Trainee research projects often ‘a waste of time’ and lead to burnout

medical education

By Geir O'Rourke

25 Mar 2024

Australian specialist trainees frequently view their mandatory fellowship research projects as lacking in value and taking valuable time away from their clinical and study commitments, a study has concluded.

The findings raise questions over the value of colleges requiring every trainee to undertake such work, which can ultimately lead to large numbers of ‘tick box’ projects and research waste, the authors say.

Some 372 current and recently qualified medical specialty trainees took part in the study, which included an online survey and quality assessment of their research output.

Among respondents, 86% were required to complete one or more projects as part of their training, with only 44% of those who answered the relevant question reporting being satisfied with their research experience.

On the other hand, slightly more than half (53%) supported mandatory projects and roughly the same proportion felt research was important for career development.

But while many agreed research was important for skills development, more than a quarter felt the “hundreds of hours” spent on research projects was unreasonable given clinical workloads and other priorities.

“I feel the requirement to carry out compulsory, time-consuming research unpaid and with no allocated time whilst working more than full time and completing other training requirements and attending to family etc is unethical and needs to be reconsidered by all colleges,” said one.

“It’s a great idea, but as a trainee, I am tired of being forced to spend my spare time outside of work (when I should be relaxing/having a family/doing hobbies) devoted to mandatory training that is not supported by the college. We are stuck doing boring projects… on our own time, and end up with the worst of both worlds,” said another.

One-fifth of trainees felt mandatory projects contributed to poor quality research, and almost one in six suggested they were “a waste of time” and not relevant to their career objectives.

“Most of the “research” done as compulsory research for training isn’t proper research, contributes little if anything to the field and doesn’t teach the person doing it anything about real research (I say this having done proper research prior to medicine),” said one respondent.

Some trainees said it was difficult to complete a research project when the requirements of training meant short contracts and constantly moving hospitals and states.

All up, the learning experiences were inconsistent and the quality of research produced even more so, the study authors wrote in a paper published on medical preprint server medRxiv (link here).

“We believe there are two important unintended consequences of this well-meaning tradition of leading research for specialist qualification,” they wrote.

“First is the likely contribution to the wider issue of research waste though poorly planned and executed projects.”

“However, being able to support every trainee to lead a study that meaningfully contributes to the scientific body of literature takes substantial resourcing that is neither feasible nor sustainable.”

“The second, and perhaps more significant implication, is the missed opportunity when trainees are tasked with leading research instead of honing research skills relevant to their career objective –which, for most trainees is to be an evidence-based clinicians – and to prepare clinicians for collaborative research.”

The study authors also conducted a quality analysis of 28 research papers submitted by the participants, finding were missing key information and only three had a low risk of bias.

More positively, 75% of submitted reports were published and 82% had a clear research question. Some 72% of respondents had considered initiating research post-training and 54% were actually doing so.

The upshot was that a new approach was required that was tailored to the research skills required by most practicing clinicians, namely being expert in applying research to practice and in participating in collaborative research, the authors concluded.

“Those wishing to become leaders in research should be supported to do so via a specialised well-supported pathway,” they wrote.

“Future work should articulate a minimum set of research competencies and develop a flexible training curriculum that can be adapted to the career needs and aspirations of individuals.”

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