Medical Student Perspectives: Navigating the Daunting Challenge of Research
What are your thoughts when you hear the subject research? Are you thinking, how in the world can I fit research into my already busy schedule? Maybe you are thinking, I want to start some research, but I just don't know where to begin? Maybe you are in the middle of a research project and wishing you had chosen a different project, a different mentor, or a different field of research. Research can be a daunting task for all types of medical professionals; however, research is the lifeblood of medicine. It propels medicine forward to new life-saving technologies and medications, allowing for innovation, quality improvement, and safety measures that can impact the way doctors around the world treat their patients. For the individual student, research can bring great personal satisfaction, helping you achieve professional goals, and also stretching you to understand medical issues on a deeper level. So, how do you begin to sort through the who, what, where, and how's of research? I hope to provide you with some tips from my own experiences and others' that are tailored to the general MD medical student as well as the various research track medical students (i.e. MD/PhD, MD/MS, MD/MPH, etc.).
Before beginning to look for research projects, conduct a self-evaluation. You want to know a couple of important things about yourself that will guide you in choosing a project and mentor. Ask yourself:
- Why do I want to begin conducting research? What am I hoping to gain?
- What are my future professional goals? Academic, private practice, military, industry, policy, etc.
- Realistically, what amount of time do I have to devote to this research? This question is critical, particularly if you have not had any prior research experience. Ask friends, physicians, or professors involved in different types of research about the time commitments for their research.
- What areas of medicine and research do I really gravitate towards? Think about the specialties in medicine that grab your interest. What type of research motivates you: basic, translational, clinical, quality, systems management, policy, etc.?
- What type of training, mentorship, or resources do I need to conduct a project in this field of research? Am I well-trained and knowledgeable about this field? Do I need financial, laboratory, tissue sample, or other types of support?
- What sort of time frame do I want to commit to a single project? A month, a summer, a year, or my entire time in medical school?
Research Speed Dating
Choosing a research project and mentor really is like choosing someone to ask out on a date. The choice can definitely impact your happiness (especially for medical students in dedicated research tracks), it can help define your future path, and it can be truly daunting. However, now that you know a little bit more about yourself and your goals, you will be able to make better decisions about what to do. Here are some tips:
- Look for research mentors throughout your interactions in medical school: classes, social gatherings, word-of-mouth, clinic, etc.
- Ask your medical school administrators who they would recommend. Who are individuals that have worked well with medical students in the past?
- Ask the chair of the department that you are interested in what professors are interested in working with students and have projects for students.
- Look up the research of various faculty members in your specialty of interest to ask them about projects they might have.
- When assessing research mentors/groups, look at their publication track record. Are they productive? Is everyone getting published?
- Ask the group members about their research group, the mentor, the dynamics within the group, the trajectory of the group, the scope of the projects, etc.
- When speaking with prospective mentors, it is important to have studied their research a little bit (do a PubMed search) and to discuss what your goals for a research project are.
- Discuss possible projects that you might be able to join to get your feet wet in the field until you can formulate a project of your own.
- Discuss expectations of the mentor, what he/she would like to see in terms of productivity, how available he/she is to meet with you, what type of mentorship you can expect, etc.
- Discuss the mentor's policies on publication authorship, conference attendance, and financial resources for sustaining your role in the research group (particularly research track medical students).
The Long Haul of Research
Once you have chosen a project and a mentor, hopefully you will enjoy the experience of conducting the background research on your project, formulating ideas, testing those ideas, struggling through the failures, and rejoicing in the successes. Here are some tips for the journey:
- Try to conduct a few projects at the same time, particularly if you are doing basic/translational research, as one or all may not work out.
- Look for funding whenever you can as this will improve your CV
and show future employers that you can get funded. Here are some
- NIH NRSA MD/PhD fellowships (F30)
- HHMI Medical Research Fellows
- Sarnoff Fellowship Program
- Doris Duke Clinical Research Fellowships for Medical Students
- Hospital for Special Surgery Summer Research Fellowship
- Sloan-Kettering Summer Fellowship Program
- FAER Medical Student Anesthesia Research Fellowship
- AANS Medical Student Neurosurgery Research Fellowship
- MD Anderson Summer Research Program
- Make sure your project is on track, re-evaluate with your mentor often, and determine whether you need to move in a different direction.
- Attend scientific conferences in your area of interest and ALWAYS try to submit an abstract for presentation.
- For MD/PhDs especially, make sure you have an exit strategy for returning to your MD training.
- Do not be afraid to switch mentors or tracks and don't try to convince yourself that a project or mentor will change and be better in the future. I have seen many a miserable PhD student do precisely this and regret it.
- Engage in conversations in your field at research conferences, department meetings, and informal research gatherings.
- Enjoy the journey.
Ultimately, research can be an amazing journey that does not have to be overwhelming if you are prepared. Good luck and let me know if you have additional questions on the subject!
Justin Peacock, PhD, 2nd Lt USAF HPSP
Council of Student Members, Military Representative
Mayo Clinic College of Medicine - Class of 2014
Disclaimer: The list of research fellowships does not constitute endorsement by ACP or CSM. Please note that the links may or may not work in the future and/or the programs may or may not be available in the future. Also the list is by no means comprehensive of all the research programs available for medical students.