[00:00:00] Mat: Welcome to Doctors at Work. My name is Mat Daniel and this podcast is about doctors’ careers. Today I’m having a conversation with Connor Allen. He’s a medical student who spent a year doing research and then did an internship at WHO. In this episode he tells me how to get started in research and what skills you need to succeed. His top tips are networking, starting small just by getting a foot in the door, investing in your own learning and developing a niche for yourself. Hope it’s useful.
Welcome Connor. Tell me a little bit about yourself.
[00:00:44] Connor: Hey, thank you for having me. So I’m Connor. I’m a final year medical student based at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. And I’ve just finished an internship at the World Health Organization in sexual and reproductive health, looking at barriers to reproductive health care for trans and gender diverse people. I’m looking forward to talking to you today.
[00:01:02] Mat: So you’ve taken some time out from your studies.
[00:01:06] Connor: Yes, that’s right. I’m on an intermission at the moment. So, I completed four years of clinical medicine. I did a year of honours at the Burnett Institute, and then I took this year off. And this year has been a break for me from clinical medicine.
I actually taught English in Spain for six months. And alongside that, I’ve been continuing my research that I started in my honours year and then found it. My way into the World Health Organization by accident and took that opportunity for three months, the internship, it’s been a very restful and very needed break from clinical medicine, to be completely honest.
[00:01:36] Mat: And what attracted you to doing this internship?
[00:01:41] Connor: I think for me, I’ve always had an interest in research, really, since day one of my medical degree, I’ve been getting involved in research and that sort of culminated in the honours year. And speaking to my supervisor, who had actually worked at the World Health Organization, he piqued my interest about What it what it would be like to work at that organization.
So, during my time away, I kept an eye out for opportunities and very much refresh the W. H. O. internship page once every couple of months, and they just reopened the internship portal for the 1st time after covid. I saw the internship that I ended up getting and was like, wow I think this is exactly what I want to do.
I am really interested in sexual and reproductive health and particularly with an LGBTQ plus focus. And I saw this and I was like, okay, I have to apply. I don’t know what my odds are of getting this, but I have to apply and underwent the process and that culminated in the internship.
[00:02:39] Mat: And what did you end up doing on your internship?
[00:02:42] Connor: so I predominantly focused on writing a systematic review focusing on the barriers to care for sexual reproductive health. Alongside that, I worked on a number of other projects within the department of sexual reproductive health. So, for example. Intersex surgeries, working with other colleagues on GBS screening and participating in sort of discussions that I had not had the opportunity to be a part of before.
For example, I was able to be present at the launch of the 2030 UNAIDS program, which was incredible. So being in that space and just interacting with some. Really amazing people in that field was the highlight, but predominantly research focused role there, which I really loved, and I felt built strongly of what I had done in my honours as well.
[00:03:31] Mat: And it sounds like an absolutely amazing opportunity to have.
[00:03:34] Connor: it was and I’m very grateful. I was fortunate enough to complete the internship along. Another medical student who is now a really good friend. And it was a very different environment to clinical medicine.
First of all, I found that people were very passionate and very focused on public health rather than the individual or minutia of a clinical setting, which has always pulled me to research, to be honest, but I’d never been in an institute like the World Health Organization where the you have people who have worked in the field for 20 years, or you have consultants who have shifted into research and a very involved in the space, sometimes for decades.
I think that was a really great learning experience for me.
[00:04:19] Mat: Maybe if I go back to the beginning, you said you started off with doing research and you were interested in research. So why would you say that it’s important that doctors early on in their careers get involved in research?
[00:04:33] Connor: Look for me, my perspective of going into medical school and my interest in research was first born out of a desire to increase my chances of Getting into a specialty that I like to be completely honest. I thought, yes, I know that doctors are more able to enter the competitive specialties.
If you have publications, if you have that research background, but what I saw over time is that actually, this is an interest of mine. I actually enjoyed this more than clinical medicine. So, I was able to pivot into that direction. And I think the more I worked with, um, in the research space, the more I saw how that translated into clinical medicine, and I saw the process of going from research to decision making.
And I think it’s really important that doctors are aware of that. I think it’s important that doctors know where the decisions come from. And to be able to interpret pieces of literature, medical literature, critically because, medicine is rapidly evolving and changing and I think being able to interpret that and be literate in that space is fundamental more now than ever.
