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A Head Start to Research in Medical School

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

By Sharanniyan Ragavan

Research in medical school is inevitable. From first year until fifth, there are multiple avenues where we are required to do research whether we know it or not. This article features a lot of the research opportunities we get at Manchester but hopefully my tips are still applicable and helpful to you. From the first PEP (Personal Excellence Pathway) poster presentation to your QEPEP in final year, the medical school curriculum slowly introduces us to how clinical and scientific research will be done during our career. For me, research is my way of contributing to the wider body of scientific knowledge. I enjoy reading papers and the latest developments in various aspects of medicine. As a first year I heard about a mysterious phenomenon named “publication” and I never fully understood what it meant. I had a vague notion of what it was- I knew that it was writing a paper and sending it somewhere to get accepted. I decided to do some reading on it and realised that publishing is fairly important should one want to pursue a career in academic medicine.

Therefore, since I have dreams of becoming a clinician-scientist someday, I decided to ask some seniors about how publication works. They were able to point me in the right direction and my knowledge about how to write a paper grew and eventually I managed to finish a project of my own which has now been published in the literature.

So how exactly do you get your first publication?

In a nutshell, the first step is to find a topic that enthuses you. For me, I chose the cliched cancer/oncology as my preferred area as I felt it was the most exciting area to explore with the multitude of advancements happening each day.

The second step is to get a doctor/professor to mentor you. This is absolutely essential as it is close to impossible to publish a paper without some sort of credentials. To achieve this, it really depends on the contacts you have with your tutors/supervisors or contacts you might have in hospitals or at other universities. Since I did not know anyone, I first approached my PBL tutor who suggested that I email professors who might be working on topics that interest me. I then went through the list of professors on the university’s website and familiarised myself with the research of those who were working on cancer related themes. Then comes the difficult part, writing the “cold call” email. In this email, you need to highlight your interest in pursuing a project and mention why that professor/supervisor’s work interests you. Always leave your CV. It is highly likely that many of your emails might not get a reply, but do not be discouraged by this. Supervisors are extremely busy with clinical work/busy labs and may take a while to get back to a potential student. You might have to go through 20-30 people to get a positive reply or you may get lucky with the first person being able to mentor you. Beyond this, it is largely an informal process and depends on what the supervisor wants from you in terms of selecting you to work with them. Some may want to give you an interview, some may want to have a casual conversation etc.

After this- congratulations! You are in!

Now comes the hard part: actually doing the project. This will involve poring over multiple pieces of literature on the topic and understanding the fundamentals. In first year, since our clinical knowledge is very limited, it might be a tough learning curve initially, but once your knowledge grows, it will become much easier. Some projects may be a literature review, some might work with patient data. For me, I found my topic to be extremely interesting as it was something that I had never come across before in my readings. You definitely need this interest to fuel you through writing the paper as it can get dreary at times. Once your paper is finished, you need to go through your supervisor for the publication part.

Publication is a process in itself and I won’t go into too much detail here. Essentially, you will submit your paper to a journal that you/your supervisor thinks is suitable for the paper. Your work will then go through a peer-review and the journal then makes a decision to accept/reject your paper. If it is accepted, that’s great new! But if it is not, you need to take in the reviewer’s comments, make changes and resubmit to a different journal and go through the review process again.

In the end, once your paper is accepted, you can sit back and relax. You have your first publication! Although this process takes a few months and you have plenty of time to do it throughout your medical school career, planning ahead is vital. If you are sure that you want to work on a project, try to arrange for one during your summer break as this is the best uninterrupted time you can get to fully focus on your project. Clinical years will be a great time to start as you will meet multiple potential supervisors on your placements. Many people get their APEP in third year published as well.

So, my final advice would be: plan ahead, look forward to your project and be interested in it. Always look for potential supervisors and try and network with as many people as you can. Publication is not a necessity in your medical school career but can definitely be an interesting and rewarding experience.

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