Maximizing Your Research Experience in Medical School
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Maximizing Your Research in Medical School

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Research – either you’re all for it or you groan just thinking about it. Regardless of which side of the nerd spectrum you are, research is likely to be a part of your medical school experienceAfter being involved in 6-7 different projects my first two years, I discuss some tips I to make the most of your experience doing research in medical school!

Under Promise, Over Deliver:

This is a lesson I learned the hard way.
 
My first research project was front loaded and I had promised to have XYZ done by the next meeting date. Little did I know that my research mentor wanted those tasks to be perfect by our second meeting.
 
I felt unprepared and slightly embarrassed by the quality of work I came with. It honestly had to do more with having a mentor with high expectation. Still, I changed my approach to under promise what I would complete. From then on he was often impressed when I had done more than he had anticipated.
 
I’ve used this approach on the projects I’ve worked on since. If a task would normally take 2 weeks to complete, I promise to have it done by the end of the month.
 
While it seems counter intuitive to present yourself as a slow medical student, most mentors will understandRegardless, you’ll be more impressive when you keep beating deadlines versus often under delivering due to time constraints.

Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Basket:

It’s a common notion in the finance sector, but this notion of diversifying applies to research.
 
Let’s face it, research in medical school is becoming more and more important. Even fields which are known for not requiring research are having more and more applicants with experience.
 
It’s even more important given the fact that more schools (like mine) are transitioning to include dedicated research time. Some schools have 3 months, others have a whole year. Do you want to take your chances by avoiding research in medical school when more applicants have it on their CV?
 
Now if you’re getting involved in research, you might as well have something to show for it.
 
This is not exclusive to publications. While journals articles are nice, presentations at conferences, abstract submission, and poster presentations are good secondary results.
 
Because every project will vary in speed, you might as well join projects at different points of inception.
 
I’ve joined projects from the very beginning to the very end. Each is moving at its own pace, and I can work on one while the others are in motion.
 
This concept also applies to your mentor. There is no rule that you have to do all your research with the same person. Mentors will enjoy your help, but you’re by no means tied down to them.
 
If you have interests in multiple fields, look for mentors and projects in those respective areasJust don’t start these projects too close to each other.

Ask For Responsibility At Every Phase:

It’s nice to be a master of your craft, but only knowing how to run gels and do PCRs is only going to get you so far.
 
If your mentor asks you if you want to write the intro, say yes. If they ask you to do the data collection, say yes.
 
This does not mean be a yes man. If you don’t have time then, by all means, be up front and say no. If you’re not interested, that’s okay.
 
Attempt every phase of the research experience that you can. If you work with multiple projects you will quickly develop these skills.
 
Now, every time you join a project, you will have a new subset of skills and thus a greater opportunity to contribute even more.

Look For Multi-Purpose Projects:

This goes back a little bit to not putting your eggs in one basket.
 
If you’re like me then you may not have the clearest idea of what you want to do. If so it may help you to pick projects that can apply to multiple specialties.
 
For example, I’ve worked on projects which have could be considered to be a cardiology, neurology, dermatology, oncology, and radiology.
 
At times it works out where the project double dips into two different fields. If you know you’re considering two fields then perhaps look for a mentor involved in both.
 
Double dipping is recommended for once! : )

When Possible – Clinical:

I’ve mentioned this in my post about maximizing your summer experience during medical school. If you have a choice (you always do) then pick a clinical project. 
 
Why?
 
They’re faster, less time consuming, and often are more likely to get published. 
 
Obviously, you have to pick the right project, but that’s also true for a basic science project. 
 
If you’re unsure of the difference, basic science would refer to the typical lab work such as gels, PCRs, and working with bacteria and/or other organisms. Yes, there are many other things that fall into this category, but you get the gist. 
 
Clinical research can refer to a chart review, retrospective study, and recruiting subjects for a specific protocol
 
I’d recommend the chart review and retrospective study as they are more time efficient and more in your control
 
The studies I’ve worked with have all been clinical projects. Many of them required me to collect data on hundreds of patients to later perform statistical analysis on. Others already had the data collected. I had to come up with a question, set my parameters, and write about what the results were. 
 
Clinical projects are also easier to fit into a busy medical school schedule. You may not have time to go into the lab every day. You do, however, have enough time to get on your computer and complete a few chart reviews. 
 
Similar to a basic project, a clinical project has a good amount of grunt work to do. It took me over a month to go through a patient database of over 900 patients. The difference is the grunt work is often done quicker and you can move to writing and submission phase of your research
 
If basic research is where your experience and passion lies, then my all means do it! It’s better to enjoy the experience than worry about the efficiency component. If you’re ambivalent towards one or the other, pick clinical. 

Stay Accountable:

This goes back to my point of under promising and over delivering. While you can give a two-week deadline for something that would take you a week, don’t wait till the second week to start!
 
Your studies obviously come first. But once you’ve allocated time to your classes or rotations, make sure you also allocate time to completing your projects
 
It may appear that your mentor doesn’t care if you give it to them in two weeks versus taking an extra week to complete it. They may not.
 
Still, it’s bad to get in a habit of pushing things aside and becoming complacent. It’s actually one of the worst habits medical students have – pushing things off until they can no longer ignore it. 
 
Give your mentors deadlines, and then give yourself an earlier deadline to complete it. Estimate how long the task will take. Then either allocate a day or two where you spend a couple of hours hammering it out.
 
If this is not possible then become laser focused on dedicated a specific part of your day (the early morning for example) to spend 20-30 minutes on it
 
I suggest you front load your responsibilities. For one, you’ll be the most motivated and dedicated to the project at the start. Also, you’ll build momentum to continue, even if that is at a slower pace later on.

Do A Little Every Day:

If you’re doing chart reviews for example, then have a goal of doing X number of patients a day. If you have 100 patients to complete and 3 weeks to do it, then aim to do 7 patients a day. This gives you a 7-day buffer in case things hit the fan or you take too many days off. 
If you’re diligent and stick your schedule, you’ll finish ahead of time. If not then you still finish by your deadline. 
 
Wouldn’t you rather work a little every day and potentially have time off at the end of your summer or research block? That’s not going to possible if you back load all your responsibilities. 
 

 
These have been tips that I’ve used to maximize my research experience. Many of the projects I worked on as recently as a few weeks-months ago are now in the submission phase because I was laser focused on getting things done. Follow the above tips and you’ll be on your way to great success regardless if you research lover or groaner. 
 

Until next time…

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