The Research Problem for Medical Students

Clinical and laboratory research sits at a unique interface for the young professional. It allows for the advancement of knowledge and understanding with the hopes of benefiting people and populations for years to come. Depending on how you cultivate your research, it can allow you to “leave your mark on the world” for the good of all. In an academic setting that increasingly has devested and diluted traditional measures of intelligence and scholastic accomplishments such as GPA or standardized tests, research accolades still stand out starkly as proxies for hard work, ingenuity, and the ability to think critically. In addition, the advancement of academic clinicians, professors, and researchers are often predicated on productivity and so moving the yard stick forward for your professor’s project is a unique area where you as an individual can often contribute meaningfully as a team player. With the numerous and varied reasons to pursue research, it’s no wonder then that by the time they enter residency, approximately 95.0% of medical students have participated in a research project of some kind and 88.5% have either published an abstract, had a manuscript accepted, or given a presentation on their work.¹ While the “why pursue research” may be easy to answer for those of us wanting to pursue medicine or another academic career, often times I run into people who are stuck and get lost on the “how do I get involved in research” phase. To my knowledge, there’s no step-by-step guide to answer this question. Each individual has a slightly unique journey, However, there are techniques and approaches that can assist you in kick-starting your research endeavors.

Tip 1. Play the numbers game – There’s an old saying “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again. Divide your portion among seven, or eight, for you do not know what disaster may befall the land”. This goes back to the day of merchants where money and wealth were made by trading goods by ships. Ships back then weren’t what they are today and would often sink. The saying is saying don’t put all your eggs in one basket; diversify your attempts to secure an end goal. This isn’t unique to commerce, business, or investing – though it certainly applies to those fields even today – but can be generalized to other areas of life. There is inherent variability in most pursuits that isn’t easily explained. Focusing on one goal, however much effort, tears, and sweat you put in may not work out in the end. It’s not all dependent on you. However, you’re not limited to one pursuit. A wise person knows that with each pursuit there’s a probability that it may work out, a probability that it may not work out, and those odds can change only so much with a given amount of effort. Dividing your most precious resource, time, across many similar pursuits is a way to increase your chances of securing a goal. When applied to the setting of pursuing research, go into it expecting to hear “no” from some groups. Don’t get so laser focused on working with one group versus another than you forget your overarching goal of getting a foot in the door to the research world. At the beginning of your research career, try to approach multiple and varied groups with a desire to be involved. Persistence through hearing all the “no’s” and diversifying your efforts will help move you towards your goal.

Tip 2. Seek to add value to your research group – Often times, I’ve received enthusiastic emails from students wanting to join an existing project. If it’s possible to have them join and be involved, I gladly say yes. But more often than not, the projects are already staffed to capacity. There’s no room. What if you could create room though? You can! Research is ideas implemented. If you have an idea for a project, a question you want to answer, there’s actually very little stopping you from putting that idea into practice. As a college student, you’ve been gifted with the capacity to think critically. It’s completely in the realm of possibility that you’d be able to develop a research question and put together a brief protocol. This takes a bit of time and requires reading into what is necessary to put together a study protocol, but it pays dividends in the long run. Put yourself in the shoes of a research coordinator for a minute. As the summer approaches, you get 100s of emails from enthusiastic students wanting to be involved in ongoing work. It’s hard for you to pick one or two students out of the many that genuinely want to help. Then you get an email from a student who wants to help but also has taken the time to read through your research group’s work and attached a brief protocol of a project he or she would like to implement with you. He or she’s open to learning how to develop and create research from the ground up rather than only being involved in a pre-established study. Who would you pick to join your group? In taking initiative to start the processes of research creation rather than research completion, you stand out as a unique individual who seeks to add to a team and expand it rather than support it.

Tip 3. Develop a unique skillset – While the widespread use and accessibility of the internet has brought with it many pros and cons, it’s initial intention to quickly facilitate the sharing of information is still a positive of the world wide wed. At the tips of your fingers, you have a fast, wide, and deep source of information on just about any academic topic. One of these areas is statistics. Now I’m not saying that it’s possible to become an epidemiologist overnight youtubing videos, but it is absolutely possible to establish a firm understanding of basic statistical principles, sample size calculations, and statistical analysis packages. Augmented with your campus’s statistical program availability, time, and effort, you can start to become a “go to” person for statistics and research design. This is valuable in virtually all sub categories of research and will enhance your ability to contribute meaningfully to the research group you end up joining.

Like many areas of life, the research problem of getting experience without having experience can feel like a catch-22 or banging you’re head on a wall. When you’re struggling to gain entry into the field take a step back and re-evaluate your approach. Consider broadening your approach, developing a unique skillset, and seeking to add value to the group you’re hoping to join. Like the research process itself, participating in research can be a lot of trial-and-error at times. But you learn for unintended results and gain a better appreciation of the system as a whole. All the best in your future research endeavors!


  1. National Resident Matching Program. Charting Outcomes in the Match: U.S. Allopathic Seniors. July 2018. Available from:

Interested in more free resources regarding research for pre-medical and medical students? Check out these blogs:
Why You Should be Involved in Research
How to Get the Most out Extracurriculars
Measurement of Research Productivity

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