Rajani Katta MD
How to Find Research Opportunities for Medical Students
Updated: Feb 10, 2022
The Importance of Research in the Residency Selection Process
Students often wonder about the importance of research in the residency selection process, and whether we would recommend that they take part in it.
The answer is absolutely. Participating in research and contributing to publications can significantly strengthen your application. In fact, it's almost a prerequisite for certain programs before they'll even consider you.
Research is extremely important if you are applying into a competitive specialty. It’s also very important if you're applying to a competitive program in a less competitive specialty.
For either scenario, you will need to have either participated in research or been published in your field. Ideally, you will have participated in research AND been published in your field.
What does the data show about the importance of research to different specialties?
If you go to the NRMP website and access the document Charting Outcomes In The Match, you can see just how important research is. Here are just a few notable findings:
In dermatology, when you look at the mean number of abstracts, publications, and presentations among matched applicants, you will see that the mean number is 19. When you compare that to applicants who went unmatched in dermatology, you'll see that this group has a mean number of 11.
For plastic surgery, interestingly, the numbers were just about the same. These applicants had a mean of 19 for matched applicants versus 11 for unmatched applicants.
Where can I find research opportunities in medical school?
If you know that research, publications, abstracts, and presentations are so important for a successful residency match, you might be asking yourself one very important question right now.
How can I locate opportunities to perform research in medical school?
I know, just from speaking to my students, that if you're just starting out, this can be a really intimidating process. And just to make it harder, you would think that if you are a super smart medical student who's volunteering their time and considerable brainpower to write a case report or a review article, or volunteer to work in a research lab, that there should be lots of opportunities available.
Unfortunately, it really depends as to whether those opportunities are going to be available to you.
I'll just use my own example from serving as Professor of Dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine. We often have multiple medical students who are interested in the field and who are reaching out for these opportunities. Perhaps surprisingly, there are often not enough opportunities for everyone.
Because of the challenges that my own students have experienced when trying to locate research opportunities, I wanted to walk through some strategies and ideas on how to locate opportunities to either participate in research or be published.
Strategies and Ideas on How to Locate Research or Publication Opportunities in Medical School
Let me clarify that although research and publications are two distinct processes, we often provide recommendations that encompass both. For example, in our book The Successful Match, we go into detail on both of these topics in a chapter called “The Competitive Edge.”
How can I be published as a medical student?
If you haven't participated in a formal research project, can you still be published?
Certainly. Even if you haven't participated in a formal research project, you can still contribute to and be listed as an author of publications. These might include a case report, a case series, or a review article. I've written many of these with medical students.
A case report might be a really unusual presentation of a disease or a clinical process. For example, it might be the first case reported of pseudoporphyria due to sulindac.
A case report might also highlight what I call a “classic case.” There are a number of medical journals that publish classic cases. For example, these might be a photo quiz in American family physician. Such journals have sections that might include a photograph of a classic presentation of a particular disease, or perhaps a radiographic image. A number of journals have these types of sections in which such classic cases are published for teaching purposes.
A case series highlights and discusses multiple examples of a particular clinical process, such as a case series of 8 cases of drug-induced lupus.
Finally, a review article can also be published without having done a formal research project. For example, one of the recent review articles that I worked on with a student centered on dietary strategies in the treatment of chronic idiopathic urticaria. With this type of article, the authors survey the medical literature and then put together a comprehensive review of the topic.
As a medical student, you can participate in any of these, even if you never saw the original patient. Even if you are not an expert on this particular topic, it's really just a matter of connecting with the right faculty member who has collected information on these type of clinical cases, or who has an interest in this topic. You would then write the article together.
What types of research are best when applying to residency?
There are multiple different types of research, and one is not necessarily any better than another when it comes to applying for residency.
Research can sound like a really intimidating area, but at its core research is the process whereby we try to answer a question or test a hypothesis. In The Successful Match, I describe the scientific method a bit more extensively.
In the past, when most people thought about research, they often pictured a student in a lab with a pipette.
But there are lots of different ways to approach a scientific question.
Nowadays, students might certainly be involved in bench laboratory research.
They might also be involved in database analysis.
They might perform survey research.
There are lots of different examples of clinical research.
