Doing research gives you the opportunity to explore an area of interest and meet people who are currently in the field. For many, the output of research projects can also help boost postgraduate applications such as for a Masters or PhD, whereas for medical students, research projects can also lead to extra points on future specialty applications.
Being a bit of a self-proclaimed research geek, I’ve learned a lot about how undergraduate students can get involved in research through attending events, speaking to more experienced people, and lots of time spent on the Internet. Hence I decided to write this post about the different ways to get involved in research as an undergraduate, along with pros and cons of each since this is a very common thing that is asked. I hope you learn something from this!
Ask Yourself This When Starting Out:
Why do you want to get involved in research?
This is a question that a lot of supervisors will ask you when you first approach them. Research is tough and being able to articulate why you want to do research and your career aspirations in relation to research will be very helpful.
Do you know what kind of research you want to do?
Research is extremely broad, ranging from the nano scale to large scale clinical/epidemiological trials. You don’t have to be entirely sure what exactly you’d like to research but having a general idea will guide you as to who you’d like as a supervisor. It would also help a supervisor find a project that caters to your interests.
What kind of skills can you bring to a project?
You might not have a lot of experience with research yet and that is completely fine! Everyone starts off as a beginner. Examples of skills include being able to conduct a systematic review and being able to analyse data with a specific software/programming language e.g. SPSS or R.
What do you want to get out of a project?
This can be something like getting some lab experience, wanting to present and publish the work, and writing it up for an essay prize.
Note: knowing what you would like to get out of a project is not the same as approaching potential supervisors asking for a paper that you can put your name on without putting in the work! The output you get from a project correlates to the amount of work you put into it.
If you’re new to research, you need to start somewhere. You’re unlikely to come up with your own research question/project from scratch, but if you show researchers that you are genuinely interested in their work, they are likely to help you out in some way, whether it is to have you join one of their projects or to direct you to someone else that could help.
I myself started off with data collection on my first ever proper project. I have written about it in a previous post, click here to check it out.
Opportunities to get involved with research as an undergraduate are generally divided into two categories: those that are already part of your degree, and those outside your degree.
Opportunities As Part of Your Degree:
Most medical degrees have bits and pieces of research built into the curriculum. For example, I wrote a literature review on student selection in Medicine for a project in second and in third year, I have the option of doing a research-based/literature-based project.
For students who aren’t doing Medicine, research-related assignments are a good place to start. These assignments and the dissertation are great since you do not have to go through the whole process of approaching people/applying for things and potentially getting rejected.
What you produce for submission can then be taken further by publishing and presenting the work, for example. Since most of the work has been done in preparation of your assignment/dissertation deadline, you will already have something to work with when you want to take your project further. Your supervisor would be the best source of advice regarding how exactly to do so.
Low risk. It is already part of your degree, so the opportunity is guaranteed.
There might already be time dedicated to the assignment(s), so you might not need to put in as much extra time to work on it.
Easier to adapt your work for things like publications than starting from scratch.
There are usually a fixed number of opportunities to do research throughout your degree. For example, I generally get 1 research-related assignment a year. If you want to do more, you might have to seek out those opportunities on your own.
Opportunities Outside Your Degree:
Opportunities like these are usually open for competitive application. Generally, they include:
Collaborative studies: usually large, multi-centre studies that are led by specialty interest groups such as NANSIG (for neurology and neurosurgery) and STARSurg UK (for surgery).
Opportunities advertised by local societies such as Young Academics and platforms such as Remarxs *note that these are usually institute-specific*
Summer studentships: usually a duration of time during the summer holidays where students are paid a bursary for 6-10 weeks to carry out research. These schemes are usually organised by bodies that fund research such as the Wellcome Trust.
University-specific opportunities: some universities advertise available research opportunities internally to their students so it is worth speaking to someone like your academic advisor/personal tutor to find out whether this is done at your university.
