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Research as a medical student

Research in medical school – what, when, how, and with whom?

by , 29 April, 2016


As has previously been posted in these blog series, it is getting harder and harder to get into specialty training following medical school. Why is this important to you now? Well, to ensure an ‘easier’ progression into a career that you will be passionate about, it is vital to start separating yourself from the significant crowd of medical students – from day one of medical school. I also want to emphasise that, despite the tone of the opening sentences here, this is not an article on ‘how to beat and get ahead of your friends’. It is a piece that will explore the importance of research in medical school, how to get involved in it, and what it can mean for your future career. This will especially be informative for those who have never encountered a lot of research in their undergraduate studies.

Firstly, to start at the top, it is worth mentioning the importance of research. Scientific research (NOTE: not just medical/clinical, but also lab-based research) is vitally important to the progression of our field, and for the improvement of health care services to the community. Research can be in as many areas as there are medical specialties, and they all have a unique importance to the healthcare system. Apart from the obvious benefits of empirical investigation to the wider community and evidence-based practice, being involved in research is also very useful to your career aspirations and intellectual development as a medical practitioner. A few years ago, there would have been a majority of specialties where research experience counted for very little; now, however, entry into a vast majority of medical specialties will be made much easier by having some form of research experience behind you. Whether with individual projects, enrolment in an honours program, or a PhD/Masters, all will contribute to giving you more points on the board to entering super-competitive training programs. Research not only demonstrates an academic intellect and passion for investigation (highly valued), but also a passion for the area you are applying for (thus, it is beneficial to have research experience in an area that corresponds to your preferred specialty).

Now that the importance has been demonstrated, it is useful to outline how to get yourself involved in research. I am not suggesting here that you need to sign yourself up to research on day one of medical school; however, it would be prudent for you to listen carefully for the research interests of academics, and have an idea of what kind of research is available. When you are more comfortable with your new environment and studies in medical school, make a point to go through the staff list on your medical school’s website, and see if you can find a researcher who has similar research interests to yours. Once you have found someone, it is as easy as sending them an email outlining your enthusiasm for their subject area, and how you would like to be involved. *Most* academics will be more than happy to involve a keen student in their research (Note: don’t expect to get paid), and they are often very reasonable with the workload and timelines, as they know of the joys of being a medical student.

The main aim for you is to get your name attached to research papers, as that goes straight to your CV. Also being involved in research presentations at conferences (through poster or oral modes), getting research scholarships (i.e. summer scholarships), and competing for research prizes are more excellent ideas.

The main thing is don’t be scared of being the squeaky wheel! Ask relentlessly for opportunities to get involved, and don’t take it to heart if a researcher can’t offer you an opening at that precise moment. Be determined, have areas of interest in mind, and always show your enthusiasm for their work!