Each August, all of the MD/PhD students at IUSM converge on Bloomington for our annual MD/PhD Retreat (some drive, others arrive by less motorized means). For one weekend, we meet to discuss our research and deal with various administrative issues. Most importantly, we take time off from studying, research, or clinical duties to catch up with old friends and share words of wisdom. I really look forward to the retreat as an opportunity to unwind and learn from the experiences of my upper classmates and invited speakers.
This year, our featured speakers included two former IUSM MD/PhD students who have completed residency and fellowship and are just beginning their careers as physician scientists. It was fascinating to hear their stories: how each stage of their training built on the foundations of the previous stage. The speakers gave advice on how to succeed as a physician-scientist: maintain passions outside work, keep strong ties to your family, and establish strong mentorship to help you. The advice they stressed most, however, was surprising: protect your time.
They explained that this is not a selfish request. You are not protecting your 3pm tee-off time but rather the professional priorities that you yourself have set. It is all too easy, they told us, to have your prioritized time—such as what you’ve set aside to orchestrate your research—to be whittled away in small pieces by unscheduled call, teaching responsibilities, committee work, administrative duties, etc. Individually, each one may only take an hour or two a week, but without warning you might find that the ~50hours you set aside each week for your research are suddenly cut down to 35 or 30.
That may not seem all that much, but consider the consequences: 15 fewer hours to talk to your mentors, to catch up with the latest research, to write grants. Given the intensity of the competition over research funding, those handful of hours may well mean the different between getting the NIH grant or not. And as a young research, if you cannot rapidly establish your funding streams, you will soon find yourself in other waters: working for industry or a hospital and without a research lab.
So when it comes time to begin a career: protect your time. Ask about clinical responsibilities. How often will you be on call. How many committees will you chair and how many classes will you teach. It’s important to be a team player and help out your colleagues and students however you can. But you’ve been trained to be a clinician-scientist and if the cost of your help is the loss of your funding and the closure of your lab then you’ve produced a poor investment on the time and cost of your training.
Of course, I’m a long ways off from negotiating my work duties with an employer. But I can still implement the principle of protecting my time. I will prioritize my extracurricular involvement. I will step down from administrative roles and keep only those that are important to me. And I will ensure that the bulk of my research time is devoted to my own projects and in tasks that have clear goals and timelines.