How to Find Research Opportunities (While in Medical School)

Posted by Dan on May 27, 2015 7:48:15 PM

So you probably already know that for many fields, including those you might be interested in, research is expected to be a part of your medical school experience. And research is generally considered meaningful if it results in some kind of publication, abstract, or poster presentation.

There’s just one problem with doing research while in medical school: you’re in medical school.

It’s already very demanding to learn the huge volume of material you need to master, study for class exams, study for board exams, and get up early for your clinical rotations. So what are some ways that medical students can get meaningful (read publishable) research experience?

While it goes without saying that the majority of real nuts and bolts basic science research projects are planned with a timeline of years in mind, I think that there are still plenty of very effective ways for medical students to get involved in meaningful research on the shorter scale. Here are some tips and hints that I might offer to a medical student, in no particular order:

  • Invest time upfront to understand the different types of research available
  • If time is an issue, look into clinical, retrospective, and epidemiological studies on campus
  • Talk to the principal investigator you want to work with and be clear about your time commitment and intentions
  • Ask around, especially among upper classes and residents
  • Look into projects that are related to fields your are strong with and have experience in
  • Depending on your goals, consider taking an extra year to do research

1) Take some time to fully understand the different types of research available

Coming out of undergrad life into medical school, many medical students have in their mind a single fixed image of what "research" looks like: long laboratory benches, lots of pipetting, and very slow, labor intensive results regarding the details of a single biomolecular pathway/gene signaling cascade/etc... For many students, being on a medical school campus offers a first exposure to lots of other types of research, like epidemiological studies, clinical trials, retrospective analyses, QI initiatives, and translational research (and plenty of basic/bench science as well). Aside from fearing the time commitment, I also think that a lot of medical students don't get involved in "research" because they just aren't interested in bench science. Which is fine, it's not for everyone. But if you look around at all these other types of research activities going on, you might find something really cool that you never knew existed.

2) If time is an issue, look into clinical, retrospective, and epidemiological studies on campus

For the med student that is worried about the time/labor commitment of research, I would encourage them to look into more of the clinical/retrospective/epidemiological studies going on on their campus. Most of these larger studies almost always spawn dozens of smaller "mini-projects" that are just waiting for a summer medical student to come look at. Things like retrospective chart reviews on a population of people with condition X, or mining through the data from a longitudinal cohort study of condition Y to look for interesting patterns, or studying the rate of central line infections in the MICU/SICU over a three month period with a new sterile drape protocol. The majority of these probably won't make it into a full blown publication (although some might), but will almost certainly be appropriate for submission of an abstract to a national meeting, which in terms of CV building is also pretty good. The plus side of a lot of these more clinical research projects is that there is generally a much easier learning curve when joining up with a clinical investigator rather than a basic scientist -- you already know all about the diseases they are studying from med school (as opposed to the weeks of reading papers you might need to get up to speed in a basic science lab). It's also worth pointing out that even being part of a research project/team is pretty good for the CV, even if no abstract or publication comes of it.

3) Talk to the principal investigator you want to work with and be clear about your time commitment and intentions

Probably more important than either of the two previous points is to talk to the PI you want to work with and be clear about your intentions regarding your commitment and goals for working in his/her lab/group. Explain upfront that you're a med student (not a PhD student), you're here for the summer (or semester or whatever time you have), and you would like to get an abstract submission, if you're lucky a paper, out of what you'll be doing. This will help frame their thought process when their deciding which of the eight different unfinished projects to assign you to. On that same thought, it is probably best if this is your goal to err on the side of working with MD's or MD/PhD's that have been through med school and get the routine a little better. Many very well meaning PhD scientists (even ones that gave awesome lectures in your first and second year med school classes) are not always on the same page and might not quite get what you're after.

4) Ask around, especially among upper classes and residents

On that same note, ask around, especially from the upper classes or residents at your med school, about who's good to work with. Find out if the PI's that you're interested in working with have a good or bad track record of getting med students published. If there is a PI in your clinical area of research that runs a lab where every medical student that spends the summer winds up with their name on something, well then, that's a pretty good sign that it might work for you too. Admittedly, some of these labs aren't always the funnest/most exciting/most innovative environments, but at the very least you'll usually get what you signed up for.

5) Look into projects that are related to fields your are strong with and have experience in

Go towards your strengths -- if you have a very limited time period in which to do research, look up folks who work on something you're already familiar with (maybe you did undergrad research in the field?). Learning a new area of anything, be it basic science or clinical, can take up a large chunk of your research time, and so it's best to hit the ground running if you can.

6) Depending on your goals, consider taking an extra year to do research

Think about taking more time.... okay, sort of the opposite of the question posed, but for a lot of the more competitive specialties, having a full extra year of research can make a big difference on the residency application. This will allow you to learn a lot more in depth about a topic (ideally in the field you want to specialize in), which can be a big splash on residency interviews.

The world of medical research is truly vast, and there are so many ways to get involved that it’s not possible to touch on all of them in a single blog post. Which is why we plan on offering more advice regarding research in the future. With that in mind…

  • Are there any specific questions you have about research as a medical student?
  • Do any of you have other suggestions or advice about research?
  • Do any of you have any success stories regarding research as a medical student?

Let us know and we’ll try to touch on those subjects for you!

Dr. Dan Rubin is an MD/PhD graduate from Columbia and currently in the neurology residency program at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

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Topics: Science, Residency, Research

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