For some background, I'm a second year medical student, and I have recently been considering making medical research a significant part of my future career. I wasn't a science major in undergrad, so I don't have any research background. I have spoken to one of my professors, and I will be doing a bit of lab work in the coming months (I'll be running ELISAs and will have my name on the publication).

EDIT: I'm hoping to have a research elective in my last year in medical school. That's why I'm trying to see if there is anything I should learn between now and then to make me a better candidate for application to the elective.

Now to the heart of my question. I believe I have sufficiently detailed knowledge of the medical content to work in the field (EDIT: to get my feet wet, there is always a lot to learn:). Though I am doing some more in depth research in the field I'm looking to work in (Immunology/Rheumatology). However I know that there are some skill sets that I am currently lacking in that would be necessary for medical research. Here are some of the things I've considered:

  • Familiarity with data analysis software packages like R or Stata
  • Familiarity with lab techniques like blots and culturing cells
  • Academic science writing (of course I've read journal articles, but I've never written one)
  • Grant writing (probably a skill needed in later career, but I assume some familiarity would be helpful)

I'm wondering, from those currently working in medical research, if there are any glaring omissions from this list. I'm reading up on data analysis packages and taking a more analytic eye when reading articles. But if there are any specific resources that I should be looking into: that information would be very useful.

Thanks in advance for any help.

  • Just a guess, here: statistics? Dec 13, 2016 at 5:01

3 Answers 3


We need more researchers in rheumatology.

EDIT: In the comments, you asked what skills you'd need to attract the attention of a potential supervisor when applying for a research elective in your upper years (prior to graduation).

Research electives for medical students are offered to those meeting a specific grade criterion. You must be able to meet that to even qualify. No amount of "passion" will give you this chance. Once you're in that pool of candidates, then it's largely a turkey shoot. In my university, the electives coordinator hands out a list of topics available in labs and units and students choose three projects in descending order of preference. Then, a matching process handles the details. The student receives an assignment and off they go. In some cases, students approach a potential supervisor about six months prior and expresses a desire to take the elective under his or her supervision. Then, a small bespoke project is crafted. This takes time, but often results in a more meaningful experience (not to mention a more lasting relationship between the student and the supervisor).

I generally assume that medical students undertaking research electives in my unit are devoid of research skills and we train them from the ground up. If you came to us stating, say, that you had skills in the measurement of nuchal translucency on ultrasound, we would still ask you to train under us, but expect that your pick-up of those skills would be faster than usual. There is no shame in stating that you don't know how or what to do. That's the point of the elective.

What base skills do we expect? (1) Good communication skills, both oral and written. I don't want to correct your grammar on the poster or teach you how to speak clearly before an audience. (2) Good literature search skills, as you'll be reading up on a lot of previous work. (3) Solid understanding of the foundational aspects of the research topic. If you're working on the management of asbestosis, I expect that you know the anatomy and physiology of the respiratory system as well as basic pathology of inflammation, etc. (4) Being able to work in teams. You'll likely be the most junior member of the team and I don't want you disrupting some of the more complex research projects under way.

Over the long therm, I've found these skills relevant to my own career:

  1. Learn how to be a good clinician. Then, maintain a clinical load. Continuing to care for patients allows you to stay grounded not in what you do but WHY you do it. You can get lost in a Western blot and miss the adverse impact that achy joints have on a grandmother of five. I work in public health, but still see breast cancer patients. It's one thing to understand the effect that a drug has on millions of women. It's quite another to explain to a woman that her 13-year-old daughter does not need a mammogram just because Angelina Jolie was concerned about breast cancer.

  2. Learn how to be a good teacher. Then, maintain a teaching load. You need to help train the new generation, much like the older generation trained you.

  3. Learn how to network and collaborate. Good clinical research is rigorous. Great clinical research is collaborative.

  4. Every so often, spend some time away from the lab and immerse yourself in a refugee camp or a medical mission. The lab is good for the brain; the immersion is good for the soul.

Good luck to you.


I believe I have sufficiently detailed knowledge of the medical content to work in the field.

Spoken like a true second year medical student.

  • 1
    Hahah, a fair point! I've edited the original question: you are absolutely right, I still have a lot to learn! I agree, there is still so much we need to learn about auto-immunity to provide better treatment options. These are invaluable points on how to be a good doctor and manage to stay sane in the process. I was wondering if there are any specific, technical skills you would look for when selecting a student to assist in a research elective in their fourth year? That is my current plan, and I want to get a head start if there were any gaps that would disqualify me. Dec 12, 2016 at 21:53
  • Good on you. I've added some thoughts on applying for electives. The bar isn't too high, to be honest. However, a solid grounding is imperative. I usually interview the medical students who wish to undertake an elective with my group. I'm not largely impressed by prior technical knowledge in specific lab techniques, because we teach that when you come in and I worry about my techs having to retrain bad habits out of you. Thus, my requirements are more general: know your basic and clinical subjects back to front and be a good worker. We'll teach you the rest.
    – user65587
    Dec 12, 2016 at 22:28
  • This answer is perfect. Thank you for your insight: you've saved me countless hours that I will now devote to proper medical study. Dec 12, 2016 at 22:45
  • @kingfishersfire I'm coming from a PhD perspective though I have worked with PhD/MD and MD researchers as well as medical students. I would echo Blue and just add a point for the future: my understanding is that there are specific residency programs for research-interested MDs, so if you like your experience in research and want to make it part of your career long term, I would search specifically for those programs, or at least a department that supports physician-scientists (and doesn't just claim to), because not all do, even those affiliated with universities. US context.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 12, 2016 at 23:23
  • @BryanKrause thanks for the heads-up. That's a really good point to look out for. I've started making a list of all the programs that have labs that are doing work in the specific area I'm interested in. My original plan was to reach out to some of the students/fellows/post-docs from those programs to see what the environment is like. Do you think that would be a good strategy to avoid ending up at an un-supportive institution? Dec 12, 2016 at 23:27

This is a supplement to @Blue-Footed Booby's Blue Feet 's excellent answer, from the perspective of someone who works heavily with clinical researchers:

Know What You Do Not Know

And know who does.

This is especially true for quantitative problems - data analysis, statistics, etc. The answer is not always "The nearest statistician". But it is often "A statistician". Rigorous, modern data analysis methods are, essentially, beyond the scope of an MD's training, and is likely to remain so. So collaborate freely, and treat those collaborators as experts worthy of your respect.

  • this seems absolutely on point. Science is always a collaborative endeavor and knowing when to defer to an expert is an important skill. One follow-up, often times working with an expert is facilitated by a rudimentary understanding of their field. Beyond some basic statistics (e.g. what an ANOVA and ideas like relative risk and such) is there anything that makes working with clinical researchers easier. For example, would knowing the basic workings of statistical packages be a uses skill for me when working with statisticians? Dec 13, 2016 at 18:02
  • 1
    @kingfishersfire You're correct that having an understanding of the field helps. I'd suggest that knowing more in terms of a theoretical understanding is probably more valuable than R skills. It's far more helpful to me when a clinician says "I think this is a survival problem" or "Could we use the same Interrupted Time-Series analysis we used for X here?" than code. I can't remember the last time I shared code with a clinical collaborator. Also, have an understanding of what's a "5 minutes of my time" question vs. a "5 hour" question vs. a "5% effort" question.
    – Fomite
    Dec 13, 2016 at 21:24
  • Thanks! That's very helpful information: my future collaborators (and I) thank you. Dec 13, 2016 at 22:30

you have to have good experience on Microsoft Access, and Microsoft excel to be able to deal with large amount and continuous updated data.

you have to know how to use different databases correctly as well

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