Physicians are expected to understand and apply research in order to provide their patients with the best available care. To meet this growing demand, there has been an increase in the number of physician-scientists in biomedical research. Medical doctors are no longer limited to the traditional MD-PhD programs and can now complete their education in both medicine and research through Medical Scientist Training Programs and residency Physician-Scientist Training Programs (PSTP).
Summer research programs for medical students provide an effective way to expose medical students to careers in research, which could inspire students to pursue training in PSTP residencies, even if not formally enrolled in a MD-PhD or MD-MS program. However, this level of research skill and inspiration requires exposure and preparation, which is not generally emphasized in medical education. We hope to provide insight for medical students on selection, preparation and effective execution of summer research.
Selection: Formal programs tend to provide stipends, career development workshops and housing, but they often have strict application processes. In contrast, contacting individual researchers outside of formal programs may facilitate flexible timelines, but this will lack the structure of formal programs. Both options require early preparation to secure a summer research experience. During the fall semester prior to the intended summer, we suggest creating a list of six to eight programs of interest, or individual researchers, along with their application deadlines and requirements. We suggest that you first identify your programs of interest based on the topic of your research inquiry and then narrow your selections based on their requirements. It is of utmost importance to request letters of recommendation, request college transcripts, draft personal statements and update your curriculum vitae by the end of winter break. Early preparation will increase your chances of acceptance, especially in programs with rolling admissions, and also prevent rejection due to an incomplete application. Generally, programs have strict start and end dates and last between eight to 10 weeks. However, some programs and some medical schools may be willing to work with your schedule and the type of opportunity.
Once accepted and selecting between research experiences, it is important to define your personal goals (e.g., manuscript writing or presenting a poster at a national conference), which will allow clear and goal-oriented planning with your research mentor. If you receive multiple acceptances, take the time to analyze which program coincides best with your personal goals, interests, and schedule. It is also important to evaluate the access to mentoring that you will have in any particular program. These summer experiences are intended for more than learning how to perform basic laboratory techniques, such as immunohistochemistry or clinical data analysis; they also aim to provide mentorship that will serve you throughout your career.
Preparation and Effective Execution: We recommend preparing for the research experience prior to your start date. Start by clearly identifying your direct supervisor; this may be the principal investigator, postdoctoral fellow or other member of the research team. Then, work with your supervisor to complete the following tasks: understand the research question, define a clear role for yourself in the project and create a timeline. Understanding the research question is best accomplished by reading a topic-specific review article, followed by articles suggested by your research mentor. Once you are comfortable with the research focus, we suggest writing a feasible project proposal, assisted by your research mentor, which will transition project ideas into goals and a timeline. It is imperative that you are clear with your mentor about your long-term and short-term goals. This will facilitate guidance from your research mentor towards accomplishing these goals and defining your role and responsibilities within the project.
Summer experiences finish faster than you may anticipate, but efficient use of time will help you make the most out of your experience. Request weekly or bi-weekly progress meetings with your research mentor (and the principal investigator if this is not your mentor) to keep your project on track. The project goals and timeline will likely be revised throughout the summer, so constant communication between trainee and mentor is key to efficient time management.
Required and Extracurricular Activities: Many formal summer research programs have a poster exposition at their conclusion. Therefore, it is in your best interest to inform and periodically remind your mentor about this requirement. The poster exposition is an ideal time to showcase what you have accomplished throughout the summer while also giving your mentor a chance to evaluate your understanding of the research. In the event that you are not in a formal summer program (and even if you are), we encourage you to present your work at a local, regional or national meeting if possible.
Additionally, do not be afraid to request meetings with other faculty during your summer. It is important to get exposure to the full spectrum of research and start networking within your field of interest. Begin by requesting short informational interviews early during the summer to increase the likelihood of scheduling interviews. Additionally, these short informational interviews could be the first meeting to future research collaborations or projects!
In summary, we believe early action in completing applications, clear understanding of the research project and your role, identification of project goals and a timeline, continued communication and the trainee’s hard work and determination will ultimately lead to a successful summer research experience despite the short time frame. Additionally, we hope to encourage medical students to actively seek opportunities across the spectrum of scholarly research to receive the training that can help us deliver quality medical care, while also having the tools to understand, dissect and present complex medical research to our future patients.