How to Get Involved with Research as a Medical Student

Matthew Varacallo, MD | Amiethab Aiyer, MD

September 9, 2022

Whether you love, hate, or have zero experience doing research, the fact remains that having research activity on your application and resume/CV is critical to positioning yourself as a competitive residency applicant. 

How much research is “enough”? 

A recent study reported an increase in the average number of publications per student during medical school, a rise from 2.2 to 5.8 from 2009 to 2018.  In addition, almost 80% of medical students surveyed reported doing research projects during medical school.  The take home message is that research activity is clearly here to stay as an applicant element and while it historically was often a separating factor that differentiated a mediocre applicant from an excellent candidate, it is now the baseline norm and expected of every student.  However, remember that quality always is more important than quantity.

Why do you need research at all?

Research allows you to showcase many critical facets of you as a potential residency candidate: your independence, motivation, perseverance, teamwork, and your overall fund of knowledge are just a few traits.  Program directors and interviewers get a glimpse into an additional layer of your potential skillset – for example your writing skills, critical thinking/analytical skills, and your potential ability to work seamlessly as a member of the group.  However, just remember this: if you have a publication or research activity listed on your application– be ready and able to discuss the project inside and out. 

Now to the tips and tricks. 

If you are already first author on 10-15 publications and you are multi-tasking your way through several projects with different collaborative clinical teams, congratulations! – you are a part of a small percentage of medical students.  Feel free to skip this blog post!  For the rest of you, let’s start from scratch.

1Network with your seniors and START EARLY 

If you are struggling where to start, reach out to a senior medical student who has experience in this area.  There is nothing like getting real-time guidance from an MS3 or MS4 when you are an MS1, and you may be able to follow a similar template of getting involved in projects.  Many students pick the summer between MS1 and MS2 years to get a project going, so keep that in mind.  This is also a great time cultivate a relationship with a potential mentor. 

2Identify your passion areas

Sometimes you may readily fall into a project that you have interest in completely and other times it will consist of trial an error.  Do not let this hold you up in terms of getting involved.  After all, the key is your involvement.  As you move along with different research experiences, regularly reflect on what specifically ignites your intellectual passion. 

3Develop a thorough, customizable, template email for inquiries

While we suggest using a template to improve efficiency and allow you to reach out to many faculty members, make sure you individualize each email and do your homework on the individual(s) you are emailing.  Reach out to residents, fellows, and attendings.  Know their research arenas and publication breadth and strengths.  Try not to be too generic and robotic.  Keep it short and sweet and plan out a reasonable follow-up timeline (i.e. 1-2 weeks).  For example, instead of sending a generic email stating “I would love to get involved in any projects you may have”, instead consider customizing the email to the effect of, “I noticed that you have several publications on ____ topics, I would love to help or be involved in any way possible with your next project or any ongoing projects.”  Ask the attending or faculty member who the best point of contact is for communication– for example it may be a resident or a staff secretary. 

4Demonstrate your motivation, eagerness to help, and proactivity

Residents, fellows, and attendings are incredibly busy.  The students that succeed in connecting with teams/projects do their research ahead of time and proactively stay in touch.  Do not be pushy or rude.  Do not send multiple emails every 1-3 days.  Find that sweet balance.  Consider a short follow-up email checking in after a few weeks if you have not heard a response yet.  Remember, it all comes down to your willingness to help and your ability to be available.  Even after you get involved with the project, your proactivity should continue.  Demonstrate an initiative to think for yourself and create your own task and project deadlines in the framework of the team.  Offer to perform and be involved in many different elements of the projects (i.e. the literature review, draft writing, statistics etc).  In many ways, a medical student on the research team can push the timeline and serve as the “glue” of the research team to ultimately positive impact the outcome of the project.  Also, there is nothing wrong with approaching your research team regarding authorship opportunities and publication expectations.  Sometimes your attending will readily discuss these components early on with you, but not always.   

5Develop an organizational project / task manager

Use google sheets/google docs to keep your tasks, projects, and deadlines organized.  This will encourage you to stay efficient and can invite collaboration.  It will also keep you organized.  If you are only focusing on one project, it will still help you.  And if you are helping with multiple projects and teams, you will be an efficiency machine.

6Learn something new every day and adapt to your research infrastructure

Stay up to date with the current literature, read about how to do statistical analysis, and practice your manuscript draft writing.  Academic programs vary from institution to institution in terms of the quality and number of research support staff and personnel.  At some institutions, you are driving every single component of the research project with little support.  At others, you may have a team of individuals supporting the project and carrying you along.  Mold and adapt accordingly.  Both environments have their positives and negatives in terms of its impact on your professional development.

7Pay it forward

Always remember who helped you.  Always be appreciative.  Always be professional and collaborative.  Finally, help those coming along after you.  There is plenty of research to go around!

DISCLOSURES: Dr. Aiyer American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society: Board or committee member, Delee & Drez Orthopaedic Sports Medicine (Elsevier): Publishing royalties, financial or material support, Medline: Paid consultant, Medshape: Paid consultant, Miller’s Review of Orthopaedics (Elsevier): Publishing royalties, financial or material support Dr. Varacallo This individual reported nothing to disclose.

Read the AAOS Code of Conduct for Discussion Group Terms, Conditions and Disclaimers HERE.

Copyright© 2022 by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s