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To Do or Not To Do Research? That is the Question

Medical schools have an interest in advocating that their medical students pursue research in order to prepare them for careers in academia. Indeed, many students who are substantially involved in research in medical school are also interested in pursuing residency programs at a university. More importantly, medical schools promote research to encourage critical thinking and cultivate scientific discovery and analysis: the process through which guidelines are derived. To this end, medical schools support research efforts such as summer internships and fellowships while others integrate it into the curriculum. For example, students at Yale University are required to present a thesis on original research while Duke University requires its students to dedicate their third year of medical school to research.

Many students wonder whether they should pursue research in medical school and, if so, whether they should take a gap year to complete their research. Although performing research is almost always recommended, the decision to take a gap year to pursue it is an individual one. At most medical schools, a research year can be done after either the second or third year. However, the most popular option, as with MD/PhD students, is to take the research year after the second year as it does not create a gap during the clinical clerkship years. Interestingly, students may also opt to undertake a research year for reasons other than strengthening their resumes such as taking a break from medical school, establishing a family or exploring different, interesting medical specialties.

A recent study performed at medical schools with highly active research centers, including Johns Hopkins, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Yale and Stanford, found that 92% of students applying for highly competitive residencies intended to take a year off between medical school and residency to pursue academic research. The most prevalent reason for this was to increase residency application competitiveness. Surprisingly, even among students who were pursuing less competitive residents, 75% also decided to take a year off for research. Many of the remaining students who were undecided on future residency goals also decided to take a year off to pursue research. The role of research as a means to increase competitiveness for residency was suggested by the fact that only 35% would still do research if they were already granted a residency position.

The quandary of whether research makes an applicant more competitive for residency is that applicants may be tempted to focus on quantity rather than quality. As such, many students engage in research that is deemed “easy,” such as case reviews, cross-sectional studies or case studies. The number of times a publication is cited by other researchers can be used as a proxy of its worthiness; unfortunately, 59% of the aforementioned types of research were not subsequently cited in other academic works. While this practice of pursuing less demanding research is understandable given the many responsibilities of a medical student, a feasible option is to reduce quantity and pursue quality in the form of one main research project.

In light of both the aforementioned studies, some have questioned whether taking only one year for research, whether elective or mandatory, stifles the innovation and initiative that medical students may bring to clinical research. A possible way to address this is for students to become involved with research that they find interesting and clinically relevant and then continue the research during their clinical rotations. This way, they have a chance to see how the research aligns with practice, which may spark a higher level of innovation.

A literature review of studies on medical student researchers from 1950 to 2013 found that satisfaction and productivity did not differ between students who were required to do research and those who chose to do so independently. It also found that the number of first author publications correlated positively with the length of time for which one did research. Most students reported positive experiences and were thankful for developing research skills and having their interests stimulated. Negative themes included receiving minimal acknowledgement, having to meticulously balance time and interacting with difficult faculty. Because of this, it is important to perform research with a principal investigator who shares one’s passion and complements one’s personality. Such faculty mentors have been found to be crucial in influencing the decision to pursue a research career.

So, you have decided to pursue research and wonder how to get started:

  • Define your goals for residency.
  • Determine if there are any overlapping characteristics between your residency goals and interesting research opportunities.
  • Look for resources that will enable you to reach those goals: such as research departments, libraries and medical school faculty.  
  • Find mentors who are genuinely interested in your professional development, and collaborate on a common goal. 
  • Learn more about your mentors by learning their interests and reading their prior publications for information.
  • Meet in person with your mentors to talk about your goals, their work and meaningful contributions you can make together. 
  • Be honest with your mentors about the multiple roles and responsibilities you have in and outside of medical school.
  • Work with your mentors to create a list of clear tasks and timelines.
  • Communicate, follow deadlines, work diligently, consistently seek constructive feedback and continue to maintain your academic standing.

Image credit: “Laboratory Science – biomedical” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Sky Noir

Ogaga Urhie Ogaga Urhie (5 Posts)

Contributing Writer

West Virginia University School of Medicine

Ogaga is a third year medical student at West Virginia University (WVU). He intends to pursue a residency in neurosurgery and to integrate clinical research into his practice. To this end, he earned a Master of Science in Clinical and Translational Science with an emphasis in neurosurgery. In 2015, Ogaga graduated from WVU with a Bachelor of Science in biology and a minor in economics. He has been interested in the arts and humanities since high school and came to appreciate the poignant stories various forms of artwork tell during his undergrad career. He enjoys observing all forms of art and actively writes poetry influenced by his love of Victorian literature. He realized that patients and clinicians may have their own stories to tell and that the arts and humanities can help all stakeholders better connect with stories of healthcare. In this light, he designed a project with the goal of using narrative medicine to improve patients' qualities of life.