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?
My friends like to joke that I’m in 21st grade. They’re not wrong, and even after 4 years of undergraduate college and 5 years of graduate school, I’m still not done. And I’m not alone on my journey. According to the AAMC, 5,344 students were enrolled in MD/PhD programs across the United States in 2017, and this number is on the rise. MD/PhD programs are becoming increasingly popular due in part to a growing interest in research, financial benefits, and the wide variety of career choices upon completing the program. Although there are more than 100 programs across the country, no two programs are exactly alike and there are a number of factors a candidate should consider before deciding on a program. Some considerations, such as location, cost of living, and proximity to family and friends, are important for both a traditional 4 year MD student and an MD/PhD student. However, the latter will ultimately be committing roughly 8 years to graduate education, making the decision where to go even more important. The following are some specific factors potential MD/PhD candidates should consider before selecting a program:
It keeps our field moving forward, and helps to affirm the confidence that we are making the right clinical decisions. In the end, we practice based on the evidence. And the evidence has to come from somewhere. It is a pursuit that some of us build careers upon.
It's no surprise that MD/PhD programs are very competitive. Many schools have just a handful of slots open for aspiring physician-scientists, and these highly coveted spots are even harder to secure than a seat in a traditional MD program. But — you couldn't imagine giving up either of your passions for discovery or clinical medicine. You've done the research. You’ve spent time shadowing physicians and gaining clinical experience. Now, how do you successfully matriculate into an MD/PhD program?
It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. Or maybe more appropriately, at the middle of the tunnel. Your one and only summer, between first and second year. And to think, this might be your “last” summer. The last one until retirement that you could choose to spend kicking your feet up, watching Netflix, sleeping in, and traveling incessantly. Haven’t you earned it after the most academically rigorous year of your life?
The angel on your shoulder chimes in: Look at all this time you’ve got! Time to do research, to get published. Time to make inroads with faculty and participate in community outreach projects and global health initiatives. Time to study undisturbed and set yourself up for second-year success. Only a fool would squander such an opportunity!
Surely a compromise must exist….
When interviewing for medical school, many of us were asked to specify what kind of research we were interested in: basic, translational and clinical research. Under the descriptions of each category were topics that fit into each, and under basic research, it listed “immunology.” When one of our tutors went through this process, within a few minutes, he heard someone respond that they were offended that their immunology research was considered “basic...”.
It became abundantly clear at this point that people in and outside of medicine are still confused about these terminologies, which are fundamental to understanding the research world. More importantly, an understanding of the differences between basic, translational and clinical research is almost imperative to helping you decide on a future lab!
If you have ever been disappointed in life, someone has probably told you “Don’t worry, I believe things happen for a reason.” Well, call me cynical, but I don’t believe that. I do, however, believe in something similar: there are reasons (sometimes in your control, sometimes not) that things happen. To me, “things happen for a reason” takes away accountability in some ways, however optimistic it may be. I prefer to take charge early on and make things happen. That way, when they work out, I can say, “I did that!” Well, I’m here to tell you, there is no better time to embrace this mentality than when it comes to your career.
Having a successful research experience is often as much about hard work on your end as it is about the fit of the lab with your personality and goals. Many labs have a great work environment, exciting research and lots of money. While this might seem to be a formula for success, it may not be the formula for success for you.
So, how can you make sure that you are picking the appropriate research situation? Here are some suggestions from a few of our tutors who are in the midst of their own research: