By far, the most underestimated skill for medical students and future doctors is research, despite it being highly emphasised - and I believe this emphasis is placed on it for the wrong reasons - for 'points' and 'prestige' and applying to the next position up the career ladder. It's not helpful to think this way... because the reality is, you'll only want to undertake research for clout instead of learning. What you gain from taking part in research does not only allow you to operate as a rational, well-knowledged clinician but gives you the skillset to pivot and thrive in other fields (such as health tech, consulting, data science, informatics, and more).
So if you're up for the challenge and want to get to grips with research and develop your skills, keep reading.
Now I know what you're thinking. There are usually two big questions on a medical student's mind: HOW do I even get research? And HOW do I generate tangible output from it (be it a poster, a presentation, or a publication)?
This blog post is for you if:
It seems like no matter what you do, you just don't know where to start / find research opportunities or
Maybe you've got as far as writing up a piece of work - perhaps your dissertation for intercalation or your SSC project (congrats!) - but it hasn't amounted to anything or your supervisor isn't giving you the time of day.
First, let's start with tips for bagging yourself a research project:
Your medical school curriculum
This is the best way to kill two birds with one stone. Most medical schools incorporate research projects into the curriculum such as Student Selected Components (SSCs), quality improvement projects (QIPs), or audits. The most important thing to do for these is:
(If given the choice) Pick a topic you're interested in and is UNIQUE. This doesn't have to be a "Never been done before" project but it should bring something new to the field you're researching in - whether that's an idea or a finding. And you will only figure this out by READING around your topic BEFORE picking it. Unique work has a higher chance of being accepted at conferences and published as original research - literature reviews, etc. do not usually bring anything new to the field / tend to be standard essays about a particular disease so don't end up getting published. If you want to take it to the next level, don't play safe. Choose wisely.
Make it clear that you have a goal to get published / take the work further. I make sure I email my supervisor from the start and make it clear that: I'd be interested in completing work that would be publishable. This puts your intent out there as clearly as possible and helps them adjust the amount of time and effort they channel into you, accordingly.
Create your own deadlines and stick to them. This shows self-directed learning and a commitment to the work. Supervisors know when a student just wants to use them for a CV boost. Don't sign up for something you cannot deliver. Your supervisor will not do the work on your behalf. Completing a high-quality piece of work and taking it to publication takes 12-18 months on average (see my post on the process if you haven't already). So it is NOT easy and your supervisor won't have time to hold your hand through everything. You will need to figure out the stats, write the paper and draw on your supervisor's expertise in times of STRUGGLE (they're busy, do not inundate them with long, waffly emails asking how to download software... figure the basics out, struggle first THEN ask if still stuck). Send them drafts and let them know when you need certain things done and reviewed. Supervisors love a keen, independent student who produces work that they can provide feedback on quickly at given deadlines. Take away as much thinking as possible from your supervisor and really take a lead on your work (that's also going to give you the first author spot).
This is the next best way to get research experience if you've had no luck in the first 2+ years of medical school (which is most people so don't worry).
Intercalating in a subject you're interested in already gives you the perfect setting to capitalise on getting a poster or publication accepted in that field. You will often have a supervisor who has more time than the ones at medical school do and again, I recommend using the tips above to plant the seed in their minds that you intend to take your project all the way.
In addition, during your intercalation, it is not the time to double down on a niche just yet. What I mean by this is: as a first-time researcher, take on any project you think you can complete to a high-quality, regardless of what topic it is! Publishing in a specific field is not required at medical school stage - the point of research at this stage is to develop a diverse skillset instead. I.e. In my intercalation, my thesis focused on parent and child mental health, primarily emotional disorders. But I ended up publishing a paper on eating disorders using the same data in a different way (calculating diagnostic accuracy statistics). You can read my paper here. It is still in the same field (mental health) but was not directly related to my thesis. I took it on as extra work; learned new stats and a lot more about eating disorders. I also presented this work at a conference and it will directly funnel into work that the Department of Health & Social Care and NHS Digital are doing. Who would've thought?! So be keen! Always say yes to a research opportunity (even if your role seems minor)*!
* Note: If invited onto something as a 'collaborator' i.e. a data collector or rater for a systematic review, confirm if you will be a named author or not BEFORE saying yes. You can't be shy - don't ask, don't get! It can also lead to you not being credited for your work later down the line when it's too late to claim your stake!
This can be hit or miss but the more often you do it and the better your emails start to sound, the more likely you are to get responses and the more likely they are to be positive.
