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.
At the same time, hearing the word “research” can cause a pit to form in the stomachs of the uninterested. There are few more loathsome tasks than slaving away through papers and spreadsheets for a project that fails to enthuse you. Or maybe you are faced with an internal struggle because you feel you should be doing research, but you’re not. Should you? Do you need to?
Let’s get something straight. There are few things that you need to do in medical school. You need to take and pass your USMLE exams. You need to get letters of recommendation and an MSPE letter, fill out your ERAS, and apply to some programs. Mind you, this is the bare minimum, but in the sense of the word, it is all that you need to do.
Now, there are many aspects of your application that can bolster your chances of obtaining an interview and a sweet, sweet residency spot. Become class president, establish a free health screening event for your community, provide volunteer care to the underserved in your school’s clinic, and you will not only look better on paper and have undergone meaningful experiences, but you will have something of substance to talk about.
An activity that checks many of these boxes, displays your countless positive attributes, and spurs erudite conversation during interviews is published research. Here is our pointed FAQ on doing research during medical school, including pitfalls to avoid, who to get involved with, and how to survive the (occasionally arduous) process:
Q: Who should I select as a research mentor?
A: There are two ways to approach this. First off, your research advisor should be an attending in your chosen field. The next important qualification -- they should be someone who has a track record of getting published. This maximizes the chances that your hard work will come to fruition, with a completed published paper that leaves you immortalized in the literature. Few things are as demoralizing as dozens of hours put into a project that goes nowhere, leaving you with nothing to show for it. The best mentors will have an interest in helping you out along the way, pairing you up with upperclassmen/residents who can help guide you, but also give you some autonomy so that you can negotiate part of the process on your own.
Q: Who can I enlist for help besides the advisor?
A: One of the beauties of doing research is that it thrives on collaboration and shows that you can work well in a team. Depending on your class year, you should enlist help from other students (and/or residents) in years above and below you. Have you designed a great study that requires some extra sets of hands and brains to gather data or perform literature searches? Enlist the help of some eager underclassmen so you can have a bit more freedom to iron out kinks and do the actual writing. Have an idea for a project and lots of time, but don’t know the first thing about writing or submitting a paper? Hopefully your advisor can connect you with someone who has been through the process before and can lead you through.
Q: Does research in a field outside my specialty help me?
A: Yes, any completed publication which lands on your ERAS and CV is a beneficial endpoint. It’s true, research in your field will carry some more weight and help to reinforce your dedication to your chosen field, something that program directors will be looking for. However, if your paper(s) come from other fields, that’s A-OK. Switching interests during medical school is normal and permissible. There is no shame in explaining that you thought you were going into orthopedics, but in third year, had a life-changing neurology experience that resulted in a change of plans. Just be ready to explain why the change of heart. If you are honest and forthright, no one will hold this against you.
Q: What if my research doesn’t get published in a medical journal? How can I take credit for my work?
A: Published research is a much stronger positive mark on your application than having “worked on a project for a few months with Dr. So-and-so.” A completed research project demonstrates many of the important attributes that program directors are looking for: autonomy, leadership, teamwork, interest in your field, expertise, and the ability to see a project through to completion. Do what it takes to complete your project, if possible. (This is why it’s important to choose an advisor who is a publisher.)
Let’s say you completed your project, but Nature and Science shot you down. Continue down the impact factor trail until you find a happy home for your work. A publication in a lower-tiered journal is better than no publication at all.
If your work isn’t journal-worthy, see if you can spin it into a poster presentation or abstract at a conference. Even if you only land a spot at the research day at your home institution, having a completed poster to stand in front of and talk about trumps a mere “work in progress.”
Q: Okay, so I understand I don’t need to, but should I do research?
A: Put yourself in your program director’s shoes. You and an identical applicant are vying for a single spot. You’ve put in the extra effort and churned out a paper or two, while s/he has not. All other things being equal, who do you give the spot to?
If you like it, even if you can tolerate it with a smile and have interest in the field, research is a nice thing to have on your resume and application.
On the other hand, if it is not your thing, there are plenty of other ways to demonstrate that you exemplify the attributes of an outstanding medical student and resident.
Q: Are there any reasons to put my head down and do what it takes to get a publication, even if I’m not enjoying the work?
A: If you are applying to a research-intensive field (e.g., ENT, ortho) without any research to talk about, you might have some explaining to do. Some academically driven programs will be looking for publications on your ERAS, and will be disappointed to find a lack thereof. In this situation, you have to weigh the benefits of a better application vs. the lost hours of ennui and chart combing, and make the decision that’s right for you. Do your best to find the gumption to put some hard work in now for a future benefit and better residency spot.