How do I get involved in research opportunities or meaningful activities?

Summary

Yes, it’s important to do what is required in medical school and learn the basics, but you also need to reach out and explore MORE than just the basics… Don’t narrow your interests down too much just yet – this is the perfect time for you to explore what interests YOU in the medical field.  Research is a perfect opportunity to start exploring these other interests. Research opportunities will naturally emerge as you engage with more people. However, don’t just limit yourself to research, you also need to explore groups and activities that are related to whichever particular niche you’re interested in within the healthcare/medical field. Your goal is to do little things along the way that will help you build and develop a meaningful career.

 

Some years ago, I was talking to a medical student. He had indicated that he was interested in telemedicine, which was more of a niche back then. I told him, “If you spend 2 solid hours in the library investigating what’s currently going on in telemedicine, you will know more about telemedicine than 50% of the faculty here. If you spend 2 hours per week for a month reading about telemedicine, you will know more about telemedicine than 90% of the faculty here. If you spend 2 hours a week for 4 years, you will be one of the top experts in telemedicine at this medical school.

Investing in yourself…

The basic medical school curriculum creates a commodity. Sometimes, this commodity is know as the “GUMP” (General Undifferentiated Medical Professional). What you know is exactly what all your other classmates know. Outside of getting a good grade on a test, the base curriculum does not do much to further your professional identity. This may not be as consequential early in your career because there are always new things to keep you going. However, mid-career, failure to differentiate will become a more important issue, as you do the same things day after day with no clear sense of what is unique to what YOU bring to the work.

The practice you want to get into as a med student is to invest time to further your knowledge and expertise in a few topics which are of interest to you outside of what is required. Invest those “two hours a week” in something that you are drawn to; over time, it will create a sense of identity and set you apart from others, and actually create professional opportunities along the way.

 

Doing research…

During the pre-clinical phase of medical school, you will most likely have the opportunity to engage in research. Use this opportunity to invest time in developing a deeper expertise in certain areas that interest YOU, and ultimately benefit your career path

You’ll first want to identify your potential interests. There’s no need to overedit your list of interests. What are you curious about? What do you care about? Seek first your interests from within. There’s no need to say, “Well, I care about X, but I’m sure there’s nobody I can connect with who does that.” You care about what YOU care about. The key is to generate a number of topics, not just one or two things.

Your next step is to begin to connect with potential mentors. You can begin this process as soon as you start medical school. As you meet more and more people, the research opportunities will naturally emerge. As you are engaging mentors, you should also try to reach out to classmates from classes before you. They are likely to be more available, and they can often steer you towards mentors who are good, which will save you a lot of time in your own investigations.

Often, the formal research projects take place in the summer after the completion of the first year of medical school. This can be different based on the curriculum schedule of your medical school, but usually there will be an allotted time in which research occurs.

 

Beyond research…

Is research the only thing? What about other opportunities? In addition to research, there are other opportunities students can engage in such as student government, student clubs/interest groups, community clinics, and health system projects. There are a multitude of activities/groups with your medical school that you can get involved in – there’s truly something for everyone.

Explore those activities/groups which are interesting to you and engage deeply with a few of them. It is much better to have a few activities which you find meaningful and to which you have made worthwhile contributions than to be involved superficially with a large number of activities. You are NOT trying to impress other people; you are exploring your own professional path.

As you start medical school, it can be daunting to explore professional interests. That’s understandable, and that’s how other classmates feel as well. You are not alone! The key in the beginning is to identify YOUR interests and, despite the inner resistance, start the process of reaching out to faculty and students. Healthcare is a huge field, and is rich with meaningful opportunities. Your exploration of it during medical school will go a long way in helping you find that niche which will allow you to build a meaningful career.

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