For example, students might help researchers document outcomes of a randomized control trial, looking at a particular drug.
I've had students in the past help me with a clinical research project where we analyzed medical records. One study we performed focused on cutaneous mold infections in children. The student researcher was responsible for looking through the medical record of each of these cases and documenting the clinical features that we were interested in, such as age, medical, comorbidities, and ultimate outcomes.
Research encompasses a number of different types of methods and approaches.
How to Find a Research Mentor
There are certainly lots of different strategies to identify potential research mentors or to locate potential research projects that you can work on. In this post, I'm going to break these strategies into three general approaches.
Three Approaches on How to Become Involved in a Research Project While in Medical School
1. Look for current projects that are in progress.
2. Identify cases or topics in clinic that you could either write about or research further.
3. Follow your curiosity. This is the approach that requires probably the highest combination of persistence and serendipity.
Where can you find research projects in medical school that are already in progress?
When you’re looking for current research projects that are already in progress, I find that in general this approach tends to be the most straightforward.
I think about this in terms of locating research projects that are posted on a "bulletin board."
Research opportunities may be posted on public digital “bulletin boards”
In the olden days (like when I was a medical student at Baylor) you would just walk by a bulletin board that was in the corridor of the research building. Different faculty members would just publicly post that they were looking for students to help them with a particular research project.
In the digital world, you need to think about where these bulletin boards would be in your department.
For example, some departments might post research opportunities on their departmental website. They might post that they’re seeking student helpers for a particular project.
Other departments might have a special listserv. For example, a lot of medical schools now have interest groups for different specialties. In this case, the dermatology interest group might have a special listserv. Faculty members seeking a student researcher to help with one of their current projects might just post on one of these listservs.
The reason I call these the “public bulletin boards” is because essentially anyone can “walk by” and see these opportunities.
Research Opportunities May Also be Posted and Made Available to Smaller Groups
Research opportunities are sometimes only shared in a small group or via referral from a resident or a faculty member. These are what I call “hidden bulletin boards.”
In the past, this might have been a bulletin board that was in the teachers’ lounge. The faculty didn’t necessarily want just anybody to see this-- but a faculty member with a research project might post that opportunity to other faculty members, or might publicize that opportunity to the residents.
In this case, they’re looking for a student researcher who is referred to them by another faculty member or by a resident. If you've been referred, then you've already received an important vote of confidence-which means you're more likely to be accepted as a student researcher.
How to Locate These Types of "By Referral Only" Opportunities
How can you locate opportunities like these? I would definitely start with any current advisors that you have. Even if your advisor doesn't have any current projects, they might know about a colleague who has a project.
Beyond that, at every program there tends to be a typical standardized format for how a medical student would express an interest in that specialty or in that program.
For example, the standard procedure at Emory might be that you would set up a meeting with the Dermatology Program Director.
Or there might be a designated student advisor, and you would set up a meeting with that student advisor.
During this meeting, you can express an interest in doing research.
Then, the program director would be able to refer you to a particular faculty member.
If they didn't know about any projects currently in progress, they might take down your information. They might store it for later if a faculty member were to be looking for a student helper.
Another option, and a great one, would be to talk to current residents.
Residents know the faculty really well and they would typically know if any faculty members were looking for a student researcher.
It's also very helpful to speak to graduating fourth years who have successfully matched into your specialty of choice. You can start by asking them which faculty members are known to work with students.
Then, you can reach out directly to those faculty members and ask if you might be able to work on a project or a paper with them. In this case, it definitely helps if you have a student or resident who is able to arrange that introduction. Even if it's just an email introduction, it helps that faculty member take you seriously.
Residents might also have their own opportunities, such as case reports or review articles that need to be written up. There are also residents who are running their own research projects.
2. Create Your Own Opportunities By Identifying Cases in Clinic or Speaking to the Residents
You can also create your own opportunities, such as by initiating a case report or review article based on cases that you see in clinic.
In this approach, even if your faculty mentor doesn't currently have a case or a paper in mind, you can suggest one. The most common way that this happens is when you see an interesting case on one of your clinical rotations.
That case might not be fascinating to your attending. But if it's a classic case of epidermolysis bullosa, then that might be something you could write up as a case report as an example of a classic case.
