If you asked ten different aspiring physicians what they thought of research, you’d probably get responses ranging from “research is the bane of my existence” to “research is the reason for my existence.” Regardless of how you feel about it, performing research as a premedical or medical student can be a valuable education experience that also increases your competitiveness. While doing research is great, programs oftentimes care even more about if your research is published. I’ve talked to far too many people who get involved with research but then get frustrated because either the project falls apart, their mentor does not include their name on publications, or the project moves too slowly to be published in time for applications. Regardless of how much you love research, not getting the necessary publications needed to advance your career is unfortunate. This happened to me when I first got involved with research.
Fortunately since then I’ve learned several strategies for making research more fun and high-yield.
Do your background research
Finding a good research lab or project to join takes some legwork at the front end. If you know you are interested in a certain field, do some research on your institution’s website to find MDs or PhDs who are doing research in that field. See what they list as their interests and search for their name in pubmed. Look at how many publications they have had in the past few years. Are they averaging 3-4 publications a year or one publication every 4 years? This gives you a good indicator of how efficient their projects are and the likelihood of you being published if you work with them.
Also look at the types of papers they are publishing. Things like case reports and literature reviews can be done quickly, so if they are publishing a lot of those it can be a good sign. Once you have found some good potential mentors, send them an email.
Something as simple as “Hi Dr. A, My name is B. I am interested contributing your research on C because of my experience with XYZ, which I have included in my attached CV. Would you be willing to meet sometime to discuss this further?” can go a long way.
Pick a good mentor
Having a good mentor is essential to your research experience, don’t feel pressured to just take the first research position you get. Talk with different mentors and see what they are like.
Don’t be afraid to express your interest when you meet with them. Saying things like “one of my research goals is to get published” or “I am interested in doing a project on XYZ” shows initiative, lays out clear expectations, and indicates that you are willing to work hard. If they are a good mentor, they will often work with you to achieve your goals. If a potential advisor is just looking for someone to clean glassware without a plan to include you on publications, it’s better to realize this now rather than 6 months into working with them. You want a mentor who is interested in mentoring you and invested in your future. Don’t sell yourself short on this.
A good mentor will teach you how to be a good researcher, help you get published, and possibly help guide you through the application process. Having a mentor you get along with also provides opportunity for a potential letter of recommendation when you are applying.
Be wary of benchwork
Before I elaborate, let me clarify. I don’t dislike benchwork, and I recognize and respect the quality and intensity of research that is done as benchwork. However, benchwork takes a long time and a lot of hours.
As a student you usually have 3-4 years at most between when you start a project and when need it to be published for your application, so you can’t afford to do projects that take a very long time. You’re also busy with a million other things, and spending a lot of time on research that may or may not publish is not only stressful but also potentially compromising to the rest of your application.
With that said, if you absolutely love benchwork, then don’t let this dissuade you. If you are passionate about it and put in a lot of effort it will probably be apparent to your mentor and the admissions committee, which can go a long way. You may just not get as many publications as someone who is publication hunting.
A great research experience can be a huge asset to your application and potentially even change your career plans if you end up loving it. Hopefully the tips above will help you find a good mentor and fruitful research that you enjoy.