Penn Medicine MD-PhD

Information Gathering

 

For some Penn medical students who did research extensively as undergraduates, finding the right mentor and project may be relatively easy. Others may be less sure of how to get started. Below are some suggestions to make things easier.

TIMING

Everyone should keep in mind that it is very, very important to start planning early. If you are planning for a research experience, you should be considering what type of research you would like to do and exploring opportunities for funding by mid-fall. By the end of December, you should be finalizing your plans. Many funding opportunities have January through March deadlines! If you wait until late in the spring to decide what to do, you may miss out on the chance to be funded.

If you are considering a year out of research, you may want to contact Helene Weinberg (Registrar) well in advance to discuss planning electives, sub-Is, etc..

LOCATION

Think about where you want to conduct your research project

1. Penn - most students conduct research at Penn. Check out the listings on our Short Term Opportunities and Year Out Opportunities webpages.

2. Outside Penn (Domestic) - there are opportunities for doing research through institutions other than Penn. Going offsite can limit your funding options. Early planning is essential to ensure that you are able to coordinate a project, secure a mentor, and confirm that your timeline does not interfere with your responsibilities at Penn. Several programs outside Penn are listed on our Short Term Opportunities and Year Out Opportunities webpages. In addition, you may want to search the websites of Medical Schools in that location to see if they offer any funding opportunities.

3. International - there are opportunities for international research at Penn. Interested students should contact Megan Doherty, Director of The Center for Global Health, for more information. Visit the The Center for Global Health website at http://www.med.upenn.edu/globalhealth/penn_students.shtml.

TYPE AND AREA OF RESEARCH

Think about what type of research you are interested in conducting. Basic science? Clinical? Translational? Health Policy?

And what area of research. Extensive research programs are underway in every department of the Medical School and in every major scientific discipline. There are a variety of websites that provide a good starting place to explore available options:

1. The Biomedical Graduate Studies homepage (http://www.med.upenn.edu/bgs/) has links to the Graduate Groups in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Cell and Molecular Biology, Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Genomics and Computational Biology, Immunology, Neuroscience, and Pharmacological Sciences. Within each program's site is a listing of faculty research.  

2. Penn Centers and Institutes at http://www.med.upenn.edu/centers.shtml. Some of the individual Centers and Institutes maintain lists of faculty research.  

3. Departments in the Perelman School of Medicine - see the index of these at http://www.med.upenn.edu/departments.shtml. Some departments list faculty research in their sites.

MENTORSHIP

When you have narrowed your interests down to one or more broad areas, you can seek advice on things to keep in mind when choosing a mentor, and also ask for suggestions on which labs would be good for you.

1. You might start with your course directors and lecturers, if their expertise is in one of your areas of interest.

2. You can also e-mail or make appointments with the relevant Department Chairs or Division Chiefs, Directors of Centers or Institutes, and Graduate Group Chairs or track chairs. (The people in this last group steward PhD students, and have a wealth of information on faculty members who are most active in training students.) Some of these folks are extremely busy, and you may have to be persistent. Don't give up after one e-mail if you don't hear from someone! There is no substitute for the advice of faculty members. (But do give up if you try several times and get nowhere. In that case, contact other people instead.)

3. Other helpful folks:

4. You should also get the advice of your fellow students: first years with extensive research experience and/or more senior students who have already been through this process. You can learn more about other students' research experiences on the Student Portal on the "Educational Opportunities" tab (http://www.med.upenn.edu/student/educational.shtml) under "Summer First Year - Guide to Planning". Click on the "Student Experiences" links.

5. Seach for potential mentors on the PSOM "Our Faculty" webpages (http://www.med.upenn.edu/faculty.shtml) using keywords to identify faculty conducting research on a particular topic (e.g. Parkinson's Disease)

6. If you have no idea what you would like to do, one place to start is the Short Term Opportunities or Year Out Opportunities webpages. They include information about a variety of funding options as well as their primary faculty contacts, who might be able to assist you with identifying potential mentors in that field.

7. If you are looking at the short term programs, you might want to also look at the year out opportunities. The summer between 1st and 2nd year of medical school can be a great time to lay the ground work for doing a year of research after your third year.

Once you have a list of particular mentors that you are interested in, contact them directly, perhaps by e-mail. Tell them about your enthusiasm for their research and ask if they would be interested in having a medical student in the lab for two months during the summer or for a year out. If so, request a chance to meet with them to discuss possible projects. If not, perhaps ask if there are others they would recommend.

When you meet with a faculty member to discuss possible summer projects, explore whether he or she would be a good mentor for you. For summer research, two months is a very short amount of time for doing research, and it will be important that you have a concrete project planned if you are to have an interesting, productive summer. For all research projects, talk with the faculty member about how you would develop the project and plan the research if you end up working in that lab. You need to find a mentor who is a good fit for you. How much guidance will he or she provide? Is he or she fairly available? Are there other people (grad students or postdocs/fellows) who can also help you? You definitely want to work with someone responsive and available, who is clearly committed to helping you learn about the scientific process. Avoid mentors who wouldn't have the time to help you learn, or who seem to have too definite an idea of exactly what you would do, thus cutting you out of the process of designing and developing the plan. Ask potential mentors if they will be on campus and available during your research period: don't choose someone who will be traveling extensively while you are working on your project.

Once you have chosen a mentor, set up a schedule of periodic meetings to develop the project, get pointers on appropriate background reading, and perhaps to spend some time learning techniques.

There's an incredible network of people who can help you, but you need to be proactive and thorough to take advantage of it.

FUNDING

Think about funding options. Take a look at the "Funding for Research" section of the Applying for Programs/Funding webpage.

FURTHER ADVICE

Research Opps for First Years Info Session: check out the video of the 2015 Research Opportunities for First Years Information Session (9/21/15) moderated by Dr. Skip Brass, Associate Dean and Director, Combined Degree and Physician Scholar Programs, with a Student Panel of second year medical students.
MP4 format (237 MB) - will require Windows Media Player
WMV format (303 MB) - will require Windows Media Player

Frequently Asked Questions: visit our FAQ webpage to get answers to several frequently asked questions.

Student Advice: many of our students, who have conducted prior short term and year out research projects, have ideas and advice that they'd like to share with interested students. Visit our Student Advice webpage to learn more.

Registrar: if you are considering a year out of research, Helene Weinberg (Registrar) is a great resource to discuss planning electives, sub-Is, etc. in advance.

REMEMBER, IT WILL SERVE YOU WELL TO GET STARTED EARLY AND TO PUT CONSIDERABLE THOUGHT AND ENERGY INTO CHOOSING A RESEARCH MENTOR.