Choices in research

AOA Bulletin, Summer 2019

I am often asked what are the three most important things to consider when thinking about doing research. I would say these are:

1. choosing the right supervisor

2. choosing the right topic

3. choosing the right time.

Peter Choong
AOA Research Committee Chair

Choosing the right supervisor


Research is a tough gig. Depending on what the higher degree is (master’s or doctorate), anywhere up to three or four years of time can be given up for research. There is often a period of significant reduction in income and there may be a lot of frustration from failed experiments with delayed timelines. Therefore, getting it right, succeeding at research endeavours and completing the thesis on time can be real challenges. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of choosing the right supervisor for this adventure.

To choose a good supervisor, look for track record. Track record is the research world’s synonym for experience and consists of publication and grant success, profile in the field of research, and a strong record of completion for supervised higher-degree students. A good supervisor is like a metronome providing a clear and audible beat that guides the pace for the research. Sometimes this is fast, other times slow, but it is always at the right speed that suits the project. A good supervisor also meets regularly and takes responsibility for the student. They provide mentoring, encouragement, advice and, at times, robust counsel. A good supervisor provides clarity of the research topic and asks the right questions to stimulate the mind and thinking of the student. It is important not to confuse someone who is merely interested in research with someone who is a good supervisor.

A good supervisor isn’t just interested in research – they are committed to and invested in it.

Universities that confer higher degrees for research will require that the primary supervisor holds a higher degree of their own and be practicing as an academic within that institution. Often the university will encourage co-/secondary supervisors. These may be experts in the field who do not necessarily hold higher degrees but come with a particular expertise in that field of research and who may help to inform the conduct of the research. Usually there are one or two but can be as many as four, and this number may change during the research period (up or down).

Finally, a good supervisor helps to plan out the path for life after the degree. Providing advice, support and assistance to build a career in academia is the responsibility of a good supervisor, and the best will ensure that the student grows into an environment that continues to provide the stimulation, challenge and satisfaction that are the ingredients that sustain a life of academia. More importantly, the supervisor will leave the student with the enduring skills to lead students of their own in the future.

Choosing the right topic


What should one research? Some people know what they want to study. Others just want to do research. While a third group want to work with a particular research team. There are basically two approaches to picking a topic.

Either research in the field of your choice or work with your choice of supervisor.

Ideally these two will coincide. However, this does not have to be. It is much easier to allow the supervisor to pick the specific research topic as they will know the field far better, and therefore, where the gaps are that research has to bridge. The role of the student is to fill these gaps. The supervisor will also have a strong track record in the field and will therefore have the systems and processes to support the research endeavour, and hence enable its success.

Of course, having an interest in the field is an important element of doing research, so look around for who is doing what. Once you’ve done your homework, which includes a web search of the performance of your supervisor and their work (Google stalking), make contact and begin the conversation. It is important to have a sense of what you are interested in. In orthopaedics, this may be basic science, clinical science, or engineering. After thinking about this and talking to a few people within the different research fields, you will usually develop a sense as to where you would like to go. Success lies outside your comfort zone, so don’t be afraid to try something new.

If one is hellbent on a particular topic, be prepared to move. Sometimes, the centre or supervisor doing research in your particular area of interest is far across town, interstate or even overseas.

Be bold, take the shot and be prepared to move.

Remember, research is a period of time during which you get to do something outside the norm and may well be an excellent excuse to try out a completely different environment as part of the experience.

Choosing the right time


When to do research is a conundrum and may differ for different people. It also depends on what you are hoping to achieve by doing the research. Doing a higher degree in research is like learning a new language. It teaches you something about a culture, gives you a different perspective of the same thing through the prism of that culture, and may be highly valuable if it can be used purposefully in the future.
From a pragmatic perspective, starting research as a resident is the easiest. If one de-skills, it would only be the skills of a resident. Starting research after fellowship usually means de-skilling the skills of a surgeon.

  It is far easier to manage time at the resident level where the demands of a job are easier to manage than as a consultant.

 For example, the resident’s job consists of 12-month appointments, and these can be given up without downstream impact from ongoing responsibilities to a private practice or a continuing consultant position. Returning to a yearly appointment is far easier than trying to find a continuing appointment as a consultant. It is also easier to start research during residency because you don’t have any specific ties to a program with a burden of rules and regulations to manage.

Starting research as an accredited trainee is also possible but needs to be thought about carefully and planned in advance. This is because there are a number of training regulations that need to be managed, and finding a research position in an institution that can be accredited by the training body to count as part of training is crucial. There is a surgeon-scientist pathway that can be followed where time in lieu is given for bona fide research. The best programs also include exposure to clinical practice in the form of clinical conferences, outpatient clinics, surgical assisting, and occasional on-call work that ensures ongoing clinical contact.

It is better to do the research at the start or the end of training. Doing research in the middle can be very disruptive.

Starting a research degree as a consultant is a real challenge but not one that is insurmountable. It takes incredible passion, discipline, organisation, and commitment. These attributes are important because of the risks of de-skilling the skills of a surgeon, sacrificing the earning capacity of a consultant, and constantly being exposed to the contrasting life of colleagues who have chosen not to do research. Mixed in with this is the anxiety resulting from having to juggle clinical responsibilities, including running a private practice if research is being done in addition to clinical work.
One thing going for consultants who begin a research degree after Fellowship is that they are self selected. Most consultants who have started a research degree after Fellowship whom I have supervised or advised are usually incredibly focused, committed and prepared to make the sacrifice. They are much more mature about their approach to research, strategic in what they do and have a clear map in their minds about where academia sits in their career. There are a variety of ways of achieving a higher degree after fellowship that may leverage their life’s experiences and expertise and this may include a degree not only by research thesis but also by publication.

Research is a highly rewarding endeavour because of the collaborations that one makes, the new knowledge that educates, the people from different disciplines that one meets and the ideas that can really excite. 


Achieving a research higher degree is one of the most satisfying things to do as it is a real accomplishment and can be held up with pride. Pragmatically, it is also a very valuable asset as a professional differentiator. Perhaps, the most rewarding aspect of getting a higher degree is the opportunity to nurture younger minds and future academics, and to grow the next cadre of leaders with the same enthusiasm (or better) that you were shown.