Finding a Research Mentor (Part 3)

If you’ve been following along, this is the third and final post on finding a research mentor.  By now we have discussed what type of research to do, what specialty to research in, and qualities that make for a good research mentor.  While those are the main initial considerations, there are several other items you want to make sure to discuss with potential research mentors as these items can have a profound impact on your experience.

What is the timeline for project completion and the likelihood of presentation or publication?

It is very important in initial meetings with research mentors to discuss your goals and their goals.  For example, if they want a retrospective chart review of 1,000 patients with 30 primary endpoints completed by the end of the week…that might not be the best endeavor to sign up for.  Similarly, if their plan is to slowly collect data over a 5 year period, that doesn’t sound like a project that you are going to have submitted for publication by the time you are applying for residency.

A great mantra for research project timelines as a medical student is to undersell and over deliver.  In my initial meeting with the endourology fellow, we determined that that my summer project would be a retrospective chart review of patients to determine the compliance and accuracy of 24-hour urine testing in the workup for kidney stones in these patients.  He told me, “Yeah, you know take your time with the database. It’ll be summer. Enjoy your break.  You’re with us for 8 weeks, 10 weeks?  Let’s try to be near completion with the data collection by the end of your time with us.”  I, of course, agreed to these goals.  But remember, undersell and over deliver.  I had the full data set to the fellow and attending for review after just two and a half weeks.  This set the tone for our mentor/mentee relationship and after seeing that hard work, they were even more willing to help me achieve success.  Regardless, do try to set a timeline initially and stick to it.

Being able to distinguish what project ideas are publishable comes with experience.  As a first year medical student, I did not have that expertise (and an area I still need help with).  I assumed, like many other medical students, that if an attending is presenting me with a project idea then that means this will end up as a publication on my CV.  That is far, far from the truth.  Looking back at my personal experience and the experience of classmates, I would estimate that 50% of projects that are started by medical students make it to a presentation and an even lower percentage make it to publication.  There are numerous contributing factors to these numbers.  Sometimes the interests of students and attendings change and they are no longer interested in pursuing a project.  Some projects are poorly designed.  Some studies it is difficult to recruit patients or achieve an adequate sample size.  Sometimes the peer-review process does not deem the project to merit publication.  And sometimes it just doesn’t make sense.  I have a research project I authored in plastic surgery that was awarded the best paper at the Academic Surgical Congress meeting in 2020, was accepted for publication in the Journal of Surgical Research, and will be featured on the cover of that journal in November of 2020.  I collaborated with a classmate and performed nearly the same study in orthopedic surgery, and after submitting it to five different journals we still cannot get it accepted.  For all these reasons, I think it is important to ask potential mentors what they envision will be the product of the research.  If they think there is a high likelihood that this project will merit presentation at a regional meeting, national conference, or a publication, then that is a project you want to be a part of.

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Is there potential for future projects with this mentor?

This consideration really gets at longevity of the mentor/mentee relationship which is particularly important when you are applying for residency and need letters of recommendation.  When I came back to the chair of urology and endourology fellow with the data collection of my summer project complete in two and a half weeks, they had three to four additional projects in queue that I could start on.  They weren’t scraping the barrel to come up with new ideas.  Together, they had tons of ideas but just needed data collectors (i.e. medical students) to make those research projects come to fruition.  There was an abundance of opportunity.  These qualities of inquisitiveness and innovation may have been one of the most important advantages that they provided me as mentors.  No matter how hard I worked, I was never going to run out of projects.  From that first summer of medical school, we established one of the most productive mentor/mentee relationships I have been a part of that lasted throughout the remainder of medical school.

What support staff does the mentor have in place?

I did not realize how much of a difference this could make and honestly took it for granite in my time researching with the urology department.  The urology department had dedicated, paid staff to write and submit proposals for Institutional Review Board (IRB) approvals. These individuals also helped with setting up my ethics trainings, getting remote Electronic Medical Record access, generating patient lists for chart review projects, and recruiting patients for participation in our studies.  They also had departmental relationships with statisticians that could provide counsel for study design and statistical analysis.

In contrast, when I began actively pursuing research projects with the division of plastic surgery, I had to do the majority of this work for myself.  I had to learn how to write and submit IRBs (a valuable skill, yet very involved and time consuming) on my own.  I had to talk with hospital IT support to set up trainings and access for other medical students helping with data collection.  I didn’t have contacts within the hospital to assist in generating patient lists based on patient encounters or ICD-10 codes.  There weren’t dedicated statisticians for the division, requiring me as a medical student to seek out and find statistical support elsewhere in the school of medicine.  While these are relatively small issues in the grand scheme of things, they are important to consider in your process of selecting a research mentor.  The more time you spend on administrative activities setting up your research experience, the less time you have to collect data and write manuscripts. 

If you’re reading this, you’ve made it to the end of our three part series on finding a research mentor.  If you missed part 1 or part 2, be sure to go back and visit those.  Equipped with this information, use it to help pick out a research mentor that will be the right fit your you. 

What other considerations do you think students should be considering when selecting a research mentor? Comment below or contact us.

Carter J. Boyd, MD, MBA
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