[00:05:37] Mat: And have there been any downsides to being involved in research and having some time out from your medical school?
[00:05:43] Connor: I think seeing my friends and colleagues who I started with at medical school progressing in their clinical careers. is sometimes hard to watch when you’re at a different stage. So, I’m, for example, now two years behind what my friends, most of my friends and colleagues have done.
So, I think seeing them progress on that more linear path, you sometimes doubt yourself like, okay, have I taken the right decisions? Have I made the right choices that I think when I put them to the perspective of 10 years or 20 years, uh, I can feel reaffirmed in that. I think also obviously.
Research requires a trade off in terms of clinical skills. I haven’t been in a, I haven’t practiced clinically since 2021 to be honest, so I think next year will be a huge learning curve for me going back into that clinical setting and. I’m looking forward to being able to balance those two sides of my career more in the future.
But as for now, it’s that inevitable trade off.
[00:06:41] Mat: And I also heard you say that there’s an understanding that you’re investing, an additional two years, because ultimately, that’s something that is going to propel your career further at the other end.
[00:06:54] Connor: I hope so. And I really have been reaffirmed by other clinicians and practitioners in the spaces that I want to be in. I think now I see research as a big, if not the biggest part of my career moving forward. I think having that background, especially with honours and especially having experience at the World Health Organization.
I feel much better equipped to move forward in that space. I I’ve spoken to doctors in the early 30s or late 20s who are just now looking to get into research. I think it’s harder to start that once you’re at a registrar level, starting from scratch. Whereas I’ve been able to build these skills from medical school and I feel very comfortable putting my hand up for research.
[00:07:37] Mat: And perhaps it’s maybe easier to take some time out from other activities. Cause if I’m trying to think, once, once you’re an established, senior doctor, for example, um, then perhaps doing it part time is easier but the idea that you would take time out. And travel to another continent that’s probably quite difficult to do when you’ve got either clinical responsibilities and there’s also family responsibilities as well.
[00:08:02] Connor: Absolutely. I think it’s harder to, I just took three months off to go and work in Switzerland. I don’t know. Any physician training programs that would allow that without a lot of paperwork, and so I think at the earlier stages of your career, you are better able personally and also career wise, take time out to explore these other avenues and I’m very glad that I did.
It surprised me that there are a lot of people were supportive of me taking time out. I thought there’d be a lot of pushback especially from doctors and advisors, but the only pushback I got were from other students who thought maybe projecting a bit of their own concerns, but thought it was a bit of a bit of a silly decision to make.
But I’m very glad that I did. And I think who knows where I will be in 10 years and who knows what responsibilities I will have.
[00:08:46] Mat: Actually, in terms of a timeout, if I’m thinking in UK, the trainees have opportunity to take time out specifically for career development. So so, it’s something that, that, that can be done taking somebody’s overall career into perspective.
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Thank you. Now on with the show. You did your honours, and you did your research. And then you said that then led to an interest in WHO. So, tell me how did you get from doing your research project at university and how did help you then move into the WHO internship?
[00:09:40] Connor: Sure. So, I think firstly, the WHO internship process is quite rigorous, as you can imagine.
And I think at an intern level and also at a consultant level, at a senior level, they are looking for a strong background in research. I think firstly, dedicating a year of my career solely to research in my honours year was absolutely vital. I think it firstly endowed me with the skills to be able to conduct research independently and to honestly sell myself in an application saying that I can do this project.
And I think those are skills that I will have for the rest of my life. And I’m grateful for that. I think secondly, it put me in touch and in the same sort of spaces as people in um, who had a background in research in a global setting, for example, my supervisor, my main supervisor worked at the WHO for several years and who was able to provide me with a perspective and also to vouch for me.
I think that was really important and to connect me with people who had similar interests with me. I think, ultimately, having that honours year really distinguished me from another of other, clinicians who may had, several years more clinical experience, but may have never written a publication or a piece of research before.
I think being able to distinguish myself in that way was really valuable. And I think, to be honest, there’s a sort of shortage, or maybe shortage is the wrong word, but I think there’s not many students who at a student level who have had a lot of research experience. I think there’s either fear or lack of interest in getting enrolled in research at an early stage of careers.
