Tag Archives: research

How to do Meaningful Research as an Undergrad

So, you’ve decided you want to try out the world of scientific research!  Good for you. You may have fun and love it or you may discover it is not for you.  We’ve talked about the benefits before, so now let’s drill down on the nitty-gritty.  How do you get involved?

If it exists on your campus, I suggest you make your first stop the undergraduate research office.  These people have a wealth of information and can help you identify mentors and explain what the research program is like at the school.  At one institution where I worked, there was a whole undergrad research program, including classes and a distinction you could earn by completing a research thesis. I would routinely get emails from the undergrad office about students looking to do research.

If survey courses about research exist on your campus, these can be excellent resources to check the water and see if you may like it.  At one institution where I worked, faculty could offer 1-credit small seminar courses in research. I routinely taught one in Clinical Research and enjoyed showing the undergrads all the opportunities which exist.  I brought in guest speakers and some of the students ended up working with them. Other students in the class asked me to direct them to potential mentors.

You may be able to search for faculty research interests on your institution’s website and then contact those which interest you.  I’ll write a later post about how to email potential research mentors. Realize if you are ‘cold emailing’ you may not get a response, so come up with a backup plan.  Creating a short list of potential mentors is the safe bet.

Finally, if you have had any contact with a faculty member with whom you think you could get along, you can reach out to them.  This is probably a faculty member teaching a small, upper-level course and who may know your name. It’s usually best to make this request near the end of the semester or at the start of the next one, to avoid any appearance of bias during the course.

Once you have an appointment scheduled with a potential research mentor, treat it like an interview.  Ask them questions about how they like to work with undergrads. Remember, the purpose of this is to find out if you’re a good fit- you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.  Be sure to ask what your responsibilities will be, if you will be an author on an eventual publication, with whom you will be working, and what the time commitment is.

If you decide to pursue research, make sure to do it well.  Show up, be enthusiastic, and be helpful. What questions do you have about how to get involved in research?

How to Do Effective Research as an Intern

All internship years are clinical training programs.  That is what they are designed for and that is what they offer.  It’s an intensive experience designed to improve your clinical knowledge, decision-making skills, and procedural experience.  Most internships are not designed for you to do research. But you may want to try, as there are a couple of valuable benefits to doing research as an intern.

Being only one year in length makes it extremely challenging to start and finish a research project as an intern.  Combined with the long clinic hours you work, it’s no mystery why most programs don’t emphasize intern research. It is rarely successful.  I can count on one hand the number of interns I have worked with who got a published paper from their intern year, and all of those were either case reports or helping with an existing project.

In spite of these obstacles, trying to complete a research project during your internship year may allow you to develop a relationship with a faculty mentor and get a publication added to your CV.  Here are some steps to help you be successful:

1) Be realistic.  Do you _really_ want to give up the slight amount of free time you already have to do a research project?  Will you actually follow through and finish it? Will having a publication in submission really help your residency application that much?  If you start a project which you don’t finish, will that sour your relationship with the faculty mentor? Remember, most efforts at doing research as an intern will not be successful.  Make sure you can commit

2) Start early.  You have to start in your first month of the program if you expect to have anything useful on your CV by the time match applications are due in the beginning of December.  The only possible exception to this is a case report, but those you can’t really predict- you have to rely on them to come across your plate.

3) Find a mentor.  Hopefully you know what discipline you want to pursue after your internship.  Find a friendly faculty member and ask them about the prospect of doing research.  The best case scenario is if they have an existing project which just needs to be written up.  Other possibilities are helping with data collection for an ongoing project or starting your own.  Only start your own if you know it is easy to do, does not require extensive approvals (IACUC, IRB), and has a high likelihood for success.

4) Submit the publication before residency applications are due so you can write on your CV, “Submitted for publication”.  As noted, many interns start research, but few actually finish it. For me, a line on a CV which reads, “Comparison of This Thing with Another Thing.  Research in progress” is basically valueless. Starting a project is easy. Untold thousands of research projects are started every year. But do you finish it?  Ah, now that is something worth noting on a CV

You don’t necessarily need research on your CV to be a competitive residency applicant.  Don’t force yourself to do a research project as an intern to fill out what you think is a deficiency on your CV.  Only pursue it if you are serious, dedicated, and passionate. It can be a valuable experience, but it also has the potential to create poor feelings due to a project not being finished.  Be honest with yourself and your potential mentor, and you may be successful.

What to Get Out of Doing Research Work as an Undergrad

You want to go to vet school, you want to maximize your chances, and doing research may help your application.  It isn’t the research, per se, which will help. It is the relationships- mostly with your mentor- and the demonstration of grit that doing research highlights.

Participating in research while an undergrad is a wonderful activity.  You get exposed to the process of scientific inquiry, and maybe that becomes exciting for you.  You get to work one-on-one with a faculty member who can write an excellent letter of recommendation. And you get to demonstrate your willingness to stick to a project to the end- an essential characteristic of any vet student.  Let’s break them down.

1) You get exposed to research.  Hey, you know what? Vet school isn’t for everyone.  Maybe you would be equally fulfilled doing a PhD in biochemistry, and avoiding the mountain of student debt that awaits veterinarians.  Maybe you enjoy doing research but still want to be a vet- so maybe academia would be a good fit for you. Maybe you have a bad experience and decide research sucks.  In any event, getting exposure to this essential domain of veterinary medicine will benefit you.

2) Develop relationships.  I have written countless letters of recommendation for my research students.  Some of them said, “Yeah, this person is fine” and some of them said, “OMG you must take this person they are the best thing since sliced bread!”  Obviously you want to be in the latter group, and working closely with a faculty member can set you up for an excellent letter of recommendation. When you decide to pursue research, make sure you aren’t working for a postdoc; you want the faculty to write you an excellent letter of recommendation.

