By Trevor C. Hunt, MD Candidate
Welcome to “Research for the Rest of Us”, a column about navigating the complex intricacies of life in the lab. These articles aren’t for the superhuman Nature-publishing, Nobel Prize-winning MD/PhDs out there, but rather for the rest of us: the Average Joes simply trying to get our feet wet in research. Join us as we journey through this complex world of academic adventures, from picking a project to matching into your dream residency and everything in between.
Medical school can often feel like an impossible juggling act. Students are constantly struggling to keep all their “balls” in the air, the whole act ready to fall to the ground at even the smallest error. Classes, clinical duties, and personal matters are difficult enough to keep airborne by themselves, and adding research on top of it all can sometimes feel like tossing in a flaming axe!
Rest assured though, as even the busiest student can successfully add research into the mix with a little planning, preparation, and diligence along the way. With the right attitude, it may even wind up relieving your stress instead of adding to it! All students can benefit from finding a little more balance, and this article will specifically explore the best tips and tricks to help you add research to your juggling routine without letting the whole thing crash down around you.
- Self-care comes first
They say you can’t take care of others until you take care of yourself, and the same holds true for research. The first step to finding balance between studying and scientific pursuits is making sure you have a strong foundation of self-care to stand on. Eat healthy, stick to an exercise routine, keep in touch with friends and family, and try not to sacrifice sleep in the process. It may seem like a lot to cram into your day, but staying on top of all these things will allow you to be happier, healthier, and more energized. All this translates to getting more work done in less time, which is essential if you plan to add research responsibilities on top of your classroom curriculum.
- Streamline to save time
Going hand-in-hand with self-care is the strategy of eliminating variables in your daily life. Let’s be honest, self-care takes a lot of time! It’s worth it for sure, but if you can get it done in half the time that’s a win-win. To do this, optimize your schedule and automate as much as you can. Pack your gym bag each morning and skip the trip home after class. Order groceries online and spend 10 minutes assembling your virtual shopping cart instead of an hour wandering the store with a real one. Meal prep on the weekends so you don’t have to cook during the week. Better yet, put that loan money to good use and pay a health food restaurant to do it for you! Whatever your strategy, the more variables you can eliminate from your daily routine the more time you’ll save and the easier it’ll be to take care of yourself and your research.
- Communication is key
With your personal life in line, the next step is to organize your research life via frequent and clear communication with your mentor. Have the communication talk early and find out what your mentor’s preferred style is. Will you email back and forth weekly, or save the questions and updates for a lengthy monthly meeting? Most importantly, communicate about expectations and deadlines and let your mentor know ASAP if you won’t be able to meet them. They can’t save you if they don’t know where you’re hitting a roadblock, so don’t be afraid to ask for help or more time. Knowing your research schedule with certainty is a must when you’re juggling it alongside exams and studying, and good communication is your secret to success here.
- Plan ahead from day one
Research projects can take many forms but a common theme is a period of data collection and a period of writing the manuscript. Knowing your project’s overall arc from the start will allow you to plan the timeline around your expected schedule. For example, you might try to do all your data collection during the more flexible preclinical years. Save writing up the results for clinical rotations, when a few sentences in between patients is doable but heading to the lab would be all but impossible. Whatever your schedule, a little foresight can save you numerous headaches and help you to maximize productivity for years down the line.
- Put it on your calendar
Knowing your deadlines is essential, but they’re useless if you end up procrastinating. Unlike studying, which you’re probably doing every night by default, research can easily slip to the back burner if you’re not proactive about scheduling time for it each week. Find a day or two that work best for you and physically add it to your calendar. This allows you to plan around your research time and will keep you accountable. When not scheduled, it becomes easy to say, “I’ve got a lot of anatomy to get through this week, the experiments will just have to wait.” Pretty soon, that deadline is staring you in the face and that pile of data hasn’t even been touched. Schedule your research time weekly to avoid this pitfall and enjoy the productivity boost of doing a large task in small bites.