And I think where I was able to demonstrate that with, pieces of work that have been submitted for publication and that was a real stand out. I think both of those elements were equally as important.
[00:11:28] Mat: Okay, so the, just to clarify, because some people listening might think, oh, wow, this is great to do something at WHO, I need to apply there, but.
What you are is that your journey to WHO actually started significantly earlier because, you ended up being where you are because the honours year and because you did the research and you, because you did that to a high standard and because you wrote papers and you could do statistics, et cetera, et cetera and it’s all of that basic stuff that the can actually then get the internship.
[00:11:58] Connor: Definitely, and to be honest, my research started in 2018. So that was 5 years ago. It was my first year of medical school. I got in touch, um, student researchers, very basic undergraduate. There’s a student research organization at Monash University, not even for medical students, just for students in general.
And I did that and honestly, at the time, I had no idea what I was doing, but it put me on the track of, okay, what’s next? And from there I called, I think it’s cold emailed a couple of people in the field that I was interested in, and they were generous enough to say, okay, we have this project.
Here’s a role that, you could do with pretty much no background. And then from there, that pushed me forward towards my honours year, which was definitely the most significant sort of progression I made in that space. But everything was cumulative. It definitely, WHO was absolutely not the first opportunity that I applied for.
It was a process in the making and, um, the application process requires that you have that background, especially WHO. But I think there are so many points that you can get started from. I think it’s just being patient and being willing to perhaps accept something at the start that is not, your dream project.
But I think absolutely getting a foot in the door and connecting with people in the spaces you’re interested in was really vital for me.
[00:13:14] Mat: So, let’s go then back to those early projects then, and there you are. And you’re called emailing some people. How did you feel about the idea of just, emailing a
[00:13:28] Connor: I felt, at the time I was like, Oh, I’m in my second year of medical school.
What can I possibly offer these people? And it surprised me how willing people were to help. I think absolutely everybody that I emailed replied. And these are very busy people. These are doctor, these are senior clinicians. These are full time researchers. And I found people were not only willing to reply to me, but also to have a conversation about is about, direction and to advise that.
So, I think there is this sort of fear of, oh, I’m wasting this person’s time. The worst I can do is not reply to an email. So, I think putting yourself outside of that comfort zone and just. Getting in touch with people saying that you have an interest. I think that has been vital.
And my colleague WHO as well was even better at that than me. And, he has had this this great portfolio of work come out of that and connections that also helped him. Into getting the internship that we both did, so I think, that’s something I think not many medical students do.
But I think you should absolutely shoot people some emails because the reality is there’s always more research than there is people to do it. So, get involved and get in touch with people.
[00:14:39] Mat: And if I think that from my perspective, from a senior doctor’s perspective, if somebody does email me and wants to work with me, it’s actually really very flattering.
, because I because I normally, I think, wow this person thinks that, that I’m good, or this person thinks I know what I’m doing, or this person wants to work with me. So, it’s very it’s very flattering when that happens. And I would imagine that, most senior doctors would be very flattered.
And as you say, the worst thing that you can say is that that, you haven’t got it. I guess if I think for me, when people email me. One of the, one of the one of the difficulties is that sort of sometimes people email me and they want to do stuff that doesn’t really align with what I’m interested.
So there’ll be, whether it’s a sort of a student or an early career doctor they’ll be interested in something, and I’ll be interested in something else. And that, that sort of, for me then ends up not going anywhere. So I think the alignment between.
between, the young doctor and the older doctor. I think that’s really important if you’re going to produce something jointly. So I presume that you knew what you wanted to do, and you knew what you were interested in.
[00:15:42] Connor: I think for me, that is a really important point. What you’re saying there is I, for me, I knew what area I was interested in.
I knew I was interested in sexual health. And so I found a sexual health clinician and I said, I’m interested in this field. I can do this. Is there any opportunity for me to help out? And I was very willing to take projects that perhaps I, this wasn’t my number one choice, but it was in the field that I liked, and I could see that as a starting point.
I think, I have. I have heard a number of instances where students go in with very rigorous and very, set ideals of what they want. Which, when you’re starting out, you don’t, I don’t think you really have that bargaining power. And I think it’s important that you are going with the perspective of, okay, this can be a starting point.
