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Learning About Research: How to Make the Most of Journal Clubs as a Medical Student

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

By Jean Ling Tan


Over Semester 3, I took part in fortnightly journal club sessions organised by the Manchester Medical Journal over Zoom. During these sessions, we would critically analyse a research paper of choice, discussing what the paper was about, its findings, strengths, and limitations.


My flatmate always laughed at me when I said “journal club”, BUT I assure you that it can be highly beneficial to get involved with them. (Yes, I know how geeky they sound!) Personally, I have learned so much from this experience and will definitely continue to attend in the coming semester.


And that’s what I’m going to convince you about in this blog post today: why attend a journal club and tips to make the most of it even if you’re new to it.


In a future post, I’ll share a list of useful resources and journal clubs that you can get involved in yourself! The list will be updated regularly as I come across more information in the future. (The list can be found here.)


What is a Journal Club?


Journal club: a gathering of individuals to discuss an article that has been published in the academic literature.

Typically, journal club sessions are held in person (at the department of a hospital for example). There are many journal clubs taking place locally and regionally/nationally via Zoom and social media networks such as Twitter.


The papers discussed can be about various areas or specific to a specialty e.g. Oncology. In a session, there will usually be a presenter that presents the paper of choice; participants will get the opportunity to discuss the paper and its implications on current clinical practice and research.


My Experience


The journal club sessions organised by the Manchester Medical Journal were generally 45-50 minutes long. We discussed a range of papers in the sessions, including papers about COVID-19, the use of tranexamic acid in acute traumatic brain injury, BCG vaccination in the elderly, and more.


As part of my goal to get involved in research this year, I decided to take part to boost my experience, given that I did not have a lot of research experience yet as a second-year medical student. In fact, I actually prepared for the first session on my flight back to the UK in September!


Before I started, I thought that I was quite knowledgeable about research (for my current level of experience). I did a 5000-word research dissertation for my EPQ and had taken a number of online courses about research methods. However, putting my skills to practice was more difficult than I expected. Knowing the PICO framework was not the same as having to pick out points from the paper that were relevant to the framework.


Papers were quite overwhelming to get through, and sometimes terminology just made my head swim. It took me quite some time to even understand the paper, let alone critically appraise it. I was also quite nervous about having to share my opinions when I felt like the least experienced person in the session.


Having the sessions online made it easier to get started. I could keep my camera off, so if I did end up saying something stupid I could get embarrassed on my own. I could also attend from the comfort of my own room, without having to make the journey to an in-person gathering.


With more experience, I started getting more confident expressing my views and developed a framework that I now use regularly for critical appraisal, which I’ll share in a future post!


Now, I can get through a paper in half the time I used to need when I first started. The sense of satisfaction that comes from having focussed intently on a paper and having my critical analysis being commended is one that I really enjoyed. I think this experience will be extremely helpful when I start working on my Year 2 PEP assignment in the coming months. (I discussed PEP at Manchester in a previous post, click here to read more about it.)


Why Join a Journal Club?


What better time to start than now when most of them are virtual? If you still need more convincing, I’ve listed why I think you should get involved in a journal club, join the discussion and perhaps one day, present a paper yourself!

  1. Demonstrate interest in research: I think a journal club is a highly underrated way to show your interest in research, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience yet. If you’re part of a specialty-specific journal club, this can be a good way for you to demonstrate commitment to the specialty.

  2. Develop your ability to critically analyse papers: This will be useful for future research projects, the EPQ and university assignments such as PEP at Manchester Medical School.

  3. Develop skills needed for future interviews: Critical analysis forms a part of interviews for academic jobs such as the Academic Foundation Programme (AFP). Being in a journal club helps you develop a framework that you can use to critically analyse a paper under time constraints. It’s good interview practice as well!

  4. To discover an area of academic interest: Often, we say that we’re interested in getting involved in research but we’re not sure exactly what we’re interested in. This can make finding a project and supervisor difficult. Who knows, you might find something interesting from a journal club and take that interest further by doing a project in that area!

  5. EBM Revision. Good for those EBM questions that always come up in exams, easy marks to score!

My Tips for Success:

  1. ALWAYS prepare for the session! Read the paper in advance. This gives you time to gain a deeper understanding of the paper and you can quickly do some background reading, about the drug that was used as an intervention in the study, for example. You’d be better equipped to contribute to the discussion and pay attention to the presenter.

  2. If you don’t know, ask! Student-led journal clubs in particular are always open to new people joining and they do try to account for varied levels of experience among attendees. You might find that the presenter explains a concept much better than some other sources on the Internet can 😉

  3. Contribute. You will definitely have something to say about the paper, no matter how “basic” you think it is. Everyone makes mistakes when they start, once you make all those mistakes, you’ll get better!

  4. Use available resources. Some larger, well known trials might have been discussed somewhere on the Internet (blogs, podcasts, etc) so you can do a quick search and check out what has been mentioned. Compare it to the points you have included as part of your critical analysis and take note of what you can include in your future analyses.

Conclusion


Thank you for staying to the end of this blog post! I hope that you found this helpful. If I convinced you to join a journal club, I’d love to hear from you about your experience so please feel free to DM on Instagram!


The following link includes points that should be covered when critically analysing a paper, very useful if you’re joining a journal club for the first time and would like some guidance. I’ll cover the framework I use when preparing for journal club sessions in the future, so stay tuned for that!


If you’d like to read further on what makes an effective journal club, click here to read a blog post by Dr Gary Jones.


Note: I have not found much information about how participants can get the most benefit out of journal clubs, if you come across something useful, do get in touch via email or Instagram DM and I can include the information here!


That’s all for this post! Make sure to stay up to date on our content through our Instagram page and check out our other blog posts here!


-Jean.

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