Making the Most of Your Research Year

06 Jul 2023

By: Charlotte Berry

Research years during medical school are becoming increasingly popular, particularly among students interested in surgical subspecialties. Data support the notion that medical students who take research years are more likely to remain academically productive throughout their careers. As a student between MS3 and MS4, currently wrapping up the first year of a two-year research fellowship, I have been reflecting on what has worked well for me, the best advice I have received, and what I wish I had known when I first started.

Balance productivity and personal well-being

Compared to the structured environments of lecture halls or hospital wards, research time offers more flexibility and allows you to take leadership over your schedule. While it’s important to be dedicated to your research, do not neglect your personal well-being. Taking care of yourself will contribute to your overall productivity and happiness during your research year. When you are working, work hard. When you are not, take the opportunity to plan trips, attend special events like weddings, or visit your family.

Set clear goals and develop a plan

Define what you want to achieve during your research year. Whether it’s publishing a certain number of papers, developing specific skills, or making significant progress in your project, having clear goals will keep you focused and motivated. Collaborate with your mentor or PI to create a structured plan for your research year, outlining milestones, experiments, and deadlines. Having a roadmap will keep you organized and ensure steady progress.

Read, read, and read some more

Regardless of the lab or group you join, whether in basic or clinical science, your work will push the boundaries of current knowledge and go beyond what is covered in medical school curricula. Familiarizing yourself with seminal papers in your field will not only inform your project but also help you become acquainted with the writing process for papers related to your own research.

Plan for the podium

As a medical student, your research year will likely introduce you to academic conferences. Familiarize yourself with conferences in your field of interest and inquire about those your lab and PI would support you in submitting research to and attending. Seek advice from peers or residents on conferences known for quality research, networking opportunities, or both. Early on in your research year, take note of conference dates and abstract submission deadlines to ensure you don’t miss any important opportunities. Additionally, consider presenting your research at local or regional meetings, departmental seminars, or poster sessions. This will enhance your presentation skills, allow for feedback, and foster scientific discussions.

“The best way to publish is to write it yourself”

I received this advice early on in my research year, and I have found it to be valuable. While collaboration is crucial in the research world, it can be tempting to jump onto multiple projects and spend most of your time assisting others. However, the best way to control the pace of a project, ensure progress, and learn the intricacies of the peer-review process is to write and submit manuscripts yourself. Finding a healthy balance between first-author projects and collaborative experiences has been rewarding and fruitful for me. Remember, it is essential to be a good teammate while also protecting your limited time.

Experiments fail, you do not

Experiments may fail, but you should not be discouraged. Embrace setbacks and failed experiments as learning experiences. Seek feedback from your mentor, lab colleagues, and peers to refine your research approach and problem-solving skills.

Remember, a research year is an opportunity for growth, learning, and exploration. Embrace the experience, be proactive, and make the most of this valuable time in your medical education.


Charlotte is a fourth-year medical student from Rochester, Minnesota. She attends Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and is currently taking time off between her third and fourth years to complete a research fellowship position with the Stanford Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Department. Charlotte has an academic interest in regenerative medicine, wound healing, microsurgery, gender-affirmation surgery, and global surgery. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, skiing, watercolor, ceramics, and medical illustration.

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