Research Basics: Should I Get Involved and How Do I Start?

By Trevor C. Hunt

This article originally appeared on Student Doctor Network on September 24, 2018.

The year is 1921. A medical student toils away at a dimly lit lab bench deep in the bowels of the University of Toronto. His intense concentration does not waver even as a bead of sweat begins to slip from his brow, splattering onto the chemical-stained surface below. Charles Best lets out a sigh of relief, unclenching the shoulders he had tightened while manipulating miniscule fragments of pancreatic tissue under the microscope.

The following February he would publish these results alongside his mentor, a Canadian surgeon by the name of Dr. Frederick Banting. The paper would go on to revolutionize the entire field of medicine, earning Banting a Nobel Prize in 1923. They had just discovered insulin.1

Research as a medical student can be a daunting endeavor and is often viewed as just another box to check for residency applications. One third of medical students graduate without significant exposure to research, representing a huge gap in their training.2 However, getting involved is easier than you might think, and doing research is one of the most valuable experiences a student can have. 

The story of Charles Best exemplifies the fact that even a mere student can contribute to the future of medicine by simply finding a mentor to do research with. This article will walk through how you too can utilize research to advance patient care while becoming a better clinician in the process. 

Is Research Right for Me?

Before diving into research, it is essential to first assess whether or not this is the right place to spend what little free time you have during medical school. Luckily, this major decision can be made much simpler by considering three key aspects of getting involved.

Identify Your Motivations

The first step to deciding if research is right for you is identifying what you want to get out of it. What are your motivations? Your goals? Your expectations? Would you like to change the face of medicine as we know it, à la Charles Best, or are you here to stack your CV and land a competitive residency spot? Are you looking to develop your professional skills like networking and presenting, or do you simply desire a distraction from the daily grind of biochemistry lectures?

No matter what drives you, research can satiate your needs. Whether you want to end up with a bustling lab someday or just need an extra line on your ERAS application, identifying where you stand is a crucial first step. This insight will serve as a foundation as you find a mentor, develop a project, and decide how much time to dedicate to research.

Consider the Advantages

Medical students who do research can reap immense rewards. The first thing on many students’ minds when considering research is lengthening their CVs. Productive projects can add numerous presentations and publications, and studies show that doing research does significantly increase the likelihood of successfully matching into your residency of choice.3 

In fact, the most recent report from the National Resident Matching Program found that US seniors who matched in nearly all specialties have more research experiences than their unmatched peers (Chart 8, mean = 3.3 experiences). In the vast majority of specialties, those who matched also had a higher average number of abstracts, posters, and publications than those who did not match (Chart 9, mean = 5.8 items).4 These charts offer valuable insights, and the report is definitely worth a quick skim.

Research isn’t just about the numbers, though. While most students focus on garnering accolades and publications, the journey is far more rewarding than the destination. Research is a venue for personal growth and professional development. It inoculates the student with insight into how to read a scientific paper and use published literature to make evidence-based decisions about patient care.2,3,5 It teaches you to work on a team, manage professional relationships, and network with peers in the field. It provides an avenue to hone crucial skills such as public speaking and discourse. Through it, you are forced to gain an in-depth knowledge of the topics you study, which can provide a competitive edge on board exams or help you to evaluate that specialty you’ve always thought you might like. 

Above all else, research can serve as a distraction from the daily toils of medical school. Spending an hour in the lab provides a much-needed breath of fresh air that revitalizes and reinvigorates the mind, leaving you ready to return to memorizing First Aid with a newfound burst of energy. 

Acknowledge the Barriers

Despite its appeal, doing research is not always easy. Most students who do not get involved cite the same barriers to entry: lack of time, uncertainty about how to get involved, difficulty finding a mentor or project, and lack of confidence in their own research skills.2,3,6 

Luckily, each of these challenges can be overcome with the right resources, a bit of planning, and a willingness to get out of your comfort zone and try something new. Hard work goes a long way in research; you truly get out what you put in. Success starts with seeking out the information you need from sources like this article, making a game plan, and then committing to executing it. With this frame of mind, the rookie researcher can transform into an experimenter extraordinaire in no time!

Additionally, some of us just aren’t interested or don’t feel that spark of wonder and excitement when in the lab. This is totally okay! Everyone is different, and it is perfectly fine to not do research. Still, one might argue that these students simply have not yet found the project that is an ideal match and should continue looking before passing judgement. When it comes to research, it is important to keep your options open and try out at least a few projects before leaving it behind once and for all.

How Do I Get Involved?

Now that you’ve tallied the pros and cons and decided to get your feet wet, it’s time to answer the big question: where do you begin? Staying organized and having a plan are essential, and below is a simple and logical framework for navigating this labyrinthine process.

Research Begins with Research 

Before you can find a project, you must determine the opportunities that are available to you. Some schools require dedicated periods of research, while involvement at others is purely voluntary. Contact your school’s office of research or student affairs and ask about any official programs. Frequently, there will be a formal opportunity for research during the summer after your first year. If not, you may need to set up your project independently or begin looking for programs at other medical schools. 