You might also see a very unusual case that might work as a case report in a medical journal.
It's also a lot easier to get to know the residents better when you're working directly with them on a clinical rotation. This provides a great opportunity to ask the residents directly about potential case reports. “You know, Susan, if you see an interesting case, would you be able to let me know because I would love to be able to write up a case report?”
Why am I focusing on case reports here? Because the entire process becomes easier once you've written a case report. Your strong work ethic and excellent performance often leads to later opportunities for more extensive publications or research projects.
3. Following Your Curiosity Can Allow You to Locate Potential Research Mentors
This strategy is what I call "follow your curiosity" and it requires the most persistence and serendipity. For example, if there's a particular area of medicine that you're interested in, you can start to approach faculty and residents about that particular topic.
Here's one demonstration of how to put this strategy into action. As a medical student, you have the opportunity to take a research elective if you have a specific area of interest. For example, one of my areas of interest is the intersection of diet and dermatology. Let's say you're interested in this topic as well. You could then approach a faculty member such as myself, and then ask if I would be willing to serve as your advisor for that elective month.
This certainly works in a lot of different areas of interest. If you were interested in mycosis fungoides, you might directly reach out to the faculty member who's a world expert at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Away Rotations In Your Area Of Interest Can Introduce You To Potential Research Mentors And Projects
You can also target specific away rotations based on a particular area of interest of yours. If you're interested in pulmonary hypertension, you could decide to do an away elective with the world expert at Harvard. That would provide many more opportunities for publications, case reports, and even research projects.
You Can Also Reach Out To A Potential Research Mentor Online
If you've already written in a specific area, that also helps as you're following that line of curiosity further. For example, I've had students who are interested in dermatology and who have an interest in nutrition, and have reached out to me via my website asking about specific topics or areas of interest. Some of these students have asked if I had any projects to work on.
These Approaches Often Require Patience and Persistence
How successful are students with this approach? As with so much else, it really depends on a number of factors, especially timing. Definitely don’t take it personally if your efforts don’t pay off quickly. You’ll often have to reach out to multiple residents and faculty in order to start making progress. And even if the faculty member doesn’t have any research opportunities at that time, they may be able to connect you with faculty colleagues who do have those opportunities.
It's important to note that you don't have to be reaching out to faculty just at your own programs. If you come across an interesting research paper, you can just email that faculty member directly. Of course, there are many that just don't have the time or ability to reach back out to you and there are a lot of times when you just won’t hear back.
This is where I talk about persistence and serendipity. You might have to send a lot of emails before you get any responses back. But that's just part of the process.
How To Locate Potential Research Opportunities at Conferences
This is also a great strategy to use if you're attending a conference, especially a specialty conference. If you're at a dermatology conference, and there's a paper or presentation that you found particularly interesting, you can approach the faculty member after the presentation and express your interest. You can even ask if they have any research that you could perhaps work on remotely.
That's how I met one of my students who ended up writing a paper with me on dietary approaches to chronic idiopathic urticaria. It just began with her speaking to me after one of my lectures. (So again, persistence and serendipity.)
The Bottom Line:
Locating Research Opportunities Can Be Intimidating, But Using These Strategies Can Help
I have to say that it can be really intimidating to start this process when you're a medical student, because you don't necessarily have a lot of experience approaching faculty members or program directors asking about these opportunities. A lot of it really does come down to persistence. And if you don't find any opportunities immediately, that's just part of the process. (So please hang in there!)
I do want to leave you with one final thought. Almost all of my review articles have been written in collaboration with fantastic students, and our collaboration has always resulted in a stronger and more impactful paper. Your work and insights are greatly appreciated by your faculty mentors--and especially by the patients who will ultimately be impacted by your work. I wish you all the best in your future research endeavors.
Dr. Rajani Katta is the creator of Medical School Interviewing 101, the course that teaches students how to ace their interviews. She is also the author of the best-selling book The Medical School Interview: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty, and served as Professor of Dermatology at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 17 years.
Dr. Samir Desai is the author of The Medical School Interview and Multiple Mini Interview: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty. He has served on the medical school admissions and residency selection committees at the Baylor College of Medicine and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.