3) Grit.  Completing a research project- even if you are a cog in the wheel of some post-doc’s 5-year project- demonstrates some level of grit.  I have had students who flamed out after a semester, having never started data collection. I have had others who have two peer-reviewed journal publications to their name.  Which do you think is a better vet school candidate? Finishing a project demonstrates that you can see a project through, which is incredibly important in vet school.

Not everyone should do research during their undergrad years.  If you are struggling academically, you need to double down on your core courses and not get sucked into a 15-hour-a-week research project.  If you’re not intellectually curious, or just want to do the bare minimum, avoid research, because your mentors will expect you to be curious and perform.  If you just want a line on your CV but don’t care about the work, please don’t burden some beleaguered faculty with your poor attitude.

If you can do research during your undergrad time, do so.  You will find out important things about yourself and maybe buff up your application.  You may develop relationships with mentors who will propel your career. Most of all, you will find out if something academic or research-oriented is a path in which you are interested.  And from there the sky’s the limit.

Dr. Clara Moran

Podcast Episode 3 – Dr. Clara Moran

Dr. Moran and I worked together on a terrific research project which led to a publication in JVECC while she was a veterinary student. I wrote letters of recommendation for her and have been so excited to see her be successful in surgery. Dr. Moran talks about why academia is awesome, particularly when studying for boards, why surgery is fun, and developing relationships.

What Can you Negotiate For in a Faculty Position?

Well, you’ve made it!  You got an offer for an academic position.  You have said yes, they are excited you are coming, and all that is left is hammering out the details.  It is always possible things will fall apart during this process, but remember: everyone wants this to work out.  No department chair wants a failed search and no prospective faculty member wants to sacrifice what they need to be successful.  We’ll talk elsewhere about how to do negotiations, but now let’s look at WHAT you can negotiate.

1) Salary. This is pretty obvious and is sometimes the only thing prospective faculty think to negotiate.

2) Signing bonus.  Although rare in veterinary medicine, and some institutions don’t allow them at all, if you have extenuating circumstances (such as a very early start date) you can always ask.  Some institutions will wrap this into the moving expenses.

3) Moving expenses.  Some institutions have a maximum they allow- such as up to 10% of the offered salary- whereas others are less restricted.  Your best bet is to get an actual quote or two to use as data for the negotiation. “I have a quote for moving which will cost $8,000.” Is different than, “Can I please have $8,000 for moving expenses?”  The latter is perfectly fine, of course, but the former is more likely to get you the amount for which you ask.

4) Student research support.  If you want to ensure funding for your first Ph.D. student, or even for a vet student to do research with you during the summer, you can ask for that.  It is rare that this funding will be in perpetuity- it will usually be for a finite amount of time until you can secure extramural funds.

5) Full Time Equivalent (FTE).  You should know what the FTE for the position is to which you applied, and you shouldn’t stray largely from that amount.  For example, if you applied for a 66% clinic time FTE, were happy with that throughout the process, and now pivot and ask for a 50% clinic time FTE, they will not be happy.  The job is for 66% time. However, if it is for a tenure-track position and you think you can finagle things a certain way, you may be able to ask for 40% or 45% instead of 50% clinic time.  Be aware that this will affect the other faculty members in the discipline and may be impossible. Research and teaching FTE are more easily adjusted/negotiated. Regardless, I strongly suggest that you have your FTE in your offer letter.

6) Clinic equipment.  This can be anything as simple as a patient scale that’s needed in a key area to a renal dialysis unit.  If there is something you feel you need for ideal patient care or teaching, ask for it. I recommend reaching out to the existing faculty members to find out if they have any identified needs.  You can always ask for the stars, and if they give you less, then decide how important that is. Particularly if the clinic is dramatically behind the times or you are in a specialty with an expensive equipment need (e.g. radiology), this could be $500k or more.  Be as detailed as possible here, but you probably won’t have time to get official quotes.

7) Research equipment.  If you expect to have a lab or extramural funding, make sure they have the core equipment you need or make sure it is in your offer letter.

8) Startup funds.  This is money which is generally open to being spent however you need- office furniture, expendable research supplies, etc.

9) Time off.  Particularly if you have made a commitment to an event (like a conference) and the timeline is short, you can specify that you need certain time off.  If it has been years since you had a vacation, you may be able to specify several weeks of vacation even in the first year, before you have earned enough vacation time.  Realize that this is likely to be unpaid leave.

10) Staff, residents, or faculty salary lines.  This is a permanent or temporarily funded full-time position.  These are often extremely difficult to negotiate for, but they are possible.  I know of one person who had an offer for a faculty position who got a commitment for 3 residents and another faculty member in their offer letter.  It is likely the institution was looking to grow the program anyway, but you never know when your interests and the institutional direction will align.  If you see a strong need, you can make a case for it.

11) Spousal hire.  I will have a whole section on negotiating the spousal hire, but this is a possibility in the United States.  Most countries outside the U. S. don’t understand the concept, so you can ask but may not get anywhere.

12) A paid visit before the start date.  This is usually to look for housing, or for your spouse to see the area.  Some institutions don’t allow this as a matter of course and instead will wrap it into moving expenses.  Make sure it includes your significant other (if applicable).

13) Time off for studying for boards.  If you need to take boards, this should absolutely be in your offer letter.  I would recommend including a stipulation about time off to study in subsequent years in the event you don’t pass the first year.

It is possible there are things which basic scientists may ask for and of which I am unaware, but these are the major categories I can think of.  Do you know of any others? Do you have any concerns about how to negotiate your offer or what to ask for? Post in the comments!