Choosing a Research Project

Choosing a Research Project

Muyibat A. Adelani, M.D.

Assistant Professor, Orthopaedic Surgery

University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine


Whether you are a medical student, a resident, or even a fellow, you are often asked to complete a research project.  But how can you make this a successful endeavor?  Here are my tips:

Assess your interest in research.  Be honest with yourself.  Some of us know we have an interest in research, whether that be basic science or clinical research.  Some of us know that we have no interest in ever doing research as a part of our careers.  Many of us don’t have much experience with research and don’t really know if we like it or not.  However, many of us have research as a requirement for our training programs.  Having a good idea of what your attitude is likely to be during the course of the project can help prevent you from biting off more than you can chew and will let you know how much you will need to push yourself to get the project done without too much procrastination.

Know the expectations.  If this is a project that is required for your completion of medical school or residency, it is important to know what the specific requirements are.  Do you just need to finish a project?  Do you need to produce an abstract to submit to a meeting?  Do you need to write a manuscript?  Does the manuscript need to be submitted for publication?  Does it need to be accepted for publication?  The answers to all of these questions will help you figure out what type of project you can take on within your given timeline.

Select a good mentor.  Having a good mentor is critical.  I think a good mentor is someone who is experienced, interested, available, and honest.  If s/he is going to be able to guide you to the successful completion of a project, then s/he should have some experience in doing good studies and getting them published.  A good mentor must also be interested in being a mentor and engaging individuals at your level in research.  A good way to find this out is to ask your colleagues who the good mentors are at your institution.  Your mentor should have the time to meet with you as needed to help you complete your project.  My medical school mentor would often meet with me before going to the OR, or in between cases, or during her break in clinic, in order to help me with my project.  Finally, a good mentor has the ability to provide honest feedback on your work.  If you are not on the right track, it’s better to know earlier than later.  You want a mentor who will not only tell you when you are off track, but will also help you get to where you need to be.  Without a good mentor, it is very difficult to complete a research project, especially if you do not have a lot of experience with research.

Select a project you are interested in.  Regardless of your interest in research, it is very difficult to complete a project you hate.  If possible, pick a project that aligns well with your interests.  If you already have certain clinical or research interests, than this is straightforward.  If you do not have any experience, then think of this more broadly.  If you don’t like being in the lab or you don’t like animals, avoid basic science research.  Conversely, if you don’t like reviewing charts or patient data, avoid projects that involve those activities.  It is a lot easier to remain engaged in a project when you are genuinely interested in the results.

Select a project that can be completed.  Even if you pick a project that you are interested in, you should focus on a project that you can see from start to finish, especially if the expectations are for you to fully complete a project.  Picking a project that will take more time than you have will doom you to failure.  A good mentor can help you with this.  However, if you are looking for an additional project besides one that you need to complete for a research requirement, then it is fine to become involved in a major study that you may not finish, but is part of a more long term plan at your institution.  

Create a plan for the project before you start.  Once you understand the expectations and select a good mentor, it is much easier to create a plan for the project.  From the time I was in medical school until now, I have always written a full proposal for every project that I do.  That typically includes background information (including the rationale for the study), the study question that is to be answered), the study sample, study methods, strengths and weaknesses of the study, and the target journal for publication.  This will help keep you focused throughout the study, and it also is very helpful for the preparation of the manuscript.  Additionally, it is important to create a timeline for completion of each step of the study so that you can complete your project in a timely fashion.  

Good luck with your research project!