Medical School Life

Medical student research FAQ: Get started, showcase your work

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

AMA News Wire

Medical student research FAQ: Get started, showcase your work

Jul 8, 2024

Pursuing research during medical school is one way that medical students can explore their scholarly interests, grow their scientific knowledge base and stand out to physician residency programs when the time comes.

Below, the AMA offers answers to medical students’ frequently asked questions about their medical school research pursuits.

Whether success means strengthening your leadership skills so your CV stands out or completing cutting-edge research while prepping for residency—the AMA has the resources you need, from M1 to Match.

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Many medical students enter medical school with some research experience, but it is hardly required, according to Luke Finck, EdD, the associate director of the office of medical student research at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

“When students come to medical school, they want to work with patients,” Finck said. “Previous work that they did in the lab does help them understand the translational aspects of research, but may not be the type of research they want to engage in. So, students who don't have any experience aren't necessarily at a disadvantage to those who have it, because the type of research they're likely going to do in our program may not be the same research that they did before they came to medical school.”

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The first year of medical school is a time when the focus should be on academics. If you get through your opening months and find that you are keeping your head above water academically, you might look to attach yourself to an existing research project.

Michael G. Kavan, PhD, is associate dean for student affairs at Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska. He advises students to take a gradual approach to their research involvement.

When attempting to get research experience early in medical school, students “don't need to get involved in a research venture where they are sitting in a lab for 30 hours a week. There are a lot of activities involving research that they can attach themselves to, maybe not as the main author or PI, but they can attach themselves to research that a resident, fellow or even faculty member is doing. Those people are likely to need some assistance and will appreciate greatly the help that a medical student may offer.

“There are ways to get valuable experience that require low levels of involvement—things like doing a literature search or analyzing data.”

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Many medical schools, including Creighton, offer the opportunity for research fellowships between the first and second year of training. Even if that is not an option, that summer can offer students a valuable window to grow as researchers, according to Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, MD, PhD, editor-in-chief of JAMA® and the JAMA Network.

“To do research well, you have to immerse yourself, even if it's for a short period of time,” Dr. Bibbins-Domingo said. “For us, in the medical school I went to, it was really in that summer between first and second year of medical school. You usually have that summer as time when [students are] not scheduled in classes.

“What I like about thinking about that summer between the first and second year is that it's a consolidated period of time when you can really immerse yourself. It's very hard if you don't have experience doing research to do it in between studying for exams and things like that,” Dr. Bibbins-Domingo added. “You need a dedicated period of time, even if that time is short, and that you really immerse yourself with a research question.”

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If you get to the point where your research is complete enough to withstand the rigors of medical journal peer review, you might want to consider creating a manuscript for publication. The publishing process is a marathon. While difficult, it is designed to create the best possible product.

As far as the process of producing a publishable research paper, there’s a formula that works. To get the basics of it, Karyne Vinales, MD, recommended consulting an article published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, “How to write a scientific masterpiece.” The article was originally published in 2007 and updated in 2019.

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When selecting where to publish, consider that the odds are long that you will be able see your paper approved for publication in JAMA or other high-impact general medical journals. So where do you start submitting?

“If you make a list of journals in your field and you sort of rank it by impact factor, maybe start one-third the way down the list and start there and say, this is where I should submit first,” said Charles Lopresto, DO, a hospitalist in the internal medicine department at New York Presbyterian-Queens and Weill Cornell Medicine. “And then if it doesn't get accepted there, then work your way down the list and you can go on and on.”

The list of journals that are known to accept medical student research includes the AMA Journal of Ethics, HPHR Journal, the International Journal of Medical Students and Student BMJ.

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Unlike a written manuscript, a research poster is a concise, visually appealing summary of your research, which can both capture an audience's attention and summarize your work succinctly and accurately. An effective poster includes striking imagery and text that capture the research’s main points while offering clear points and remaining brief.

The opportunity to present research has much value for medical students, Kavan said.

“Prior to publishing research in a journal, many students submit their research for presentation at a regional or national meeting,” he said. “This provides a wonderful opportunity to gain experience presenting to colleagues and obtain feedback on the research in order to further refine it for eventual submission for publication. In addition, presentations at regional and national conferences are typically included as part of the residency application process.”

There are numerous venues in which students can present a research poster. Among the most noteworthy: the AMA Research Challenge. The event is the largest national, multispecialty medical research conference for medical students and residents and offers a $10,000 grand prize for the winning poster.

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While the weight given to medical student research can vary heavily based on the specialty to which one applies, it will not be the most important factor in a student securing a residency position. The National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) conducts occasional surveys of residency program directors. In 2021—the last time the NRMP asked this question—12 other factors were seen as more important in determining whom to interview than a student’s “involvement and interest in research.”

Still, if medical research is a passion and you have results to show for the time you have put in, it makes sense to highlight that on—or even make it a center piece of—your residency application when the time comes.

“Program directors are interested in any aspects of someone’s path in medicine that helps them understand an applicant’s journey as a learner,” said John Andrews, MD, the AMA’s vice president for graduate medical education innovations. “If you've engaged in research, if you care a lot about it, that needs to be front and center on your application—especially if it's something that you hope to continue to pursue during your residency training.”

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Even the most seasoned medical student researcher is going to require direction. That is where mentors come in.

AMA member Liz Southworth, MD, found her most important research mentors at a medical student research showcase.

“They supported me by setting clear expectations, providing me opportunities to take ownership of my project and responding in a timely manner around conference and manuscript preparation times,” Dr. Southworth said. “They also encouraged me to reflect on how I wanted to incorporate research into my future career and continue to serve as mentors as [I] continue into fellowship now.”

You may also find research mentors through classroom interactions with faculty or working in organized medicine. If you are struggling to find a research mentor, your medical school’s office for student affairs can likely point you in the right direction.

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