Regardless of what type of medicine you're interested in, performing research during medical school is an immensely valuable experience. Here’s what you can look forward to:
- Exploring all different specialties that medicine has to offer
- Getting to know faculty at your medical school
- Collaborating with students and residents on projects
- Learning how to develop a project from scratch and carry it to its end
- Writing a paper from start to finish
- Understanding how your work is reviewed during the publication process
Why think about this now?
It may seem premature to bring up research as you are starting medical school, but it turns out that now is a great time to start thinking about what type of research you want to do. Are there fields of medicine that you want to learn more about? Is there a particular skill that you want to gain? Many schools have compiled a database of faculty members and residents who have a track record of working well with medical students. Ask older students or people in your Student Affairs Office whether something like this exists.
Just send an email
If you don’t have a database like this available, or if you do but you just want to try something different, just send an email. Amazing things can happen just from one email. Look on PubMed to see if anyone from your institution is doing research in your area of interest. Research institutions will never turn down free help especially if you're a medical student. If a particular person doesn’t respond, don't be discouraged. There are plenty of wonderful mentors out there just waiting for someone to mentor and nurture into a great researcher.
Cast a wide net
If you're interested in a field of medicine that you have absolutely zero experience in (which will be the case for almost everything as a first-year student!), research is a great way to see if it’s the specialty for you. That being said, don't limit yourself to only the specialties that you think you're aiming for. My personal opinion is that any research experience is invaluable. You learn the basics of how to run statistical analysis, how to recruit patients, how to communicate with faculty and other members of your team, and how to submit a paper. These are crucial elements for your future research career. I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would criticize you for having additional experience in multiple fields. I think it just makes you a better scholar, a more well-rounded clinician, and a much more interesting candidate during your interviews for residency.
For example, during my interviews for anesthesia residency, most people didn't ask me about my anesthesia research. Instead, they were interested in a project I had done looking at how chaplains in a Neurocritical Care Unit could support staff caring for patients. Nothing to do with anesthesia, necessarily, but something I was passionate about. I was asked about this project at almost every interview, and I think it helped make me more memorable as an applicant. More importantly, you should just do things because you're interested in them and not worry about what they look like on your CV or whether they are “focused” enough!
Focus on finding a good mentor
Along the same lines, one of the best reasons to get involved in research is to find a mentor. This may not happen on your first, second, or even third project. Finding someone who is kind, supportive, and reliable as a mentor is really crucial to have a good research experience and an enjoyable time during medical school. I had a mentor in anesthesiology who ultimately was the reason why I went into the field. His enthusiasm for his work, his love of teaching, and his general devotion to learning and scholarship was something I'll never forget. Even if I hadn't decided to go into anesthesia, I would have still worked with him just to have the opportunity to learn from him. It's really important to have more senior individuals that you can look up to and model yourself after. Don't worry if this doesn't happen on the first couple projects that you work on. Try different fields and really throw yourself into any opportunities that are available at your school.
You may be wondering how to find the time to do this during medical school. I can't emphasize enough the importance of having a good Google Calendar and a great spreadsheet to keep track of the status of all your projects. This is the time to embrace your love for color coding and organizing if that's the kind of thing you're into. Always update the spreadsheets when you get an email about the status of a project, and make sure you keep track of deadlines for conferences, abstract submissions, or respond to reviews.
Also, think about what the expectations are for particular kinds of research. I did primarily database-driven clinical research rather than bench research, which allowed me to work on projects remotely at times that were convenient for me. I personally don't think I could have done a project that required me to be at a certain place at a certain time, which is the case for certain types of research. If bench research or hands-on clinical research is your passion, you could also take a research year to give it the attention it deserves.
Err on the side of saying yes to opportunities. I know there's a big movement to say “no” to extra responsibilities because of all the demands that we have on our time. My personal philosophy is that you can always scale back commitments if you reach a period where you’re overwhelmed with other things or don’t have quite as much flexibility in your schedule. Good things can happen from saying yes! Take advantage of all the incredible opportunities you have when you're in medical school.