Getting the Most Out of Your Research Experience

By Jocelyn Compton

Getting the Most Out of Your Research ExperienceMore and more, research productivity is becoming a cornerstone of the medical student experience. Dedicated research can shape your future in profound ways. Since this time of year presents deadlines for summer research (such as the NIH T35 research grant) or yearlong opportunities (such as HHMI Medical Scholars) it’s timely to discuss the topic of optimizing your research experience!

1. Know thyself.
This is important in all things, but there are several questions that you should consider asking yourself before approaching a mentor. For example:

Where do you wish to go in your career? Academia, private practice, or business and consulting each lend themselves to a different type of research. This also applies to which specialties you are considering. There are a variety of ways to publish your work, such as case reports, original research, or opinion articles. Each type of publication will carry different value when you’re applying to residencies. Of course, publication in a well-known journal within a field or in a popular journal like Nature will always grab attention.

How much time are you willing to commit to the research? At baseline, you can expect 40+ hour weeks, but consider if you’d like to extend your research during the preclinical years, eventually take a research year, or simply limit the experience to a few weeks during the summer.

What kind of input do you need from your mentor? Consider your previously acquired skills and the amount of guidance you’ll need to be a successful researcher. Find out if your mentor will be providing this guidance gently, frequently, or adamantly. This kind of information is best acquired from other medical students who have worked in the lab recently, but other members of the lab can inform your decision as well. A single great lab tech, post-doc, or grad student can make all the difference in your experience. A mentor’s style of leadership and input can shape your research experience dramatically depending on the compatibility of your respective work styles.

These questions, among others, will help you to set and achieve goals with your research experience. If you’re interested in publishing papers and boosting your resume, your search will be different than if you’re interested in taking a basic science project from the ground up.

2. Focus on acquiring skills.
As medical students, it’s not likely that we will be proposing multi-center studies or pitching basic science ideas that will involve 700 mice that will eventually get published in Nature. But part of the joy (and terror) of being a student is skill acquisition. Try to find out if you’ll be exposed to skills that you’ll need as a resident and/or researcher. Ask prospective labs if you will get experience with grant writing, IRB or animal protocol composition, manuscript compilation, poster presentations, or abstract submissions.

3. Finally, make mistakes!
Don’t be afraid to change labs, career paths, or academic aspirations. We are all on this long road together with turns every 4-5 years (college, medical school, residency, fellowship, etc., etc., etc.). It can become an endless ladder of rungs to climb, which is an uncomfortable way to live your entire life (especially your mid 20’s to mid 30’s). Your daily work should be nothing less than provocative, restoring, energizing… if you’re drowning instead of swimming, ask for help, shift gears, take a breath, and go back to step #1.

Be on the lookout for a follow-up post about how to identify a research mentor!


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