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Research Blog

What Does a Medical Researcher Do?
Day in the Life, Duties and Functions

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Research experiences are more important now than ever

Embarking on the journey of medical residency in the United States is a profoundly competitive endeavor, one that demands not only exceptional academic achievements but also a distinguished list of experiences. In this high-stakes arena, the value of research cannot be overstated—serving as a pivotal component that significantly enriches a candidate’s curriculum vitae (CV). The incorporation of research experiences, be it through publications, presentations, posters, or active participation in conferences, plays a crucial role in setting applicants apart, especially in an era where standardized tests like Step 1 of the USMLE have transitioned to a pass/fail scoring system.

Beyond the tangible enhancements to one’s resume, the immersive journey into research opens doors to invaluable relationships with advisors and collaborators. These connections often blossom into lifelong mentorships, fostering an environment of continuous learning and professional development. The mentors you meet along this path are not just guides in the present; they become pivotal figures who advocate for your future, offering letters of recommendation, and extending their support through personal endorsements via phone calls and emails when you apply for residency positions. This network of support is indispensable, offering insights, advice, and encouragement throughout your medical career.

While the spectrum of research encompasses both clinical and basic science domains, each path offers its unique set of rewards and challenges. This blog post aims to illuminate the life of a basic science medical researcher. Focusing on a typical week within the confines of labs and research facilities. Basic science research, with its deep dive into the fundamental principles that underpin medical knowledge and practice, provides a solid foundation for those aspiring to make a mark in the medical landscape. Through this exploration, we aim to guide, inspire, and empower those on the path to residency and beyond, highlighting how a robust background in research can be a game-changer in their medical career trajectory.

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Morning Routine: Flexibility at the Core

For many basic science researchers, the day begins in the comfort of flexibility. If you identify with the nocturnal inclinations that characterize many in the academic realm, waking up between 6:30 and 8:00 AM might align perfectly with your rhythm. The initial moments of the day are often reserved for sifting through emails and messages received overnight, a ritual that ensures nothing urgent evades your attention before stepping into the lab.

The autonomy inherent in managing a lab project allows you to tailor your schedule to your personal productivity patterns. Late risers might find themselves strolling into the lab around 9 to 10 AM, while early birds could be unlocking the lab doors as the clock strikes 6 AM. The crux of this flexibility, however, isn’t just about personal preference—it’s about optimizing productivity and fostering collaboration.

Balancing Autonomy with Collaboration

While the liberty to define your own schedule is a cherished aspect of basic science research, it’s balanced with the necessity of integrating into the lab’s collaborative ecosystem. Your schedule should ideally intersect with conventional business hours to some degree. The reason is twofold:

  1. Collaboration: The lab thrives on the exchange of ideas and the serendipitous conversations that spark innovation. These interactions are most fruitful when they occur face-to-face, necessitating your presence during times when your colleagues are also likely to be around.
  2. Access to Resources: Basic science research often relies on specialized equipment and core facilities—microscopes, spectrometers, and various other instruments critical to your work. These resources are typically available during standard business hours, thus planning your schedule to overlap with these hours ensures that you can access the tools you need when you need them.

Embracing the Unconventional Schedule

It’s understood within the research community that the pursuit of science doesn’t always adhere to a 9-to-5 timetable. Late nights, early mornings, and the occasional all-nighter are part of the territory. Yet, there’s a collective wisdom that advises against making nocturnal habits the norm. The key to a sustainable research career lies in finding a balance—a schedule that accommodates deep, focused work while still enabling the collaborative interactions that are vital to scientific progress.

This framework of flexibility, autonomy, and collaboration sets the stage for the myriad activities that fill a researcher’s week. From experimental design and data analysis to literature reviews and team meetings, every day offers a unique blend of challenges and opportunities. In the following sections, we’ll delve deeper into these activities, shedding light on the rhythms that define a week in the life of a basic science researcher.

