Research Struggles

Like every new beginning, every new job has its benefits and also its struggles. As I have already explained, this summer I had the amazing opportunity to work in the Nursing and Midwifery Department at King’s College London to conduct a systematic review.

If one had asked me back in May how would I go about starting a systematic review, I would have no idea what to answer. Although I had read systematic reviews by the time I started the Research Fellowship, it had never occurred to me what the actual process actually involved. Before starting the Fellowship I decided to keep a diary of everything I did each day, I took note of things that went well and other things that I found more challenging.

Here are my top 5 Research Struggles:

1. Getting familiar with the search engines! 

In the end they do become your best friend, but I had to spend about two weeks familiarising with the different engines Medline/ PubMed, Embase, PsycINFO, Web of Science and getting a feel of what each had to offer. Initially, the tricky part was identifying how each engine was worked – where to set limited criteria and also how to export the papers. My Medline search brought up a very large number of papers of which only a few were relevant in the end. Embase is a pharmaceutical engine and therefore had limited papers relevant to the topic I was looking for; similarly, PsycINFO had only very few relevant sources. Web of Science brought up some useful papers, it was particularly easy to use and particularly helpful as it projected on the side of the search the times the paper had been cited, something I learnt to appreciate over time.

2. Setting inclusion and exclusion criteria

Setting Inclusion and Exclusion criteria was mainly associated with the building of the Protocol for the study. A protocol is a document that describes the reason for conducting the systematic review, the rationale, sets objectives and outlines the organisation of the research project. When setting inclusion/exclusion criteria the struggle was thinking about all the possible parameters that had to be taken into account and making sure everything was included. This is challenging at times, particularly when one is not very familiar with the relevant topic.

3. AND or OR

Finding the correct keywords to use for my search.

Although in some studies this can be fairly simple in the study I conducted it was quite challenging as both cancer and diabetes are two very broad terms. I used many different combinations of keywords until we were happy with both the quantity and the relevance of the papers the search was bringing up. I am not going to lie, it did get frustrating at times spending days doing a search and then realising I had to start all over again. However, I realised that this is the only way to do it.

What I found particularly helpful was creating a visual of the combination of terms I would ideally like to find in a paper. I literally took a paper and drew two circles: one had cancer and all the terms associated (eg. Malignancy, melanoma etc.) and the other had diabetes and all the terms associated (diabetes mellitus, insulin etc.) and this is what lead me to the keywords we ended up using!

What I realised is that there isn’t a right or wrong way for doing this: You Search, You Check for Relevance, You Search, You Check for Relevance…

4. A Large – 4 – Digit Number

Being a stressed person from nature I was initially overwhelmed by the quantity of information! Although for some a large 4-digit-number of results might not seem like a lot, it was enough to make me go up and down the stairs of the eight – floor – building every 2 hours to rejuvenate and restore my frame of mind!

While conducting my searches and reviewing the papers I was overwhelmed with the amount of papers and was also at times scared that I would not be able to complete the project. Although reviewing is overwhelming to start off with, it does actually become better as you go along and this is something I learnt through experience and will have in mind when I conduct research again in the future.

5. Management

I am not sure if everyone feels this way but whenever I start a new job or even start a new project I always get that boost of excitement and that kick followed by slight stress – I like to call that productive stress!

However, when I was presented with that Large – 4 – Digit Number I became so preoccupied that this task would not be completed on time that I ended up constantly feeling that I had not made enough progress and disappointed about my performance. I was however very lucky to have my supervisor beside me along the way. She guided me and reassured me I was on the right track by having a mini – review of the goals accomplished each week. This allowed me to develop a mechanism to cope with managing my time and my stress and was able to complete what I had set to do.


I have realised that although I have mentioned all the above as ‘Research Struggles’, these where the things I took away and appreciated during this amazing experience. Entering my second year of studies I have already been able to apply the knowledge that I attained during the summer in a variety of modules and this has made me very happy!

I am very interested to hear what were your ‘Struggles’ when you first had to conduct a review? I am sure there will be similar and different points for each person and I am looking forward to hearing your experience!


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