Webinar Report: How to be a medic and a scientist

What's it like to balance clinical work with research?

Moderator: Margarita Calvo, Assistant Professor, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and member of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group.

Speakers: Claudia Sommer, Professor of Neurology, University of Würzburg; David Bennett, Professor of Neurology and Neurobiology, Nuffield Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Oxford University; and Clifford Rosen, Director, Center for Clinical and Translational Research at Maine Medical Center.


Being a clinician scientist involves spending time on both medical practice and research. Such a career path can be very rewarding, but it also presents challenges.

There's no best time to do the PhD

How do you combine your clinical training and your research training? You might work on both simultaneously as part of a structured course, or complete one before beginning the other. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages: for example, doing your PhD early in your career might lead to a disconnect between your research and your clinical work if you go on to train in a different clinical specialty. One of the best reasons to start a PhD, says David Bennett, is "if you have a great opportunity to work in a wonderful lab".

You can't do everything yourself

Mentoring is important for clinician scientists, says Claudia Sommer: "At the University of Würzburg there is mentoring by experienced clinician scientists, but also by peers, who have the same ambitions and maybe similar problems". Collaboration will also form a cornerstone of your career. You have to accept that you may not be as skilled in your clinical specialty or in basic research techniques as your colleagues who devote all their time to them. Instead, see yourself as an expert in finding the connections between clinical and research work and combining the two.

It's a balancing act

As Margarita Calvo explains, it can be challenging to achieve the balance between "being able to publish so you can get the grants and get your [research] career going, and also having the time to do your specialty training, because it takes time to learn and to practice". However, some countries, including the UK, have introduced special posts that make it easier to coordinate both sides of your training. Another way to make the balance easier, suggests Sommer, is to "pick your research carefully so that it fits what you're doing clinically".

Clinical work and research should be separate, but complementary

"Your experiences with patients require your full, undivided attention", says Clifford Rosen. "You don't want to be in a situation when you're seeing patients where you're thinking that 'I should be in the lab'". However, the two sides of your career can still support each other. "Seeing patients has led me to research questions", says Sommer. Treating a patient with a disease that falls under your area of research can spur you on to investigate the mechanisms behind it.

Is it worth it?

"Taking your laboratory skills and applying them in clinical medicine is actually very exciting", says Rosen. Bennett agrees: "I really love my job - I do not ever have a boring day".

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