This can be a learning opportunity, um, which, I think it’s really important. I think also, I think specific to medical students and doctors is asking team members on your ward on your team at the hospital is also another great way to connect with, connect with research opportunities that happens a lot.
[00:16:43] Mat: So we got this idea that, maybe when you’re fully qualified, you’re running your own projects, then yes, you can pick and choose, and you set the direction. But if you’re looking for somebody to supervise you and to support you and teach you and train you. then the reality is that you’re going to have to accept something that aligns with the senior clinician’s interests, even if it doesn’t 100 percent align.
You might have some broad general alignment. It doesn’t have to align perfectly because what you get in is you get an experience.
[00:17:14] Connor: It’s that acknowledgement that they’re making an investment in you as well, especially right at the beginning, there is that sort of upskilling and training involved and.
I think it’s important to recognize that they need to get something out of this partnership as well. I think even, my honours year, I, the project that I ended up doing was not my number one choice, but I think most importantly, the supervisor and I clicked really well. I think we had a really good working relationship and, that’s a professional relationship that I hope I will have for years and years.
So I think relationship over the project, especially initial stages, is really important.
[00:17:48] Mat: I would echo that. If I think to my PhD topic how I chose what I chose and actually I chose it for the people. Same as you’re saying that the topic that I studied, I became more and more interested in it.
The more I studied it, of course, which that inevitably happens. But actually principally I chose it for the people that I was going to be working with rather than what I was going to be doing. So I suppose the other thing then again, if I think with my. Hat on is sometimes people come and approach me and then I do spend time with people, and we do, we plan a project and then people disappear, and they don’t deliver.
And. That for me is disappointment because, because I’ve invested in somebody else and I’ve helped somebody else and then I think, that’s been, it’s just ended up being a bit of waste of my time. So I guess I’m interested in what do you think, what does it take for a medical student to deliver on a research project?
[00:18:49] Connor: I think number one that comes to mind building off of, what you just said is realistic expectations about your capacity is so fundamental and, it is hard to juggle research with a full time clinical, career. And I think in the junior doctor phases as well, that’s even harder the medical school.
So I think going in with realistic expectations which stems from communication, you need to be able to communicate well with your supervisor. In terms of what the deliverable is going to be and what sort of timeline you’re looking at. So starting from the beginning with upfront realistic expectations.
I think also Touching base with the supervisor when difficulties arise, and they will, that’s inevitable, especially if you’re working in a space that you don’t have much experience with, so I think being able to work cohesively with the team and respecting that this is a professional relationship, even if perhaps it’s not a paid sort of interaction.
If it’s not a paid job, you’re doing this is a professional relationship and It’s something that you have agreed and willingly offered yourself to do. So I think operating within that space and within that knowledge is, if I walked away from this project, would I walk away from a job at work? Would I, fail on my deliverables?
I think setting those realistic expectations and then being able to work towards them is fundamental. And reaching out when you need help is huge.
[00:20:12] Mat: Okay, so talking to each other and saying, okay this is a commitment that I’ve made, whether it’s paid or not, it doesn’t matter. The point is that there’s a relationship here.
There’s a commitment that both of us have made and that’s a commitment that needs to be honoured and needs to be completed, absolutely So let’s move on to the internship itself then. So what kind of skills? did you need during the internship?
[00:20:38] Connor: So I guess we can think of that in terms of the soft skills and the specific research skills. There were specific research skills. The internship that I did was, uh, upfront. It was the main sort of task we’ll be doing is a systematic review. I had done a systematic review in my honours year. So I was like, great. I Could do that. It was, there were new elements, for example, I hadn’t worked with qualitative evidence before that was a school that I had to learn, and I did the job.
But I think, all of the general research schools that have culminated, and I had accumulated over the years were really important. I think as well, working within a very interdisciplinary team was a skill that sure I had that in my honours year, but this was the next level that we were working with human rights advisors.
We’re working with lawyers. And producing work that was not just for publication, but was the policy was in a legal setting and in an international space. having the skill of versatility and flexibility, which I think is so important in any research. And global health career that you pursue.
That was the most important. I Think another thing was the tolerance for a difference of opinions and a willingness to compromise, which was perhaps specific to W. H. O. I found that left in my honours year and at the Burnett Institute, because the deliverables and the stakeholders are very different at W.