Intercalated degrees: for students doing Medicine, you may have the option of taking time out to study an area in greater depth, usually for a year. For some medical schools, this is already incorporated into the degree. Again this is by competitive application, but the process may be more forgiving towards the fact that you do not have much research experience yet. (Intercalating is optional at my medical school so I am including it here as a formal opportunity outside of your degree.)
There are also options of doing research overseas, but I am focussing on opportunities in the UK due to potential costs with travel and restrictions due to the pandemic. Remember that you aren’t limited to doing research in your own institute! For example, a summer studentship does not need to be done at your own university.
Note: I did a lot of research into various summer studentship schemes as I applied to one previously - some are not open to international students which is quite frustrating! I will be publishing a post about summer studentships in the future, so keep an eye out for that.
The benefit of doing research through formal opportunities is that usually the parties involved are held accountable. For example, some organisations that fund them will ask the student to present their work at one of their meetings or do a written piece about their experience. This means that both parties (supervisor and student) are protected since students involved are more likely to be given due credit for their work, and supervisors end up with a properly completed project.
However, formal opportunities can be very competitive to get. Depending on what the application process is like, you might have to prepare a CV, references, your academic transcript, etc which can be a lot to manage while studying.
Greater degree of accountability for both supervisors and students.
The fact that you get awarded something like a summer studentship can be a great boost to your CV, on top of the output you can get from your project.
Opportunity might be paid.
You go through the whole process of applying for the project which can be quite tedious depending on what is required for the application.
Depending on when you do the project, it can take time away from your summer break/your academic year.
For any research project, make sure you know EXACTLY what you’re getting into. For example, some collaborative studies only offer medical students inclusion in the “Acknowledgements” section (which does not count in future specialty applications!), whereas some allow you to present your local data as an audit, etc. If you plan to get increasingly involved with whichever organisation conducting a study, starting out as a collaborator is a good method to work your way up the ranks, you just need to make sure that you’re going into it with your eyes open.
Don’t get tempted to join something without knowing exactly what you’re getting out of it just because you’re told that “it’ll be good for your CV”. How would you know that’s the case if you don’t even know how this opportunity fits into your CV?
By this, I’m referring to cold emailing potential supervisors to ask if there is anything you can get involved in. You may not receive a response from the people that you approach but if you do, supervisors are likely to want to learn more about you before taking you on - prepare to have a meeting with them!
You really have to make sure that you’re approaching the right person - someone who has experience working with students and has a good track record. This is important for all research projects, but even more so with informal research opportunities that are not publicly advertised.
You can seek out supervisors that work in your area of interest - a lot of the formal opportunities mentioned above come with specific projects/supervisors already, which can limit your choices.
Done in your own time, usually unpaid
You might have to get in touch with a lot of supervisors before getting one response - this can be quite frustrating!
Risk of being left with nothing after putting in all the effort (I have heard lots of horror stories about this!)
Things to Keep in Mind when Getting Involved in Research:
Establish what you will get from your work. This prevents conflict when it comes to determining things like authorship, etc.
Find a good supervisor. Having a good supervisor reduces the likelihood of you not being given due credit for your role in a project. On top of that, a good supervisor will help you maximise your potential and who knows, this might be the start of a long-term working relationship! I will be writing a post about finding a supervisor in the future as well.
Be sensible with your commitments. When you first take on a project, it can be difficult to gauge how much time you’ll need if you’re new to the work. Your project might take up more time than you expected so avoid overcommitting, think quality over quantity!
I think research is a great thing to do but don’t just take me for my word! Go get involved in a project yourself to see if it’s something you like, I hope this post will help you get started - good luck!
Some Resources to Check Out:
This blog post by St. Emlyn’s on getting involved with emergency care research gives advice that I think is applicable to research in general.
The British Medical Association (BMA)’s page on intercalation
One of my favourite medical students on social media, Jess has written a post on her decision to intercalate in a Master’s
All the organisations that I mentioned in this post have been linked so you can go find out more about them yourselves :)