One of the most challenging aspects of medical school is the sheer volume of information that must be absorbed in a short period. This can pose a problem for those interested in developing research skills and pursuing an independent project. As colleagues, we know that our inherent curiosity is satisfied by discovering new information as much as it is by learning clinical content. We believe that it is important to showcase our hard work through a formal research project, but there are systematic barriers to finding a research mentor and team. Although there are many resources to guide you on “how” to publish, in this post we give some basic tips and tricks, from one medical student to another, on how to get involved in research and find a project that best fits your goals.
Tip 1: Don’t Be Shy!
Take a leap of faith and put yourself out there. Network within your medical school and find out what senior medical students and residents at your affiliated hospital are working on. The more connections the better – you never know what someone may have to offer you.
The faculty website at your medical school is a great place to start. Some medical schools have an identified research coordinator. He or she may be able to help you identify an ongoing project. Some medical school websites will also list their faculty members by their current research and identify if these faculty are available to mentor students.
Tip 2: Determine Your Bandwidth
Before contacting faculty, consider your priorities and schedule. It is critical that you do this before you commit to a project. Most research projects with the potential to result in a publication will require several hours of work per week. Balancing your priorities can help you determine when during your medical school training you have the bandwidth to concentrate on a new role. Be sure to consider your own personal wellness and other extra-curricular activities.
Tip 3: Finding and Maintaining a Research Mentor
Your initial communication is often through e-mail. Be sure to attach your CV to your introduction e-mail and offer to meet in person to discuss your interests and experience. You may choose to be proactive in coordinating the meeting and use a schedule application such as Doodle. Or, simply list several times at which you are available and ask if the research mentor has a scheduler you should reach out to.
After meeting, if you think that a team’s project aligns with your interests, make sure you let them know. If you have done research as an undergraduate student, you may ask a prior project investigator if he or she recommends a colleague who is looking for student involvement.
Ultimately, do not be discouraged by a lack of response. People get busy, and a second follow-up e-mail in 1 week is permissible and will demonstrate your interest.
Tip 4: Establish a Timeline
Organization will be a key to success. Establish deadlines for yourself. Factor in your planned vacation or elective time. Setting deadlines at the start of a project will help you stick to the timetable.
It is also important to consider your primary objective: is it a publication or initial exposure to a lab and content area? Establishing goals will help you set deadlines and ensure you commit the right amount of time to a project. You should make these clear to your research mentor early in the project.
One way to establish a timeline is to target a conference at which you would like to present your research. You can work backwards from there. Aim big! Some EM-based conferences include SAEM, ACEP, and CORD.
Tip 5: Explore Your Incentives
Collaborating with a team and publishing your work are important, but there may be a financial gain to participating in research, too. There are numerous national, regional, and local grants that provide financial support for student research. These may cover the fees of traveling to a conference to present your work. Although securing a research grand is not expected of most medical students, it may help your research lab and mentor pay you a salary that otherwise is not part of their budget.
Lastly, many medical schools offer research funding and stipends to their students. These are common in the first and second years of medical school. You can consider speaking to your research coordinator or faculty members about identifying these opportunities. The AAMC also offers information on research stipends for medical students.
Finding a research project and mentor can be difficult for busy medical students. Use your resources and stay open to new ideas. When in the lab, make connections with your peers. Your new colleagues may offer career advice, and more importantly, become friends during an often stressful part of training. Research is one aspect of medical training and career development, but the relationships you build from these experiences are the ultimate incentive.