There are a few key parts of a cold email:
Find a researcher by reading their papers. The contact details of the first author of a paper is always provided so this is where you'll get their email address from.
In the email, state your full name, medical school name, and year group.
First paragraph should state your reason for emailing: i.e., I am writing this email to ask if you would like to be my supervisor for [insert course], I am writing to enquire about a research opportunity in your field of research [insert name].
Second paragraph: talk BRIEFLY about your interest in THEIR work and current skills.
Attach a CV - they will go through it (I'd personally be too nosey not to).
Example (part of my email to my Master's supervisor - a Professor in child & adolescent psychiatry):
I am particularly interested in your work in developmental psychopathology. This is paving the way for better-informed prevention, intervention, and support for child and adolescent mental health, despite stagnation in funding and rising demand for services. I admire the multi-faceted nature of your research and its relevance to a range of sectors such as education, social care, the youth criminal justice system, and clinical practice.
My research experience includes a systematic review of the effectiveness of digital health technologies in reducing substance abuse in young people, pending publication. I also completed an SSC project last year, which involved wet lab experience; testing and interpreting nutrient assays and quantitative data anlysis. My research paper reported on the association between ethnicity and serum Vitamin B12 concentrations from a primary care population (n=49,414) with findings published in 2021 (https://jcp.bmj.com/content/75/9/598). I was awarded King’s College London’s Edgcumbe Prize for achieving the highest mark in my cohort of 450 students and the Nicola Claire Hood Memorial prize for best presentation of my abstract to a panel of King's College London professors.
My other extra-curricular achievements can be found in my CV attached.
I hope that this gives you a bit more information about me and I would be keen to schedule a conversation with you to discuss your research projects further.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Link any work you've already published.
If you do not have any experience yet or achievements of note, just briefly mention some research skills that you have developed since being at medical school e.g. essay writing and an understanding of statistics, and put more emphasis on wanting to learn more which is why you are reaching out to them.
Your current skills and accolades are not really the make or break - it is your interest in their field and willingness to learn that are! If you're feeling brave, you can briefly comment on a few points in their paper and pose a question to them if you want (this could be the formation of your project with them - you never know)!
Now, how do you produce output from your work?
Treat your project like a plant - you want to nurture it and keep working on it so it makes it past its 1st year of life. This tends to be when people give up.
Keep in touch with supervisors even if you've finished a project/assignment
The only way you can get published is if you keep the work going beyond your university deadline. This means keeping in contact with your supervisor. Send them an email to let them know you've submitted, thank them for their support, and let them know you still intend to publish (if that's what you've agreed with them from the start). You can even send them some journal options you've looked at for publication to show them you're really serious about taking this all the way. This also keeps them accountable.
Try submitting to at least 3 journals and work on ALL feedback
A desk reject from a journal is when your work is rejected without making it to peer review (really tough and annoying to work with) but if your work makes it to peer review, this is where the magic really happens. You're likely to get a rejection at this point but you'll get FEEDBACK! This is when you can then work on the article, incorporating the feedback, to resubmit elsewhere. Each time you submit, your work will evolve to be better than before. You and your supervisor can work on the reviewers' comments live using a OneDrive link (my personal favourite) or pass back-and-forth word doc drafts. Take a lead on editing and responding to the comments, but involve your supervisor because they can help a lot at this stage! Once I've tried 3 journals and got peer-reviewed rejections, I tend to take a break. During this time, you can submit your abstract to a conference...
Submit an abstract to conferences
The catch with conference abstract submissions is that the work CANNOT be published already. After 3 rejections, you've probably got a lot of feedback to work on and this means your paper needs quite a bit of remodelling. In the meantime, it might keep your motivation up and help you get more creative with your topic, by submitting to a conference. You can submit to however many you want and can re-use the same abstract in many cases.
I recommend aiming high i.e. Royal College and international conferences as they are a little more impressive than regional conferences (i.e. student society conferences). A simple google of your research field + conference + year will bring up a bunch of leads. Do not underestimate taking the time to submit. You are a lot more likely to get accepted to a conference than for publication. For presenting your research and creating a poster, see my blog post here. In the meantime, don't forget to prepare your manuscript to resubmit elsewhere.
So that's all my main advice for getting some research under your belt and trying to maximise your output!
More will be included in the Demystified: scientific writing e-book: a guide to writing high-quality and publishable work which will provide you with the research tools you need as a novice, intermediate and advanced researcher: from critical appraisal to writing a conference-worthy abstract to basic stats. Launching 30 November 2022: 6pm