how to make the most of your research time in medical school

Research experience is pretty much a requirement for the competitive specialties. My research experience and letters of recommendation were the strongest aspects of my residency application, and my letters were only strong because of my research. Research created an avenue for a longitudinal relationship with faculty members that allowed them to see me grow as a medical student, to become familiar with my vision for dermatology, to truly get an idea of my knowledge, and to characterize my work ethic.

Related: How to match a competitive specialty, part one

I've listed a few tips below to make the most of the time you have in medical school. This post is geared towards making the most of an already decided project. I will do a separate post on deciding when to start research and who to work with. 


If you've done successful research previously, I would love if you added your tips to the comment section! 


How to make the most of your research time during medical school

The goal is to do more than expected, better than expected with grace and a smile :)

Do your research (see what I did there??)

The worst thing that can happen is to sit down to type up your manuscript only to find that someone has done your project better than you or someone has done the exact same project and made suggestions that you didn't implement. Doing a thorough literature review will allow you to design the best study and save you a lot of headache down the line. Take organized notes during your preliminary lit review so that you can refer back to them and save time when you write your final manuscript.


Start early

Ideally, your IRB proposal should be submitted and accepted before your dedicated research period begins. If not, you'll waste weeks of your limited time waiting for approval to come in. Also, prepare any documents you'll need for your research. In the best case scenario, you start data collection within the first few days of your dedicated research time.


don't put all your eggs in one basket, but don't take on too much

I was advised that I should have approximately three projects going on at the same time. Research has a natural pace, and unfortunately, often that pace is stalled. However, it's important to know what your primary project is. If you sign on to do side projects with different mentors, make sure those mentors understand what your main project is. Don't just go signing on to anything you can get your name on though. It's important to exceed expectations and that's not possible if you overextend yourself. I believe firmly that it's better to do too little and impress one person than to do too much and underwhelm multiple faculty members. Of course, the goal is to do more than expected, better than expected with grace and a smile :).


collaborate with your fellow medical students

One of my best friends and I did our research period at the same time. We worked so well together that our shared mentor actually started to schedule overlap time between our weekly meetings. She would meet with her for 45 minutes then I would join for our shared 30 minute meeting and then we would meet separately for 45 minutes. Collaboration allowed us both to collect more data than we could have done individually. For instance, she agreed to add one extra question to her clinical survey for me to analyze in a separate project. That meant for each patient consented, we gathered data for two studies! It also meant that we got our names on twice as many publications.

Related: Career profile - Brittany - ENT resident 


be organized

With multiple studies with multiple faculty members at multiple time points, it's going to be really important to stay very organized. So many study documents! So many amendments! Clerical error can ruin a research project and make your PI subject to investigation by the IRB. Keep it together! You're in the big leagues now. Once, I heard my mentor say to another medical student "Didn't we discuss doing this at the last minute?" Don't be that person. 


troubleshoot by yourself, but ask for help when needed 

Different mentors have different styles. One of my mentors designed weekly check in meetings to stay up to date on our shared studies. Another one of my mentors was very hands off and really wanted me to give me room to fly and create. However, when I hit a road block that I could not overcome, he was immediately there to help trouble shoot. Also, don't be afraid to walk your mentor through a problem that you solved. It gives them an accurate portrayal of how much work you're putting into the project, and it also serves as a reference point in the future to prevent the next student headache. 


if you happen to mess up, admit it immediately

Research is not just fun and games. It changes the way we practice medicine. Hopefully everything goes smoothly in your research period, but if you happen to make a mistake, admit it immediately. It's your job to put the purity of your project before your personal reputation. 


There you go! My research period during medical school was one of the most fun experiences of my life and actually inspired me to start my blog. When I returned to clinicals, I missed the feeling of creating a product that affected people's lives. 


Alright - those of you who have done successful research, please share your tips!


Thanks for reading!