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Approaching Research in Medical School: Lessons Learned

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As someone who entered medical school with little research experience, I understand wholeheartedly how intimidating research in medical school can be. I was not one of those students who entered with 10 to 20 publications under their belt, and even now, nearly four years later, I still consider myself a novice. Nevertheless, performing research certainly comes with a myriad of benefits, such as helping students gain experience with hypothesis formulation, critiquing literature, and performing data collection or literature searches, and it can help make students more competitive for residency in the era of step 1 being pass/fail. Below, I hope to share with underclassmen some of the lessons I learned as I approached finding research opportunities in medical school. 

Tip 1: Networking is key.

Many of us have heard about sending mass emails out to tons of professors in hopes of finding a research project, expecting that casting a big, wide net will yield success. While sometimes effective, I would argue that networking with your attendings and professors is an equally important method that can yield better success. Many attendings are likely getting buried with emails daily from students looking for opportunities, and so it’s easy for students to get lost in the crowd as another faceless name if they only resort to mass emailing. In my own experience, most if not all my projects came from residents and attendings that I met in person, either from a lecture or an elective. Reaching out to people you have met before is a great place to start, as seeing you in person will give them a face to remember later when you ask for research and will thus make your request more real to them.  

Tip 2: Create your own opportunities.

Coming from a program that is not extremely research focused, I often struggled to find projects, as I would be told there was nothing active going on. In moments like these, I think it’s incredibly practical to come up with your own project idea. This idea can seem daunting at first, but the project doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, and it’s also an exciting opportunity to propose a project that you are genuinely curious about. I remember my first project idea came to me during one of my electives, and the question was, “how can I make this elective more valuable for students?” A relatively simple question but one I was genuinely interested in and brought to my course coordinator at the time. Bringing your own project to an attending and working with him/her to help bring it to fruition as a manuscript or poster can leave a good impression for your attending, as it can demonstrate that you are serious about doing research, and that you are reliable and effective. Even after the project was completed, I was recruited to additional projects by the same professor who now had trust in my work ethic, and I believe this effect can happen to other students too. 

Tip 3: Don’t get stressed out by the numbers game.

As a fourth-year student applying for the upcoming Electronic Residency Application Service cycle, it’s hard to escape the mindset that I need to meet a certain publication quota in order to match into my preferred specialty. Especially when we rely on services like the NRMP or residency explorer to gauge competitiveness based on board scores and raw publications. While having many publications can help you in applying to residency, it is by no means the whole picture. Fortunately, there is increasing awareness of the negative bias that tends to occur when program directors rely solely on the number of publications/presentations to stratify applicants, as it can fail to account for students coming from schools with no home program for their preferred specialty, or from schools that are simply less active in research. While I can’t speak for all specialties, the take-home message I received from speaking with advisors and upperclassmen is to focus on performing research that is meaningful to you, instead of aiming for high numbers. Ultimately, interviewers will likely want to hear about the ways you significantly contributed to a project, and what it meant to you, so having fewer that you can talk enthusiastically about will take you much farther than having dozens of projects where you did the bare minimum and learned nothing. 

Tip 4: Research summer programs very carefully.

The summer between your first and second year in medical school is the last free summer you will have for a while, and thus it’s an incredibly opportune time to get involved in research. That being said, the last thing you want is to be stuck in a research program that you will gain nothing from. Certain programs will describe themselves as “research” programs, only to have students spend their summer screening patients for studies, giving them little to no opportunity to be involved in creating the study, writing the manuscript, or getting their name anywhere on the final paper. I would avoid these at all costs. Other programs that are more ideal have infrastructures better suited to helping students be productive with their own projects, including having assigned mentors, having weekly meetings, and setting tangible goals to keep students on track. Aside from making sure you read the program's description very carefully, another great option is to contact students from previous years who completed the program, as they’ll give you the most honest answers.  

Tip 5: School comes first.

It may sound obvious, but prioritize grades and board exams first. While performing research is certainly helpful, it should not come at the expense of your academic performance. Your primary job should be to focus on developing the foundational knowledge and clinical skills to become an effective clinician, with research helping to supplement your skills. As my advisor told me, there is always time later to catch up on research, but there’s no coming back from poor clerkship grades and board scores.

What tips would you give medical students looking for research opportunities? Share in the comments.

Star Chen is a fourth-year medical student at Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Philadelphia. 

Image by everything bagel / Shutterstock

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