Either way, the earlier you start seeking this information the better! Get a head start by poking around in your first semester; even if you don’t plan to begin until the summer, this will allow ample time to find a great project and jump through any tedious hoops required to get up and running, such as IRB approval.

Narrow Down Your Interests

Next, think about the specialties you are most interested in matching into and consider doing research in those fields. All research is beneficial, but projects related to the specialty you apply for will carry extra weight. This is especially true for the more competitive fields, such as the surgical subspecialties, where nearly all applicants do research and it is harder to stand out. 

As a general rule for those who are undecided, do research in the most competitive field of those you are considering. If you stick with it you will appear to have had your heart set all along, and if you instead opt for something less competitive, that radiation oncology publication will still bolster your chances. The opposite, unfortunately, is not always true.

Finally, set your sights on the particular type of research project you’d like to start with. Basic science experiments often require the largest time commitment, and a publication might take years to get accepted, but residency program directors realize this and view basic science papers with more weight. On the other end of the spectrum, retrospective chart reviews can frequently be completed in a few weeks while you lounge at the pool, but for that reason do not add as much substance to your CV. 

A happy medium that many students find manageable is clinical research, which has the added benefit of thrusting you deep into your specialty of choice. You may even encounter a patient unique enough to write up as a published case report!

Find Your Ideal Mentor

Your field of interest now selected, it is finally time to seek out that prodigious being who will guide you through the pitfalls of academia and mold you into the scientific sage you were always meant to be. That’s right, you need a mentor! 

If your school has a formal research program, they may provide a list of available mentors you can use as a starting point. Otherwise, figure out who the big names are at your school in your area of interest and request a meeting with them to discuss doing research under their tutelage.2 Be sure to peruse their CV or stalk them on PubMed first to ensure they regularly publish, and try to determine if students frequently get their names onto papers. If not, you may want to look elsewhere. 

When it comes time to meet, treat it like a job interview and prepare by reading up on the potential mentor’s ongoing projects and talking to other students who have worked with them. Put some serious thought into the kind of mentor you want, and try to evaluate if it will be a good fit while speaking to them. Do you need a hand-holder who will guide you every step of the way, or will you benefit more from a firm leader who states their expectations and then sets you loose? Either way, mentor-mentee relationships are bi-directional and identifying a good fit is critical to your academic success.7

Most importantly, tackle the elephant in the room right off the bat. Discuss your motivations, interests, and what you hope to gain in return for your contributions. (A dark ethical twist in the Banting and Best story regarding the Nobel Prize recipients is a prime example of the importance of this simple conversation.8) At the same time, try to gauge if they are on the same page. If you need publications, say it! Most mentors understand their importance for residency applications and will be happy to include you in the writing process. If you beat around the bush while selecting a mentor, you may end up pouring hours into a project only to wind up empty handed. 

Get to Work!

At long last, you are now ready to begin doing research! At this point you should have identified your goals, settled on a field of interest, and established a formal relationship with a mentor who will push you to new heights. If you haven’t already signed on to one of their ongoing projects, now is the time to sit down and identify research questions that you would like to investigate.2 Work with your mentor to outline and design a project, and then get to work!

Research is not easy, and staying motivated and organized are crucial to your success. Good time management skills are your greatest ally as you attempt to balance your research and your studies. There will be times when each must be prioritized over the other. Meet with your mentor regularly to set goals and deadlines, and then make sure you follow through. Remember, this person will likely be writing you a letter of recommendation, so be sure to under-promise and over-deliver and not the other way around. Above all else, communicate clearly and frequently.

Finally, realize that you are not perfect and things will occasionally go wrong. When this is the case be sure to own up to it, learn a valuable lesson, and get right back to work. Too often students assume they must be a flawless researcher from day one, forgetting that their real role is simply to learn.7 By keeping this in mind, you will avoid undue stress and allow yourself to focus on what really matters: the joy of doing research and the personal growth you can achieve along the way.

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


1. Banting and Best isolate insulin 1922. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Accessed July 13, 2018.

2. Young BK, Cai F, Tandon VJ, George P, Greenberg PB. Promoting medical student research productivity: The student perspective. R I Med J 2014;97(6):50-52. 

3. Chang Y, Ramnanan CJ. A review of literature on medical students and scholarly research: Experiences, attitudes, and outcomes. Acad Med 2015;90(8):1162-73. 

4. National Resident Matching Program. Charting Outcomes in the Match: U.S. Allopathic Seniors, 2nd Ed. Published July 1, 2018. Accessed July 11, 2018.

5. Burge SK, Hill JH. The medical student summer research program in family medicine. Fam Med2014;46(1):45-48. 

6. Funston G, Piper RJ, Connell C, Foden P, Young AMH, O’Neill P. Medical student perceptions of research and research-orientated careers: An international questionnaire study. Med Teach 2016;38(10):1041-48. 

7. Vaughn V, Saint S, Chopra V. Mentee missteps: Tales from the academic trenches. JAMA 2017;317(5):475-76. 

8. Frederick Banting, Charles Best, James Collip, and John Macleod. Science History Institute. Updated December 1, 2017. Accessed August 22, 2018.