A postdoctoral research fellowship historically has been chosen by very few orthopaedic residents. But for those who find the prospect of discovering basic truths about the musculoskeletal system worthy of one's career-that is, those who plan to be basic science researchers-a postdoctoral research fellowship is a fitting educational capstone.
The fundamental issue to address before examining your options is whether one needs to do a research fellowship to succeed in research. The non-editorialized answer is “no.” The better question, worthy of a longer answer, is whether you could benefit from a postdoctoral research fellowship. To best answer that question, you must consider your prior level of research training and career goals. Many successful clinician-scientists never completed a research fellowship. So the first point to assess in terms of whether to do a fellowship and where to do it, is “What do I know already?” You may be too modest to consider this fairly, so as a basic rule use this: if you have a basic science PhD, or if you have spent more than two years in the lab as part of medical school or residency, you likely do not need a fellowship on general grounds. That is to say, for such people a fellowship is reasonable only if there are specific gains to be made. Under this rubric I would place learning a particular technique, or securing commitment for funding.
Orthopaedic surgeons with less research experience (or, more typically, with less relevant research experience) have a greater need for formal training. Even in those cases, to be worthwhile the fellowship must be consistent with one's planned career; it must have concrete objectives; and it must appropriately supervised. This year has a fairly high cost in terms of lost income so this substantial investment must be rewarded with substantial dividends.
The Orthopaedic Research Society (ORS) maintains a list of research mentors at www.ors.org. When considering the fellowships available, first ascertain that they meet these minimum standards. In general, a good fellowship will train you in research planning and methods; help you develop relationships with other researchers and mentors; teach you the art of obtaining funding; and utilize your hard-earned training as a physician, thus anchoring the research in clinical problems.
Next, match your needs to what is offered. If your plans are to eventually direct your own research program, a longer program delving into all aspects of research (such as study design, funding, execution, analysis) with a full-time researcher is wise. On the other hand, if you are contemplating a part-time career in science, stressing collaborations with other scientists, a shorter fellowship emulating your planned environment may be best. You may want to consider a fellowship of even a few months duration, or a traveling fellowship.
When making a selection, you must carefully examine your own potential deficiencies. Not all of us are good at this, so take the hard step of requesting honest assessments from your teachers and colleagues. If you have mastered Southern blotting and running gels, but find yourself helpless when it comes to writing protocols, you may have a pleasant (if somewhat wasted) year if you choose a fellowship doing only the former. The research fellowship is the best time to address weaknesses.
Most formalized research fellowships will come with automatic funding, via training grants, departmental funds, or the like. Nonetheless, even if you could survive the fellowship without securing additional funding, it may be worthwhile to try to obtain a grant on your own. Writing a grant is a necessary experience if you want to pursue research full-time, and actually obtaining one will increase your marketability: you not only minimize your net cost to your new institution (assuming the funding will follow you, as it often does), you bring a track record that suggests success in the future.
Because you have spent five years acquiring some pretty valuable clinical skills, it may not be unreasonable for you to keep your finger in surgical gloves, so to speak, and help support yourself with part-time clinical work. Intermingling clinical duties and research activities can be mutually beneficial to each endeavor. However, be cognizant of the way in which the two are combined. Taking care of patients and analyzing data within the same week or month may be disorienting and you may never be able (or allowed) to compartmentalize clinical and research activities as easily again. On the other hand, you may be the type that thrives on parallel processing. Know which one you are.
The actual dynamics of the research group should also be considered. Will you have access to your fellowship director? Does that director have the expertise you need? If not, there need to be other mentors in the group or in another one to which you have access. (Indeed, the need for intermingling with other groups may even be preferable.) Does your prospective group have the types of facilities you will need? The presence of other research trainees can be an asset, in that colleagues can offer the potential for collaboration, the sharing of resources and camaraderie. On the other hand, sharing the lab space can be a liability, especially if time with the mentor or other resources is scarce.
If you are fairly certain that you are going to take a faculty position after training, consider having a discussion with your future mentor about the portability of your funding and research projects. In most fields of science and medicine, postdoctoral fellows are expected to carry some of their ideas forward into their own careers. In practical terms, this often takes the form of specific experiments that you may have formulated or lines of funding that you may have helped procure. What the post-doc is ultimately allowed to take can be a sensitive issue for both the mentor and the trainee; an early discussion may clarify the possibilities and stave off some future conflict.
The final point to consider is the primary mentor. This person may be the single most important person in your life in your fellowship year. At a minimum, try to ensure you can get along with the mentor, and that he or she is willing to invest time and effort into your career development. I strongly advise not considering a given fellowship until due diligence on this important and sensitive area has been satisfactorily addressed.
Chosen for the right reasons, a good fellowship will augment your career prospects significantly. Conversely, a poor choice not only will waste your time, it may sour you on research in general, so choose wisely.