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Tips for Becoming a Successful Researcher as a Medical Student

Yusuf Mehkri, BS

Disclosures

September 22, 2022

Most students either love or hate research. They've either had great experiences with solid mentors or poor experiences owing to either wasted efforts or ineffective mentors. There are a few tricks that I have noted over the past few years that have allowed me to learn to love the research process — guidance that I want to share here. 

A great mentor can make or break your experience. They know your level of experience and present appropriate opportunities that challenge you enough to allow you to grow. Based on Lev Vygotsky's theory of learning and development, this is known as the zone of proximal development. A great mentor can keep you in this zone as you continue to build your skills. They provide the proper amount of guidance so that you don't feel lost but give you the space and time you need to grow.

Great mentors are also focused on your goals. It's common for mentors to want to carve their mentee into their own clone, but great mentors know that everyone has their own goals and vision. They want to make sure that they're pointing you in the right direction. Finally, great mentors aren't worried about seeing their mentees explore external opportunities and other mentors. They understand that everyone brings something different to the table and they work with you to make sure that you're exploring your options in the most effective way possible. 

Finding a great research mentor isn't easy. A few tricks are to work with people who have a track record of mentoring medical students. Not just any medical students, but productive students. This means that they'll understand where you are at and know how to get you where you need to be. You can also easily identify a strong mentor by evaluating how much they care to know about you and your goals. Generally, if they aren't putting in the time and energy to understand you first, they aren't trying to build a mentorship.

I also recommend working with MD/DOs over PhDs because the former were once in your shoes and know what experiences/opportunities will be most helpful for you in the long run. The projects you get placed on under clinicians are usually more clinically relevant and diverse. They might have you work on a case report one week and bring you on to a systematic review or retrospective study the next.

Once you've identified a solid mentor who is doing all the right things to teach you the scientific process and giving you appropriate opportunities, you start to truly begin enjoying research. You're not overwhelmed by what you're assigned and can make meaningful contributions to projects and to the team.

As you gain more experience and are exposed to a wide range of topics and ideas, you're able to come up with your own research questions. This is when research become even more enjoyable. When it's your own question, you're more invested in finding an answer and tend to fall in love with the entire process. You can then practice generating the entire study design and create a plan for data collection and analysis, as well. Over time, you've become your own researcher and can decide what topics you want to explore and questions you want answered.

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About Yusuf Mehkri
Yusuf Mehkri is a second-year medical student at the University of Florida (UF). After attending Carnegie Mellon University for undergraduate studies, he was accepted to the accelerated BS/MD program at UF in Gainesville. He has interests in academic neurosurgery, specifically neuro-oncology and spine surgery. He enjoys research, mentorship and community service — all of which allow him to give back to his community in varying capacities.

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