By Trevor C. Hunt
This article originally appeared on Student Doctor Network on October 17, 2019.
Welcome to “Research for the Rest of Us”, a column about navigating the complex intricacies of life in the lab. These articles aren’t for the superhuman Nature-publishing, Nobel Prize-winning MD/PhDs out there. They are for the rest of us: the Average Joes simply trying to get our feet wet in research. Join us as we journey through this complex world of academic adventures, from picking a project to matching into your dream residency and everything in between.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of “Research for the Rest of Us.” This time last year, you and I were in that awkward, stiff, just-getting-to-know-each-other phase as we dug through the dense details of why you should consider doing research in the first place. Nowadays, you and I are thick as thieves; we’re old friends who have weathered the storm of research’s successes and failures and forged a bond along the way. Together, we’ve pulled the mask off this oft-intimidating realm and had frank discussions about everything from finding a mentor to taking a research year. In the process, I’ve learned a ton from you, the reader, and I hope you’ve learned just as much from these articles.
Today, to celebrate the column’s first birthday, we’ll be looking back to day one and highlighting high yield research tips from each article. It’ll be like when your favorite show does a montage episode; all of the best moments and none of the filler, packed together into one super-article. To those who’ve been around since the beginning, thank you for reading and supporting the column each month. None of this would be possible without you. To everyone else, welcome aboard!
1. Research makes you more competitive
In the column’s inaugural entry, we introduced the “Medical Moneyball” concept, an objective and numbers-based approach to why you should do research. Ignoring the many other compelling reasons to dive into the lab, we found that data from the NRMP’s annual reports Charting Outcomes in the Match and the Program Director Survey consistently show that research makes an applicant more competitive for residency. Published literature tells the same tale, painting a convincing picture of why you might consider doing some research even if you don’t plan to make a career out of it. We also talked about the intangible benefits, such as developing personal and professional skillsets that will be paramount to a successful career.
2. Mentors matter most
We tackled one of the most important topics in research, finding a great mentor, in the column’s second installment. This comes early in your journey as well, as research without a mentor is like sailing without a compass (and wind, sails, and a boat for that matter). Many styles of mentorship exist; you must find the one that best fits your current needs, which can be determined by a deep and honest look at yourself and your strengths and weaknesses.
No matter who you choose, do not take this decision lightly. The quality of your mentor is far more important than the details of your research project at this stage. Pick your ideal mentor and embrace their project, not the other way around initially. In doing so, you’ll maximize the benefit that research can bring you and open countless doors to future growth.
3. Project types and your perfect fit
With a mentor by your side, the next step we discussed was finding a research project that best fits your situation, interests, and needs. Sometimes you’ll just join the project your mentor puts you on. Other times you’ll have to choose between a few, design your own, or seek out a project before you have a mentor. Most students don’t realize the wide range of activities that constitute a research project. They think all research means long and monotonous days in the lab, so an understanding of what’s out there is the first step to breaking down this stereotype.
Those of us who stay the busiest might opt for the more flexible and manageable commitments of case reports and chart reviews. Those with more time or desiring a truly rigorous and traditional scientific experience can likely tackle a basic science project. In the Goldilocks zone between these two extremes lies clinical research, a great fit for students that provides clinical exposure and is highly relevant to your future practice. Whatever your interests, there’s bound to be a project out there that’s a great fit for you!
4. Work-life balance as a student scientist
Next we considered strategies for juggling research on top of classes and other commitments, a common challenge student scientists face. Some of the big ones included prioritizing self-care, keeping open communication with your mentor and labmates, planning ahead and staying organized, and inviting classmates to join your project and share the work. Furthermore, important mindset adjustments like viewing your research as a study break, making the lab your second family, and loving what you do are crucial to not burning out. Above all else, knowing your limits and when to say “No” to new opportunities is the best way to keep from drowning.
5. Staying organized for successful science
Staying organized is crucial to success in research, so we took this topic from the prior article and did a deep dive next. This doesn’t just mean labeling your beakers and organizing the lab’s shelves, but encompasses everything from thoroughly planning your study prior to getting started to keeping your data and manuscript drafts in easily accessible shared lab folders. If you’ve never done research before, lean heavily on your mentor’s example. However, don’t be afraid to suggest new methods when you spot areas for improvement.
If you must pick a single thing to focus on, make it the data. Keep this organized from day one, analyze it regularly to avoid a daunting binge at the end of the project, and discuss it often with your labmates to make sure your findings make sense. When it comes time to write the full paper, you’ll be thankful you prepared.