- Treat it like a study break
With how hectic your schedule can get between studying and research, it’s easy to crave a break from it all. Lucky for you, research can be that break! Take a page out of our psychology colleagues’ book and cognitively reframe your lab time as an escape from studying. Technically it is, after all. If you choose to view your research as a study break it will become one, and it will be that much easier to fit into your schedule. Before you know it, you’ll be yearning to put away First Aid and go work with your mice for a few hours. Whether it’s a lab experiment or some Excel data, research can be a great way to mix up your day and recharge mentally if you choose to reframe it as a study break.
- Make the lab your second family
Another way to make the lab feel less like work and more like a break is to really get to know your teammates. Spend enough time working together and they will invariably become like a second family to you. This isn’t automatic though, so make sure you stay active in the lab and try to attend meetings, journal clubs, and any social outings your mentor plans for the group. You might even want to suggest activities, such as decorating the lab’s door for the holidays or going to science trivia night at the local brewery. Whatever you do together, fully embrace the “lab family” mentality and before you know it research will feel more like a welcome diversion than a chore on your to-do list.
- Two birds, one stone
One of the perks of research is that it allows you to become a true expert in whatever you’re working on. Use this to your advantage wherever you can and enlist the old “two birds, one stone” mentality to knock out some studying for classes as well. Whatever you’re researching, make some flashcards or outlines while you review the literature. Whenever you get to that organ system in class you can skip ahead and just quickly refresh using the materials you’ve already created. In doing so you can save precious study hours while completing lab work you’d have to do anyway, so get creative and shoot for this overlap whenever you can. Any time you’re doing one thing that helps you in both realms, your schedule will thank you!
- Bring reinforcements
One of the best aspects of research is that it’s nearly always a team sport. When the workload starts to bury you and the strategies above just aren’t enough, don’t be afraid to enlist a friend. Working together is a great way to make a large project more manageable, assuming you both pull your own weight. Be sure to clear it with your mentor first and discuss important topics like distribution of work and authorship on the project, and only bring somebody on board if you trust them to do good work. However, assuming you cover all your bases, adding a co-pilot on your study can do wonders for lessening your workload while making the project more fun to work on.
- Take time off
Of course, the simplest way to make research work alongside classes is hiding in plain sight: take time off! Dedicating the summer after first year to research is a popular option that many already take advantage of. Those who are serious about staying involved throughout medical school might also consider taking a research elective during their third or fourth year. For the true aficionados, a research year after second or third year is also growing in popularity and can do wonders for those applying into the most competitive specialties. Wherever you are in the process, scheduling some dedicated research time is an excellent way to eliminate distractions, boost productivity, and knock out the to-do list that’s somehow always hanging over your head.
- Learn to say “No”
Research has a way of snowballing—work begets more work, projects grow—and the most effective way of keeping it in check is learning how and when to say “no.” Too often, students view research and the prospect of publishing as a scarcity, causing them to jump on every opportunity that crosses their path. Recognizing when to say no and how to do it professionally is an invaluable skill, as anyone who has found themselves in too deep can attest. Before saying yes to a new opportunity, take stock of what is already on your plate and assess whether the new project will hinder the completion of your others. Biting off more than you can chew is easy to do during medical school, and the number of projects you complete and publish is far more important than how many irons you have in the fire.
- Love what you do
Finally, love what you do. Whether it’s experiments in the lab, exams in the clinic, or data on the computer, loving your project and those you work with is the fastest way to throw the whole balance issue out the window. Love what you do, and it will no longer feel like work. It will energize you and drive you to study harder, just so that you can have more time to pour into your research. Love what you do, and you’ll be sprinting over to the lab rather than dragging your feet. Whether you have the foresight to pick a project that truly excites you or you simply find yourself in a random one, make it your passion. When it’s 3 AM on a Saturday and you’re still poring over data trying to hit a deadline, loving your research will be the difference between burnout and thriving.
As with juggling, practice makes perfect when trying to find balance between research and your classes. Still, these tips and tricks can make all the difference in those strenuous months while you’re fumbling with how to make it all work. Many of the strategies above apply to medical school and our busy future careers in general, so don’t be afraid to try them out even if you aren’t doing research just yet. And for those seeking something more during medical school, don’t let research’s rigorous reputation daunt you. The benefits are numerous, and those who employ the tips above can use research to enhance their wellness and overall medical school experience in addition to their ERAS application.