Richard Zhang

Richard Zhang

If you’re a medical student, like me, chances are you’ve heard the words “medical research” thrown around casually a few times too many. The benefits of getting involved in research as a medical student are clear: research pushes you to develop your skills in writing and critical appraisal, it gives you a chance to communicate with experts at the forefront of their fields, and, perhaps most enticingly, it’s a surefire way to embellish your otherwise seemingly empty CV. Sounds easy enough, right? If it doesn’t, find solace in the fact that you’re not alone. Most young medical students find the prospect of getting involved in research incredibly daunting. The key is to get started early so you can figure out what your niche is and where your strengths lie. Here are a few things to know if you’re interested in getting involved in research as a medical student. 


  • Make use of your connections


Perhaps the easiest way to get started with research as a medical student is to ask the doctors that you meet during your rotations if they have any projects you can get involved in. Oftentimes, the doctors that you interact with will be balancing a busy work schedule and demanding social life alongside several research projects, and will be more than happy for you to take a bit of work off their hands. You might even find it useful to learn about some of the less glamorous and more laborious tasks involved in research, like preparing a literature review or helping analyze raw data, before taking on an entire research project by yourself. 


  • Find a mentor 


While this seems easier said than done, it’s possibly one of the most helpful tips you’ll ever hear. Keep in mind that your mentor could be anyone, and also, that you can have more than one mentor. If you don’t know who to turn to, remember to refer to tip #1 and make use of your connections! For instance, if you decide to help out a doctor that you met on a clinical placement with one of their projects, you could potentially progress to collaborating with them on more advanced projects and eventually develop a mentor-mentee relationship. Having a mentor to give you realistic advice and support your development as a researcher is absolutely invaluable! A mentor is able to help you figure out what your research niche might be and can help point you in the direction of projects and resources tailored to your interests. 


  • Learn how to write a literature review 


When most students think of research, they don’t envisage spending hours upon hours glaring at a computer screen and analyzing scientific literature. Unfortunately— or fortunately if you like reading— knowing how to construct a perfect literature review is one skill that every aspiring medical researcher should have tucked under their belt. If you currently have no idea what a literature review entails, consider enrolling in an online beginners’ research course over the summer (you can find many suitable courses online) or make use of your connections (I told you this was important!) and ask your more experienced peers for a sample of their writing. Knowing how to construct a good literature review will make it much easier for you when you get started on your own research project and will help you market yourself to researchers as proactive and genuinely interested. 


  • Deliberately volunteer to do processes you’re unfamiliar with (or be stuck doing data collection forever) 


Like I mentioned earlier, research involves several tedious, hands-off tasks like preparing a literature review or an ethics statement in addition to data collection. By deliberately volunteering to undertake parts of the research process that you’re less experienced in, you’ll be able to develop holistically and gain a realistic understanding of what the research process looks like. While it may, at first, seem counterintuitive to take on tasks that put you out of your comfort zone, getting involved in unfamiliar processes will enable you to brush up on your weaker competencies and transform them into strengths. 


  • Cold call anyone and everyone


The most daunting aspect of getting involved in research is the prospect of initially putting your hand up and revealing your interest. Once you do get your name out there, however, getting involved in future projects becomes a lot easier! So know that there is no shame in cold calling anyone and everyone that you think might be able to help you secure a coveted spot on your very first research project. This could be a doctor you met on a clinical rotation, one of your medical school professors, or even a senior student at your medical school who’s racked up over 100 hours in the lab. And once you put your name on that very first piece of published research, the offers to work on other similar projects will come rolling in.


  • Consider seeing a librarian 


Research involves lots of careful reading, analyzing, and appraising. If you are, for some reason, unable to get involved in any research at the moment, consider visiting your friendly neighborhood librarian to brush up on your information-gathering skills in the meantime. Sifting through stacks of scientific information at the library and refining your biomedical knowledge will, if nothing else, help point you in the direction of particular research topics you may be interested in.  


  • Case reports are your best friend 


What most people don’t realize is that research comes in many forms: including original research, meta analyses, case reports, and many more. If the idea of original research doesn’t appeal to you, consider venturing into the world of case reports. A case report details unique and atypical features of a disease identified in individual patients. If the hospital that you’re on placement at allows students to speak to patients to work on case reports with their consent, this may be a great place to start. 


  • Consider basic lab-based research 


While the notion of conducting hands-on, clinical research may have been what piqued your interest, rest assured that basic lab-based research can be just as intriguing and rewarding. If you are unable to get started with clinical research or feel that you would prefer to develop your basic report-writing skills before starting to work on clinical research, lab-based research would probably be your best alternative. Basic scientific research will allow you to develop your academic writing skills while developing good scientific technique in the lab. This is a great stepping stone into clinical research!

So there you have it! Hopefully, these tips have demystified the process of getting involved in research at medical school and make you excited to try your hand at something new. 


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