Daniel Egan, MD

Disclosures

November 03, 2008

Question

I would like to be a research assistant or pursue my own research project. How can I find a suitable professor to work with, and how should I approach one?

Response from Daniel Egan, MD

Attending Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York, NY

Research experience has become an important part of your development as a medical student and your attractiveness as a residency applicant. Many of the most competitive residency programs now have the luxury of selecting from applicants who have all of the desired elements (good grades, strong recommendation letters, research experience, and possibly even a publication). So, the more you can do to make yourself one of those candidates, the better.

Ideally, you should look for a mentor who can help you develop your own research project. More realistically, you may find a mentor who is already working on a project but who would welcome the help of a medical student.

The first question to ask yourself revolves around your area of interest. Do you have a particular specialty in mind for residency? If you are thinking about dermatology or orthopaedics, for instance, you may be expected to have worked specifically in those areas. Do you have research experience? Have you ever worked in a lab? Mentors may be most willing to take on a student who requires minimal teaching and supervising, but who will reliably get the work done. Of course, faculty who work primarily in the lab or have a significant amount of protected research time likely will be more available for teaching and mentoring, which would certainly be an ideal situation. In that case, you will likely forge a relationship that is quite deep and have a worthwhile educational experience, in addition to enlisting someone who can write a personal recommendation letter down the road.

In order to identify and ultimately meet the right person, you have several options. I would begin with your medical school's administration. Many schools have a research office geared toward engaging medical students in research. They may have a database of faculty members who are looking for student research assistants. When I was in medical school, the student research office published a listing of faculty members looking for help on specific projects. Additionally, the director of your research office may be able to help guide you in finding the best experience depending on your long-term goals and time availability.

The next option would be to investigate the department in which you are most interested in working. In many of the larger academic centers, each department has faculty members designated as the research directors. They would likely be the best individuals to approach first. They will be in tune with the current activities and opportunities in their department, and can link you with other faculty members. This is also an opportunity to meet a faculty member in your future specialty who can act as a mentor and guide as you go through the process of applying for residency.

Finally, if you are left without clearly identified research faculty or administrators, you can go directly to the source. Identify the names of faculty members in your department of interest and then head for the Internet. Search www.pubmed.org for articles written by faculty. You could even perform broader searches to see whether certain faculty are recognized for particular areas of interest. Once you have identified a possible mentor, email him or her. I do not think that you need to attach your curriculum vitae or list any other experience, but merely describe your interest and ask to set up a face-to-face meeting. Most medical school faculty are happy to hear from students; this is the reason that we have chosen to work in an academic environment. I would engage the faculty member by asking whether you can meet to discuss his or her research on "x" topic, and then ask during your meeting whether there is any potential area for your involvement. If the faculty member does not have opportunities, he or she may be able to refer you to someone else.

Once you have identified a person or project, don't forget about your primary goals. For most students, this means publication. Ideally, a published paper on your curriculum vitae when you are applying to residency will show motivation and academic success. However, an abstract presentation at a regional or national conference would also be impressive. Be honest with your potential mentor. Walk the fine line of expressing interest in learning about the fundamentals of research and the project, while also acknowledging that part of your goal is a tangible result (ie, an abstract or paper). Some projects take years and are not realistic for your involvement other than the academic exercise. Others may involve short chart or record reviews that may work much better for the summer or your research elective.

In summary, do some investigating and you will likely find a mentor. Do not be afraid to send an email. Be persistent because there are always projects out there. Finally, be realistic about your own goals and time constraints, because you still have to do well in school.

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