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Gaining Research Experience in Medical School

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

Gaining experience in research can be challenging even for non-WP students. Getting involved in research can be an extremely reward experience, where you can learn research techniques, teamwork and importantly contribute to the evidence to help improve patient outcomes. Participating in research will also develop your skills in academic writing and critical appraisal should you go to publish your work. There can also be opportunities to travel and present your work at conferences, some of which can even be abroad! Getting involved as a student can be the first steps into a career in academic medicine. An added benefit is also the possibility of points for applications to academic foundation programmes, core training and above.

It is possible to get a lot of research done in medical school, but this by no means should be the expense of all your free time and your course commitments. Whilst you can set up your own projects independently this process is lengthy and takes a lot of planning and time in terms of research proposals, writing protocols, getting approved etc. There are far easier and more common ways to get involved;

  1. Student Selected Components; (SSCs) Depending on your medical school SSCs can be organised to undertake smaller research projects such as clinical audits, survey based research, or even getting to grips with research methodologies. You will often take a few SSCs before an intercalated degree, so if you are proactive you can use these as the first baby step into research.

  2. Summer Holidays; especially in pre-clinical years you can use your time to plan a project before summer and contact groups to see if you can do a project with them. There are also summer programmes run by universities so check your local availability for this. These projects are of course at the expense of free time and it is possible to incur some cost to the student.

  3. Intercalated degrees; This is arguably the most common way of performing research. In an intercalated degree you will have dedicated time to a project that in a lot of instances is already planned out and approved before you start. You can of course put together a bespoke project and this would be easier in intercalated degrees with support from your medical school. The added benefit is that you can choose to do a project/degree in an area you genuinely are interested in. Whether that be lab-based projects, qualitative research in public health etc. This is a highly recommended first big step into research.

  4. Audits, case studies, quality improve projects. These sort of projects are the kind you can do on an ongoing basis and can easily be done around your studies. The best way to attain these is to approach clinical supervisors and ask whether you can get involved in any projects. Case studies in particular are a rather easy and straightforward way to get a first author publication! Another way to get a first authorship is to undertake a systematic review, but be warned these can be lengthy and require quite a bit of work on your own and collaboration with other students would be a smart decision!

For summer holiday, intercalated degrees, and electives it is especially important to develop a good rapport with your research group. A good relationship with a group could lead to a longstanding collaboration so you can work with them over your medical school journey!

Where to start and how to get funding? If you are at a complete loss the National Student Association of Medical Research (NSAMR) or your medical school’s academic medicine society is a great place to start. There is also the Student Audit and Research in Surgery for specific surgical projects.

For funding there is the INSPIRE initiative by the Academy of Medical Sciences. They give funding and support to medical undergraduates to take part in research. You should also check with your medical school whether they have grants for electives and summer projects as many will be happy to help. Another avenue is to check the royal college website for the speciality your project is in, as they often provide small grants for electives and small projects.

Approaching supervisors can be a daunting task. Your initial steps should be to check your own or other university’s websites to gather information about research groups you might be interested in. Take time to read over their research output and whether you are interested in one of their topics. When you do decide on approaching, an email can do wonders. Be honest if you don’t have experience but be clear that you want to learn and say how much you can commit to a project e.g. an SSC lasting 6 weeks. Be clear regarding what about their research interests you and what you want to learn and get out of a project. Overall, bringing enthusiasm and willingness to learn new skills will put you in good standing with supervisors. Be flexible in your approach, they may not offer you something that might not sound very exciting, but it will be essential for research, like medicine, it’s not all glitz and glam! And it may lead to further opportunities.

Research can be hard work but the experience and skills you get out of it is priceless and the career of an academic clinician is an extremely rewarding one!

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