– Talk by Prof Wong Tien Yin, 10th October 2011
Writeup - Daniel Chew
The talk by Prof Wong was a highly informative and insightful one. He shared with us students his reasons for going down the clinical scientist track, as well as his own interpretation of present trends and what the future would likely portend. A/Prof Allen Yeoh also added flavour to the discussion by providing anecdotal examples and advice gleaned from all the experiences and decisions made in his own career path.
The take that Prof Wong offered on the clinician scientist path was a highly refreshing one, peppered with highly practical observations and advice. He quoted the recent trend of tie-ups between universities and hospitals worldwide and in the region (e.g. Malayan University with Johns Hopkins Hospital) as an example, prompting the students who attended to reflect on why it was so. As he later elaborated, it was reflective of a gradual shift in attitudes by patients away from consulting doctors in general practice towards a preference by patients to consult doctors with specific and discrete specialties, especially in the management of complicated diseases. Clinician scientists would excel in this context as their research work keeps them at the forefront of their respective chosen fields and they would be better poised to take advantage of this trend.
At the same time, Prof Wong made no bones about the likely difficulties that clinician scientists would face. The comparisons he made regarding this track versus counterparts pursuing a practicing track were very useful and allowed all of us students present to immediately have a clearer and more realistic idea of the comparative advantages. Distinctions were made on three areas: (i) flexibility, (ii) pay and (iii) mobility.
Flexibility-wise, Prof Wong revealed that there were alternative paths that allowed prospective doctors to choose the mix of research and clinical practice that they were comfortable with. Instead of being a full clinician scientist, with largely research work and less clinical practice, students could choose other tracks such as that of a clinical investigator or fellow, which offered other options with a greater degree of clinical practice and less research involved.
In a comment on the existing situation, both Prof Wong and A/Prof Yeoh agreed that it seemed like the routine for doctors to want to eventually move into private practice, where the pay would be high and much greater than what a clinician scientist received presently. However, they also revealed that recent pay trends have been narrowing this gap, and this would likely continue into the foreseeable future as the emphasis on research grows, both worldwide as well as locally. This is especially significant due to the growing awareness and greater regard for research and its role in medical practice in terms of advancing the profession. Bold predictions were made on the possibility of clinician scientists' pay grades equalizing across the board, and perhaps even surpassing that of a private practice doctor in the future.
However, bells of caution were sounded repeatedly throughout the discussion, with both doctors chipping in to emphasize that any doctor looking to get involved in research, especially those looking to be clinician scientists, should be motivated primarily by the intrinsic interest held towards research and the desire to contribute and discover novel information. Extrinsic considerations such as pay and time, while important, should not be the primary reasons for getting involved in research.
The last comparison made was based on mobility. Current thinking holds that a clinician scientist, being highly specialized in a particular field, would be less mobile, with fewer opportunities for a change of institution and would be less highly sought after. Countering this point, Prof Wong drew from his considerable experience and commented that this was highly untrue. With the trend shifting towards greater favouring of those with research involvement, as mentioned above, such doctors are highly sought after. Furthermore, institutions would want to retain such doctors, as Prof Wong quoted the statistics of past years' turnovers by the Singapore National Eye Centre and NUHS. With a view on the future, A/Prof Yeoh and Prof Wong were equally certain that recruitment would, in fact, increasingly favour clinician scientists as they are able to value-add the post available.
With joviality and just a tinge of seriousness, the students who attended were called upon to treat research work like a cigarette addiction - to first get exposure, then get hooked, and make it a calling to keep getting involved in it and contribute to the body of knowledge and to the medical community.
For those students who had been seriously contemplating getting involved as a clinician scientist, or those students who came just with the intention to hear things out, the talk provided a trove of information, with advice freely dispensed and experiences freely shared.
Many left with a clearer picture, and A/Prof Yeoh provided a rousing and inspiring call for everyone not to be afraid to follow their own interest and create their own niched area of specialty, whether in present research or in future careers. After all, what is highly sought after is new ways to look at old problems.
Meanwhile for those looking to get started, he had this to offer: "Try hard and don't give up! Just like what is portrayed in a Chinese gongfu movie, if you knock on the front door of a research mentor and get rejected, try the side door, and then the back door. Eventually you will succeed."