6. The art of writing abstracts
A few articles later we examined how to write a killer abstract, but let’s jump ahead and discuss this now before digging into the details of giving presentations. Abstracts are a currency in science; they help us succinctly disseminate our findings to peers and ultimately provide the ticket to entry for conferences where our work can be displayed. As students, we must first understand the skeleton of an abstract—usually the IMRAD format of intro, methods, results, and discussion—before tackling the art of writing a truly compelling one. The two keys to this art are to tailor your abstract to the audience you expect to read it and to always tell a story. Weaving a narrative through your work, making the reader truly care about why you did it and what you found, is the single factor that often separates the best from the rest.
7. Perfecting your poster presentation
With projects underway and the data flowing, our next topic was how to present your work as a poster. The poster is one of the oldest and most common forms of disseminating science. They can be mundane, but done right can also be a great way to gain feedback and insight to guide your future experiments. Furthermore, posters give you a chance to develop those crucial communication skills that will take you far in your professional life. The nuances of creating a poster are endless, but the best resource I’ve found on this topic is Colin Purrington’s masterpiece of a blog post. After crafting the poster, be sure to perfect a short elevator speech about your work and you’ll be ready to impress at your next conference.
8. Overcoming oral presentations
Next up was oral podium presentations, the research poster’s scary big brother. In reality, they’re nothing to be afraid of and are an amazing learning opportunity if you can manage to swallow that whole public speaking thing. Our friend Colin Purrington once again lays out the essentials on his blog. It really just boils down to creating clean, effective slides and practicing your talk like it’s a show on Broadway. For those crippled by speaking anxiety, simple tricks like memorizing your first slide verbatim, arriving early to watch others present, and planning your every move in detail (such as how you’ll walk up to the podium without tripping) go a long way. Most importantly, anticipate questions your audience might ask and how you’ll respond. When the time comes, think positive, step up to the stage, and knock it out of the park.
9. Attending conferences like a pro
With all this talk about presentations, we naturally had to explore what to do at conferences the other 90% of the time when you’re not physically presenting. While the possibilities are endless, you should focus on both learning and networking. First, take care to attend a conference that fits your interests and the type of research you want to present. While you’re there, go to talks and speak to as many physicians as possible to find other projects related to your work while getting a feel for different specialties you may be interested in.
Most importantly, find out which department chairs and program directors will be there and seek out those you’d most like to meet. Introducing yourself to a big shot can be scary, but more often than not they love helping an enthusiastic student. Ideally, the seeds you sow here will blossom into important connections for residency and beyond.
10. Starting your first publication
Of course, the mark of productivity in research for students is publishing your work in a scientific journal. This is a huge topic that will receive multiple future entries in the column. In part one we looked specifically at how to get started on your first manuscript. Scientific writing is a whole new skill in itself, so I suggested a few great books you might read before getting your feet wet. We also talked about the importance of thoughtfully selecting a target journal even before you start writing, and clearing up any ambiguity with your labmates about authorship credits on the paper.
Most importantly, the best way to start writing is to do so early. Instead of waiting until all the experiments are finished to crack open that blank Word document, keep a running draft from the beginning and write your methods section as you collect data. Try to draft an introduction at this point and start outlining the discussion section and the sources you’ll cite. Above all else, remember our motto from abstract writing and be sure to tell a story!
11. Taking a research year
Finally, we explored the possibility of a research year together and why you might want to consider taking one. I’m currently doing a year in urologic oncology and loving every minute of it (no bias in this article!). Still, if you’ve been with the column this long you obviously have an interest in research and should consider taking it to the next level. A research year is a great way to do just that without the rigor of tacking a PhD onto your already lengthy training. The advantages of personal growth and increased competitiveness for residency are hard to ignore. If you do decide to go for it, be ready to work hard and make the most of the experience, but remember to have some fun along the way!
There you have it folks, twelve months of “Research for the Rest of Us” and over 20,000 words condensed down to just 2,000 of high yield research tips. For somebody as long-winded as myself, this is quite the feat! I hope you’ve enjoyed this column as much as I’ve loved writing it. I sincerely appreciate each and every one of you who reads these articles and shares them with your friends and colleagues.
I’m excited to announce that the column will be sticking around for at least another year. I can’t wait for us to keep moving forward on this daunting but totally doable journey together! As always, I’ve got your back every step of the way and invite you to contact me directly on Twitter at @TrevorHunt_ECU with your questions, comments, and ideas for future articles. Thanks again for reading and making the column possible, and I’ll see you next month!
About the Author
Trevor C. Hunt is a rising fourth-year medical student and a member of his school’s Research Distinction Track, currently completing a one-year research fellowship. He authors the SDN column “Research for the Rest of Us”, using his experience to help others navigate the precarious pitfalls of life in the lab. He enjoys reading and art, and when not in the hospital or conducting experiments can often be found on a golf course or a ski slope. Find him on Twitter: @TrevorHunt_ECU