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Q&A: How can I continue to identify research opportunities without the oversight of a preceptor or program director?

Written by: Mary Roth McClurg, Pharm.D., MHS, FCCP
Published on: Feb 15, 2022

How can I continue to identify research opportunities without the oversight of a preceptor or program director?

Jessica Zhou, Pharm.D.

PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident

Providence Portland Medical Center

Portland, Oregon


This is a great question and one that I’d like to break into a few parts.

First, identifying research opportunities begins with a curious mind. Asking and identifying relevant research questions arises from inquisitiveness, which is often grounded in experiences and making connections among those experiences. I encourage you to watch a wonderful TED talk by Steven Johnson titled “Where Good Ideas Come From” ( In this talk, Johnson discusses the evolution of good ideas and innovations. Identifying research opportunities is no different.

Second, a preceptor, a program director, or another experienced individual can often help identify and pose relevant questions for young practitioners and learners, given that preceptors and program directors are grounded in experience, making it easier for them to recognize opportunities and ask relevant questions. Their role in identifying relevant questions is often invaluable and ensures that the learner or trainee’s research is purposeful and framed in the appropriate context. Of course, anyone with some context and experience can identify relevant questions, but the importance of socializing the question or idea with others should not be underestimated. As you move away from the role of trainee or learner, you enter a stage of greater independence with respect to becoming grounded in your own experiences and making your own connections. With that said, although you may no longer have the oversight you once had in place as a trainee, you will do well to identify a mentor or surround yourself with the experience of others. Mentors serve to enrich your thinking, expand your curiosity, and refine your ideas. Mentors are invaluable in helping you shape your research opportunities. Over time, with a curious mind and an awareness of what is evolving and changing around you, you, too, should naturally develop the ability to ask interesting and relevant questions. And, if you find the right mentors, these opportunities and your ability to ask really interesting questions will be greatly enriched. Of importance, though, this is a process and may take time.

Finally, and to build on my earlier comments about the role of mentors, even when you think you have identified the ideal research opportunity or arrived at a relevant and interesting question, socializing that question with others is key. Although the oversight you may have been accustomed to as a learner is no longer in place, it is essential that you work with others to discuss the opportunity, better define and refine the question, and determine how best to go about addressing it. The best piece of advice I can offer to students, residents, fellows, and junior faculty is never to underestimate the role of a mentor or of socializing an idea. Although the perception of “oversight” as may be defined for students or residents in training is removed, it must be replaced with a deep appreciation for the role of mentoring.

When I think back to my research opportunities, I realize that they have all come about because of curious minds, a series of experiences from a team of people that were built and connected over time, a deep appreciation for the perspectives and insights of others, and a begging of questions, such as “why is this a problem?”, “what evidence is needed?”, “how can we make this better?”, “what information does the profession, health care, society need in order for this area of science or practice to advance?”, and “how will our work advance those efforts?”

Having led a session in one of our master’s degree programs on this very topic of identifying relevant research questions, I recommend the following article to students: “Developing Great Research Questions” (Lipowski EE. Am J Health Syst Pharm 2008;65:1667-70). This is an insightful piece with lots of practical advice. One of my favorite quotes can also be found in this article and comes from a reporter once writing about the process of scientific inquiry and discovery. He writes:

Discoveries rely very little on blind luck or grand strokes of genius and much more on solid logic, a talent for comparison and a mind so steeped in a discipline that it can recognize an unexpected clue for what it’s worth.

In closing, I’d like to offer the following advice:

  1. Be curious. Ask and explore why things are the way they are, and then carefully examine the literature or existing evidence base to learn more about this issue and what others have done or may be doing to address it. This is an important step.
  2. Socialize your ideas. In other words, share your ideas and questions with others. This serves to enrich your own thinking, refine your questions, ensure relevance and importance, and shape the eventual opportunity. Be open to adapting your original thinking. Giving due diligence to getting the question right and asking a relevant and important question is essential.
  3. Don’t be afraid to seek guidance. In fact, I can assure you that this will serve you well. Find a mentor. Surround yourself with a team. Collaboration is key to anyone’s success.
  4. Form a strong team. Identify mentors, complementary talent, and the expertise needed to refine your approach and ultimately carry out the work that you envision needs to be done. Regardless of whether the research opportunity or project is big or small, a team (the right team) will always make it better.
  5. Ensure that the work is purposeful and contributes to advancing the practices and systems within which you work. Ask yourself, what’s next, once this question is addressed. Where will this lead? Why is this work important? Ideally, good research questions should:
    • Meet important goals or fill a need;
    • Fit within the mission of the organization;
    • Garner support;
    • Garner resources (although this is more likely over time);
    • Be measurable;
    • Be completed within a reasonable time;
    • Have relevance to decision-makers; and, ideally,
    • Be part of a larger plan.
  6. Remember, it’s a process. Good questions do not come to us overnight. The right research opportunities take time to develop and unfold and come about through a series of experiences and conversations with others that are brought to life by curiosity and a determination to make a difference.



Mary Roth McClurg, Pharm.D., MHS, FCCP

Professor and Executive Vice Dean-Chief Academic Officer

UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill, North Carolina