Finding a Research Mentor (Part 1)

One of the most frustrating and time consuming processes for me during the first year of medical school was selecting a research mentor to work with during the summer between the first and second year.  At that point in time, I had nearly zero research experience outside of working for a virology lab in college one summer, but I knew that participating in research and generating products of that work (presentations and publications) were highly valuable for building a competitive residency application portfolio.  This is the first of a three part segment on discovering the right research mentor for you.  This post will discuss the basic considerations of what specialty to chose for your research and what kind of research is best for your goals.  In part two, we will discuss several qualities to look for when identifying potential research mentors.  Part three will cover other miscellaneous considerations that can have a substantial influence on your research productivity and success.

Image by Pete Linforth by Pixaby

I remember during medical school orientation being provided with a document that provided help for finding a research mentor.  Perusing this document, all it did was list nearly every attending with an affiliation to the school of medicine, their specialty, and an email address.  After emailing a couple of attendings and receiving no reply, I decided that I needed to be more systematic in my approach.  I first needed to answer several questions.  What specialty should I perform research in?  Did I want to participate in basic science or clinical research?  In conjunction with these questions that I did ask, looking back I realize that there are several additional considerations that I wish I would have accounted for.  These include the qualities I should be looking for in a mentor, the timeline for project completion, and potential for future projects.

What specialty should I perform research in?

As a first year medical student, very few people know exactly what specialty of medicine they want to eventually practice.  And that is okay.  I received several pieces of advice when discerning the answer to this question.

All research is good and more is better.

Dr. Carter J. Boyd, Founder Med Student Edge

All research is good and more is better.  Program directors and individuals that sit on resident application review committees know that it is not common for medical students to know from day 1 what field they will apply to for residency.  They also know that research takes a long time and that projects that you start as a first year medical student may take several years to move from an idea to published paper.  Later in your medical school career, as you begin to move towards choosing what specialty you will apply to for residency, you should try to identify a research mentor within the field you will be applying to.

While all research is valuable, if you think you may have an inclination towards more competitive residencies (i.e. surgical sub-specialties), it makes sense to do research in a more competitive specialty initially.  There is a seemingly unwritten bias among surgeons to favor research activities and experiences that were affiliated with other surgeons.  This may be better understood with an example: it is easier to have an application filled with ENT experiences and change at the last minute to applying for family medicine than it is to have a family medicine application portfolio and decide to apply to ENT near the application deadline.  Experiences in more competitive specialties transition to less competitive specialties with greater ease than the reverse scenario.

All that being said, try to pick a specialty for research in a field that you like or want to learn more about.  If you know that you do not want to be a neurosurgeon, then look for opportunities outside of the neurosurgery department.  Research is a great way to learn more about a specialty and an excellent way to become an expert on an individual topic in that specialty based on your project topic. 

Should I participate in basic science or clinical research?

There are several important points to consider when answering this question.  First, determine your own goals and preferences.  If you are interested in academic medicine and particularly in helping direct a lab as a part of your career, working on basic science research may help give you a background in this arena and assist you in building the skill set needed for eventually serving as a principal investigator in a laboratory.  Instead, if you are interested in policy, patient outcomes, or medical education, clinical research may be a better fit for you.

For my decision for the summer between the first and second years of medical school, I used a cost-benefit mentality to decide.  I had 10 weeks of dedicated protected research time with no other commitments.  If I were to choose basic science research, I would require extensive training on the procedures and experiments I would be performing, have limited access to the facilities, be subject to sharing equipment with the normal workflow of the laboratory, and may encounter delays or mistakes that require troubleshooting beyond my expertise.  Additionally, at the end of 10 weeks it was going to be difficult to find time to complete experiments or projects as medical school coursework commenced in second year.  By comparison for clinical research projects, I could obtain remote access and work from any location, work at my own pace, and hypothesized that it would be much easier to continue projects into the school year if I did not finish them within my 10-week period of protected time.

In terms of volume, it takes basic science researchers months to years to take a project from idea to publication, oftentimes a very arduous process.  As a medical student, this timeline does not align well with the aim of having as much research on your CV as possible.  It is much easier to produce a considerable volume with clinical research, particularly with collaboration on data collection and outsourcing of critical components of research such as statistical analysis. 

I have heard students and some faculty members suggest that basic science research looks better on a CV than clinical research.  While I think there may be some truth that basic science research experience may receive higher clout given that it typically requires significantly more effort and time, I don’t think that a ‘research experience’ equates with a ‘research product’, namely presentations or publications.  Head to head, I would be more impressed with one basic science publication compared to one clinical publication on a medical student’s CV, controlling for position of authorship.  But I personally would place more value on a medical student with one clinical publication compared to zero basic science publications but ‘basic science research experience’.  All other things being equal, basic science research likely is more prestigious than most medical student clinical research (unless it is a New England Journal of Medicine published randomized control trial).  However, all other things are not equal because it is much easier to publish numerous clinical research projects than it is to garner one basic science research publication.  While there may be a few medical students that garner an outstanding publication in JAMA or NEJM , programs are not expecting you to do that.  The overwhelming majority of faculty members you will interview with have not published in those journals, and they don’t expect you to.  This is why I consistently emphasize research volume to medical students.

For all of these reasons, I elected to pursue clinical research during the summer between first and second year of medical school.  My medical school allowed us an additional research block in our third year of medical school in which I participated in basic science research for 8 weeks, but that decision was largely based on diversifying my research portfolio for applications as I had already generated an ample volume of publications and presentations from clinical research in the first two years of medical school.  For students who may take a research year during medical school, I think that is a great time to be involved in basic science research.  I have witnessed several friends and colleagues make substantial contributions to the scientific community and bolster their own CV‘s with basic science research experiences, presentations, and publications during a dedicated research year. 

This concludes the first of three segments on finding a research mentor.  Look for part two next where we will discuss what qualities to look for in a research mentor. 

Do you have insight to add regarding what kind of research students should perform and in what specialty?  If so, comment below or contact us directly at Med Student Edge.

Carter J. Boyd, MD, MBA
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