How to Excel at Research in Medical School

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Research experience, and resultant publications, are important factors for matching into a competitive residency. For instance, 41 percent of residency program directors citeddemonstrated involvement and interest in research” as a factor in selecting applicants to interview, according to the 2018 National Residency Matching Program (NRMP) survey. Concomitantly, data collected by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) show that the percentage of medical students pursuing an additional research year has more than doubled in the last 15 years. The 2016-2017 AAMC Report on Residents shows a wide range in the number of research experiences and publications of first-year residents (listed in ascending order):

Excerpt from Table B1. Test Scores and Experiences of First-Year Residents, by Specialty. 

Specialty Number of Research Experiences Specialty Number of Abstracts, Presentations, and Publications
Family Medicine 1.5 Family Medicine 2.1
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 1.8 Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 2.5
Emergency Medicine 2.0 Emergency Medicine 3.0
Psychiatry 2.0 Pediatrics 3.3
Internal Medicine (categorical) 2.1 Anesthesiology 3.4
Pediatrics 2.2 Psychiatry 3.5
Anesthesiology 2.3 Internal Medicine/Pediatrics 3.6
Pathology 2.3 Internal Medicine (categorical) 3.9
Internal Medicine/Pediatrics 2.4 Obstetrics and Gynecology 4.3
Neurology 2.4 General Surgery (categorical) 5.3
Obstetrics and Gynecology 2.8 Neurology 6.1
General Surgery (preliminary) 2.8 Internal Medicine (preliminary) 6.7
General Surgery (categorical) 2.9 Transitional Year 6.7
Internal Medicine (preliminary) 3.0 General Surgery (preliminary) 6.8
Transitional Year 3.1 Pathology 7.0
Orthopaedic Surgery 3.5 Thoracic Surgery 8.2
Vascular Surgery 3.6 Orthopaedic surgery 9.2
Thoracic Surgery 4.0 Otolaryngology 9.4
Neurological Surgery 4.2 Vascular Surgery 10.0
Plastic Surgery 4.6 Plastic Surgery 14.9
Otolaryngology 4.7 Neurological Surgery 16.7

Medical school is extremely demanding, and many medical students have limited free time and energy to spare. While taking off a year to do full-time research can be a worthwhile investment for students aiming for competitive residencies, it is certainly possible to excel at doing part-time research in medical school if one sets goals, plans appropriately and works efficiently. Here are some tips to maximize the bandwidth you invest in doing research and hopefully produce some publications while in medical school.

 

Set Goals: Know What It Takes to Realize Your Ambitions

Setting a specific specialty and/or school in your sights is advantageous because it informs on how to best allocate your resources in medical school. An examination of the table above reveals the variability in the number of research experiences and publications between specialties, with surgical residents being the clear leaders. If matching into a competitive specialty is one of your requisites for finding professional fulfillment, you must be prepared to invest a significant amount of bandwidth in doing research.

 

Plan Appropriately: Identify a Lab and Project Early, and Stick With Them

1 | Finding a lab

It is best to begin searching for a lab that fits your interests and goals as early as possible, preferably once you have committed to a medical school. Look for labs headed by investigators in your specialty or field of interest that have a track record of supporting student attendance at conferences and getting them onto publications. Reaching out to current medical students or residents for recommendations is arguably the most high-yield method. Once you have compiled a list of appropriate investigators (at least 3-5), send them emails with your CV and cover letter. If you receive a reply, schedule an interview so the investigator can explain what projects are available.

2 | Selecting a project
Choose a project that has already been approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and in which you preferably have some pre-existing expertise. Identify and request a small project on which you can take the lead (and hopefully publish as the first-author) and inquire about larger projects to which you can contribute as a co-author. Avoid starting a new project; instead, be on the lookout for existing projects that might require a final push towards publication. Keep in mind that it is generally easier to pick up the skills needed to perform clinical research (e.g., retrospective chart reviews and epidemiological studies) versus basic research, and that computational-based research is generally more flexible than wet lab work. Furthermore, make it clear to your supervisors that you want a project suited for part-time commitment and that your priority is to do well in medical school.

3 | Sticking with them
Once you have committed to a lab and project, plan to do a rotation (4-6 weeks, ideally) the summer before the first year of medical school. Starting this early will allow you to establish valuable working relationships with people in the lab and acquire the necessary techniques and knowledge to make meaningful contributions. Continue doing research with the same lab throughout the pre-clinical years of medical school, especially if your school is on a pass/fail system. Take every chance to present your work at conferences in the form of abstracts, posters, and oral presentations. Minimize, but do not eliminate, your research activities during dedicated study periods for board examinations and clinical rotations. Maintaining constant involvement, even just a few hours per week, with one productive group throughout medical school will not only maximize your likelihood to publish but also deepen your bond with mentors who can provide strong references for residency applications.

 

Work Efficiently: Procrastinate Less, Pipette More

Medical students can find themselves locked in a Red Queen’s race characterized by a constant dearth of free time and energy, such that the prospect of doing serious research and publishing papers might be perceived as daunting tasks. A vital step to freeing up time for research activities is to stop wasting time. Procrastination is the enemy of success, and Med School Insiders has published a series of useful blog posts on minimizing procrastination and maximizing productivity and efficiency. Developing such habits will not only allow you to excel at doing research in medical school but also help you lead a happier and more productive life.

 

Final Remarks

If you are interested in matching into a competitive specialty and/or going to a top program, you must secure a productive research assistantship under a mentor in the specialty in which you are interested. This post has mostly focused on sharing tips that will maximize your returns from juggling part-time research with being a medical student. For a more comprehensive guide to doing research as a medical student, I would highly recommend this excellent post by Dr. Dmitry Zavlin.

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