It goes without saying that research is an important part of medical school. Whether your goals are to learn more about an exciting new topic, push the boundaries of medical knowledge, or just bolster your resume, it will be important to know how to really take advantage of a research experience. Once you’ve picked a lab or project, how do you go about getting the most out of your experience?
1. Ask the rest of the lab.
Approaching your PI can be daunting and they often aren’t going to be able to give you the best advice about how to succeed in their lab. Instead, approach the senior lab members or someone who has known the PI for a while for advice. Ask for papers to read, about their experience publishing in the lab, and what they think is the likelihood of success for your project. As intrusive as these questions may seem, you will be better off knowing the answers up front. That way, you can hit the ground running right from the start.
2. Read, read, read.
To get anything out of your rotation, you are going to need to understand what you are working on and why. After you’ve gotten a few good background papers from your fellow lab members, read them, and then follow up by reading more. Nothing else will look better for you than being able to talk about a cutting edge new paper that others in your lab haven’t even heard of yet at lab meeting. At the same time, nothing will look worse than your being the only one who hasn’t heard of an exciting new update the rest of the lab is already talking about. More than just looking good or bad, having this background knowledge will make everything else easier — from the introduction to your future manuscript to just being able to have more engaging and critical discussions about your work.
3. Have realistic goals and be proactive about them.
Know exactly what you want to accomplish in your rotation. Are you there to publish a paper? Publish two papers? Or are you new to research and just want to see if it should be a part of your future? These goals will change exactly what it is that you are working on day-to-day. Being able to plan out the days, weeks, and months of your research experience around accomplishing these goals will serve you well in the long run.
4. Start writing.
Regardless of whether you want to publish a manuscript or not (who doesn’t?), you will likely need to write up a report about your research experience. It is never too early to start writing. Your future self will always thank you for any work you do pre-emptively — whether it is beginning the introduction to your manuscript or writing up the exact steps you took to do an experiment (which you’re likely to forget about if you put it off to later). Writing often becomes the most daunting part of a research experience, in large part because everyone puts it off to the end.
Following the steps above are going to put you two steps ahead of everyone else on your research project. That said, don’t forget about the obvious things: work hard, be present, act professional. Whether you end up deciding that research is what you want to do for the rest of your life or that it is something you never want to do again, try to go into your experience with an open mind, and you’ll be surprised about where that alone can get you!