How to gain research experience as a student

June 17, 2021

Jeremie Oliver


Research is often considered a “black-box” to many undergraduate— and even graduate and professional-level—students, and for good reason.  Many students are not thoroughly introduced to the formal research process during school, much less to the many resources that are all around us to pursue research projects. When I began my educational journey toward a career in the health sciences, I knew early on that to competitively pursue specialization in medicine and surgery, research would be a requirement for me.

I began clinical, translational, and basic science research during my undergraduate years, and have since continued pursuing various research projects into my graduate and professional school years. My hope in writing this article is to help unveil some key components of the research process that will help students wherever they are in their academic journey.  

Why research?

Pursuing research as a student is a substantial commitment especially as you will already have many competing tasks and priorities on your plate. For example, you may already be working part- or full-time to finance your education and living expenses, or you may have substantial family obligations outside of school that demand much of your time and focus beyond your studies. This is something to consider when taking on any kind of project, as your main focus in school should always be the educational experience, that is getting the best grades possible. This focus will then pave the way toward your future career. That being said, research can also greatly supplement and enhance your experience as a student, truly complementing your education.

Conducting research studies throughout undergraduate and graduate school has taught me more about biostatistics and epidemiology than any classroom experience ever did. For instance, if you are a student in the health sciences, whether it be medicine, nursing, pharmacy, dentistry, etc., becoming familiar with the primary literature on topics of interest to you can enhance your interactions in the clinic or operating room, as your knowledge of critical questions of clinical relevance will help you shine. To that end, my involvement in research has been the single most important aspect of my educational experience to gain mentors, colleagues, and unique opportunities within my chosen specialty. 

In all competitive fields of medicine and surgery, research is highly emphasized. The medical field thrives on innovation and novel therapeutics for the betterment of patient care. Similar to other specialized fields, program directors and managers look very highly upon student involvement in research efforts, oftentimes ranking it among the most influential aspects contributing to candidate selection.

Additionally, gaining rapport through longitudinal research efforts with mentors from your early years in higher education will enhance a potential letter of recommendation coming from that mentor when you apply for your next phase of training and or for you to land your ultimate dream job. Imagine how much of an advantage that mentorship will give you in multiple aspects of your application and ultimately in your education as a whole.

With these things in mind, here is step number one –  find a mentor.

Mentor-mentee relationships

Mentorship is an opportunity for you to be instructed on an individualized level, tailored to your interests and life goals. A mentor can be someone very similar or someone totally opposite from you; there are advantages to both of those extremes!  The most important aspect of mentor-mentee collaboration is commitment. Approaching a potential mentor is daunting. When considering a mentor, I find it helpful to remind myself that the relationship is mutually beneficial, as your work and dedication will translate into greater productivity and gratification for your mentor, just as their instruction and guidance will contribute to your learning. Also, you do not need to feel that you can only have one mentor.

There are faculty members and staff at your campus who are eager and willing to guide students.  Most times, all it takes is for you to approach them and express your interest in working with them. Mentorship is also very available from mentors at other institutions. In fact, I would highly recommend you do form meaningful, longitudinal relationships with mentors from other institutions early in your educational career, as these will provide you with unique opportunities for collaborative projects, additional training, and potential future job opportunities. 

You are probably aware that there are a variety of mentor-mentee relationships available to you at whatever stage of training you may find yourself. For instance, as a first-year medical student, you have access to all of these levels of mentorship:

  • Senior faculty
  • Junior faculty
  • Clinical/Research fellows
  • Residents
  • Senior medical students

My recommendation would be to seek mentorship from any and all of these levels, as each has associated advantages and opportunities. For instance, a senior medical student may be best-suited, and more desirable from your standpoint, to explain the more “basic” fundamental principles associated with a study. This can be beneficial to you in your early stage of training, as the senior medical student is likely familiar with your level of knowledge with the topics at hand. They can also buffer your understanding prior to more extensive interactions you may have with residents, fellows, and faculty. Going through the senior medical student’s explanations first can really help you. You can then springboard from those discussions with the senior medical student into higher tiers of mentorship with those who will be pulling weight for you when residency applications are on the line.

Should you complete or participate in research while still a student?

There are definitely a number of strong opinions on this topic. You’ll come across people who strongly advocate for you to hold off on research until you are more established at an institution, have more free time away from your studies, etc.  Based on my experience with research planning, execution, submission, review, more review, revisions, acceptance, production, and finally publication, there is truly no replacement for an early start in the process. 

Some people will discourage you from taking my advice of starting as soon as possible. I totally understand where they’re coming from. However, I strongly feel that I cannot give you an honest opinion by mimicking their counsel.  This is my take:

Depending on your level of experience and motivation, your starting point in the research journey varies substantially.  I came into graduate and professional school without even knowing what the concept of clinical research meant.  All the years in undergrad sweating over pipettes and electrophoresis gels equated research in my mind.

Perhaps you are better-informed than I was at your stage.  Given the lengthy timeline of seeing a project through from its infancy into publication, the sooner you can begin the process, the better. This can protect you by reducing stress that you may encounter further along in your educational experience.  I base this on having seen many students who have had to scramble toward the end of their degree program because none of their research projects — which they started, in my opinion, quite late— panned out in time for residency or job applications. 

Beyond all of this, I believe the most valuable tangible result of research involvement is the mentorship that comes attached to your hard work. This cannot be sought after early enough. Mentor-mentee relationships have the potential to carry you much further along your educational and professional journey than any number of publications and presentation could ever do for you alone.

I truly hope this article has been a helpful guide for you to become more familiar with the research experience as a student, whatever your level of education and expertise may currently be.  Regardless of your background, the desire and motivation to pursue research during your studies and training can result in tremendous professional development and future opportunities for you to capture the career you’ve always dreamed of. Please don’t hesitate to take advantage of all the resources and opportunities around you. 

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