H. O. It’s very much an international thing. For example, if we want to publish a piece of work, this needs to be acceptable to, for example, member states or an individual. Or country representative, so I think being able to adapt the research in a way that was acceptable. That was a different experience for me.
And it changed the way that I conducted my work. I think those are the 2 main things. I think also a. Willingness. I think perhaps the software school was a willingness to branch out in a way that I hadn’t had to do before. I think all of my research before was in reproductive health. And for sure, the main task in this internship was reproductive health, but I was being pulled into projects and completely different teams, completely different research.
So I think, again, that comes back to the best utility. You need to be able to adapt. Not only to the jobs, but also to the team members with whom you’re working with. But yes, I think number one was the research skills that I had developed.
[00:22:58] Mat: And you’ve mentioned the idea that it’s you need to be able to influence the people around you. So what would be your tips about how one can influence the people around you?
[00:23:07] Connor: I think. Being a really good listener is really important. There’s a lot of people who have a lot of things to say, but I find that there are less people who are just willing to listen. So when a person is, concerned about the direction a project is taking, I think creating a space and creating.
Room for that consent to be heard. It’s fundamental. There are so many times when conflicts arise where people want the same thing. They just have a different vision of how it’s going to come about. I think dedicating time and dedicating effort to resolving that and to working cohesively.
, it’s a huge, it’s a huge thing. I think, we can have our meeting and then go back to our cubicles and work, but. That discussion needs to be ongoing and evolving.
[00:23:51] Mat: Okay, so and you’ve had this amazing opportunity then how are you going to use how are you going to capitalize on?
This opportunity to help you take your career further.
[00:24:00] Connor: Look, that’s a good question And I’m still I think I’m still thinking that look so for me my journey now is I need to finish medical school. I have one more year left, and from this experience and my honours experience, I’m, really not sure if I want to stay in clinical medicine anymore.
I really enjoyed the global health and the sort of policy level work. I think now, number 1, it’s maintaining those relationships that I have with the people at the Institute with whom I’ve formed a really great working relationships with, um, and there is this part of me that is very open to pursuing whatever comes, right now I’m getting my qualification.
But after that, I am, I’m pretty open to seeing where the road takes me. I think next for me is probably an MPH and progressing my skills in a more formal way with a qualification like that who knows? I think right now I’m thinking of the public health physician route. That will entail a number of years of further specialty training and clinical training as well.
I think one important thing about research is every researcher has told me that the more time you invest in clinical and work clinically, the more payoff that will have in a research space, not only in terms of your standing and how people recognize your skills, but also in being able to see how research translates and fits into practice.
I’m not. Thank you. To be honest, I’m not too interested in clinical medicine as a doctor anymore, but I recognize that it’s important part of research, feeling finishing that time and I’m not letting myself take another intermission for at least 3 years. We’ll see where the road takes me.
[00:25:34] Mat: You mentioned the importance of maintaining those relationships. So how are you going to, how are you going to maintain those relationships?
[00:25:42] Connor: So firstly I’m still finishing a number of projects, especially for who. So we have that direct working relationship. But I think also I do anticipate, and I do plan that I will have time to be able to work again on research and there is just so many projects available.
I think, having regular check in where possible, having put my hand up for projects when they come about. And then, especially with honours I have. That team in Melbourne who I’m already planning to catch up with when I go back. So I think investing in the relationship by, just communicating first of all, but also again, like showing that willingness to participate, showing that willingness to work.
They can’t read your mind. They don’t know if you want to work and continue your involvement in those spaces. So just making that known is really important.
[00:26:29] Mat: Let’s talk a little bit about money. So you’ve had some time out and you’ve had this amazing opportunity. How did the finances of this work out?
[00:26:38] Connor: So first of all, I think recognizing that I was very privileged in that I had a lot of opportunities from my university in terms of scholarship, Monash, I’m very grateful for Monash, they endowed me with, several scholarships over the years. I was also very lucky to receive a scholarship from the Pinnacle Foundation, which is a charity based in Australia who give scholarships to LGBT plus students.
