this Chi. I agree completely and also identify as
    “early early career researcher”. (Perhaps with an additional “early”.)

    As for procrastination, I still haven’t gotten around to writing that post on procrastination. (This is not a joke.)


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