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Monday:

Group Lab Meeting: Mondays are synonymous with the weekly group lab meeting—a cornerstone of lab culture where all members, including Principal Investigators (PIs), gather to discuss their progress. This forum serves as a microcosm of the lab’s intellectual ecosystem, where each researcher provides updates on their projects. The duration and depth of these updates vary, with some weeks allowing for a rapid exchange of brief progress notes and other weeks delving deeply into the data from recently concluded experiments. This variance ensures that the meeting remains both dynamic and substantive, adapting to the immediate needs of the lab’s research agenda.

Individual 1-on-1 Meetings: Following the group meeting, you might find yourself in a one-on-one session with your advisor. These meetings offer a more personalized space to discuss your project’s progress, troubleshoot challenges, and receive targeted feedback that can shape the direction of your research.

Planning and Preparation: The remainder of Monday is dedicated to laying the groundwork for the week ahead. This involves logistical planning, such as scheduling meetings with collaborators or reserving time on essential equipment—microscopes, spectrometers, or facilities like animal operating rooms. Effective planning at this stage is crucial to ensure smooth progress throughout the week.

Setting Up Action Items: A key outcome of Monday’s planning phase is the creation of a list of action items. This list acts as your roadmap for the week, outlining the key tasks you aim to accomplish. More than just a to-do list, it’s a commitment to yourself—a tool to foster accountability and maintain momentum in your research.

Tuesday-Thursday

Tuesday through Thursday marks the core period of a researcher’s week, where the bulk of scientific inquiry and academic responsibilities unfold. This stretch is the engine room of the lab’s operations, pulsating with activity that ranges from conducting experiments to engaging in scholarly duties. Let’s dissect these pivotal days to understand the essence of a researcher’s week.

Conducting Experiments and Analyzing Data

The heart of these days is spent on the front lines of research—conducting experiments, collecting data, and analyzing results. This period is when theories are tested, hypotheses are challenged, and new knowledge is sought. Depending on the project’s phase and intensity, the hours can stretch long into the evening, with 12-14 hour days not being uncommon during peak times of activity. However, the workload is not always relentless; there are periods where the pace eases, allowing for flexibility to work from more relaxed settings, be it at home or a local coffee shop.

Collaborations and Academic Responsibilities

Amidst the experiments, there’s a parallel track of ongoing collaborations and academic duties. Meeting with collaborators, whether in-person or virtually, helps to share progress, troubleshoot challenges, and plan future steps. Other scholarly activities may include serving as a teaching assistant, reviewing manuscripts for journals, assisting lab mates, and mentoring students. These responsibilities highlight the multifaceted role of a researcher, extending beyond the bench to contribute to the broader academic community.

Engaging in Departmental Seminars

An integral part of the week are the lunch seminars hosted by various departments or divisions. These sessions offer a window into the wider research landscape, presenting the work of faculty or graduate students. Beyond the allure of free food, these seminars are invaluable for networking, sparking collaborations, or simply broadening one’s scientific horizons. Actively participating in these events by joining email lists can enrich a researcher’s academic life significantly.

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Friday

Friday serves as the culmination of the week’s efforts, a day to tie up loose ends, complete any deferred tasks, and prepare for the following week. It involves last-minute bookings of core facilities, placing orders for lab supplies, and ensuring that the lab is set for uninterrupted progress. Reflecting on the week’s action items, Friday offers a moment to assess accomplishments and areas of improvement, setting the stage for continued growth.

Preparing for Monday and Social Engagements

Preparing for Monday’s lab meeting often begins on Friday afternoon, allowing time to craft presentations that showcase the week’s findings or progress. It’s also a time when departments or labs may host social gatherings or happy hours. These events, whether for those who partake in alcohol or not, provide a relaxed environment to decompress, network, and enjoy the company of colleagues—often accompanied, once again, by the allure of free food.

This cadence—from the focused, intensive work of conducting research to the broader engagements of seminars and social activities—embodies the life of a basic science researcher. It’s a blend of rigor, collaboration, and community, each element vital to the sustenance and advancement of scientific inquiry. Through this weekly rhythm, researchers not only push the boundaries of knowledge but also cultivate a rich, supportive ecosystem that fosters personal and professional growth.

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