And I think for WHO, the interns are actually paid now. I know that wasn’t the case in the past, but we were given a stipend. So Switzerland, as is very expensive, but the stipend pretty much covered my living expenses for the 3 months that I was there. So a combination of scholarship working back home and living frugally, I will say, was all very important.
But I think I have to acknowledge that I am, in a privileged position where I come from a country where opportunities are numerous, and I know that it isn’t the case for a number of people. And I think, where possible, we need to do better at making those opportunities more accessible for people around the world.
Switzerland is insanely expensive, and the stipend was generous, but it would still be out of reach for a number of students.
[00:27:51] Mat: It’s great to hear that WHO does actually give you a stipend. And so the scholarship how do you get a scholarship great opportunities, but for anybody listening, how on earth do you get one?
[00:28:01] Connor: Good question. And I think, having talked to faculty and other members of the university, a lot of people just don’t know about the scholarship. A lot of people don’t apply. In reality, universities have millions. The dollars available in funding and scholarship sometimes. Firstly, looking at the university portal, go through those websites, go through every scholarship application page, apply for things you don’t even think you’re going to get, right?
And then I also found external scholarships. My university actually had an external scholarships page, but if your university doesn’t, you can look at other universities because they will have pages sometimes for external scholarship. I just applied. I probably had. 5 percent success rate in the end, to be honest, but that was enough to pull together a significant amount of money over 5 years’ time of studying.
I think also another resource I would use is look at LinkedIn. And I think this is just general advice. If you want to see how people’s careers have progressed, but especially at a student level, people linked in often put what scholarship they had. So I found a couple of scholarships, for example, the Pinnacle Foundation scholarship was by reading somebody else’s profile on LinkedIn.
And I thought, oh, okay, I could be eligible for that. Let’s apply. But I would say there’s no harm in applying. And I think, there are different scholarships for different stages of your career. For example, I know people, clinicians who have gone and done things like Fulbright or Rhodes and.
Or, other similarly, things like that, but just be, just invest time and actually looking for that. I think people just don’t actually invest enough time in that.
[00:29:32] Mat: And of the ones where you’ve been successful what do you think makes for a successful fellowship application, a scholarship application?
[00:29:40] Connor: I think interview skills go a long way. I think if you are able to connect with people, if you’re able to tell them your story in a compelling way. That is really important. I think also being too able to show that you’re unique is really important as well. There are a lot of people who just give the stock standard answers sometimes.
I think trying your selling point, your unique selling point. This is for the internship as well. This is every position is like working on that niche and presenting yourself in a way that’s different. And of course, working hard academically. I think good grades got me very far in everything that I’ve done, to be honest really investing in it.
[00:30:22] Mat: and then my final question, then what would be your top tips for doctors and medical students who are considering expanding their careers, moving sideways, taking on leadership roles, changing the world? What would be your top tips?
[00:30:35] Connor: That’s a hard question, but I think number one is connecting with people who have gone in directions that you’re interested in going to.
LinkedIn is a great resource. I think I’ve wasted so many hours in LinkedIn. But I’ve also spent so many productive hours on there as well finding people who have, who are in positions now or, um, have progressed in similar ways that you want to go and then reaching out, a message, an email doesn’t hurt.
And those networks might also exist in your hospital. They might exist in your university level. I think just being able to develop that skill of cold emailing, cold calling people. It’s really fundamental. Secondly, I think being able to accept an initial position that is not your dream job first.
I think we talked about this earlier, but getting a foot in the door is so important because, things really snowball, and things really accumulate quite quickly. I think somebody once said to me, abundance attracts abundance, and I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. You just accumulate things over time.
And thirdly, I think investing in learning for yourself. So whether that might. It’d be a formal qualification and training, but there are just so many resources out there now that you can learn how to do a systematic review on YouTube, to be honest. Investing in skills and developing those skills for yourself and then marketing yourself appropriately, I think, is really important.
And finally, the advice that my supervisor always gave me was find a way to create a niche for yourself. And that can be slowly, that can be over time, but find a niche that makes you employable, that makes you unique. So for me, I have, I feel like I’m really interested in health economics and LGBTQ plus research.
And for me, those are two separate things that I’m trying to combine together that are not the most common of skill sets. So finding that niche is really important.
[00:32:27] Mat: Wonderful. Thank you very much, Connor. Thank you.