Acquiring research experience during pharmacy school
Emily Hitt is a final-year PharmD candidate at Washington State University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. The author would like to acknowledge J. R. White, PA-C, PharmD, for his encouragement and editorial support with this article.
Getting involved in research can provide a competitive edge needed to secure postgraduate opportunities after pharmacy school, which is vital if you wish to pursue a career in academia or research. Research experience, presentations, and publications are valued by residency program directors and can provide a competitive edge for opportunities after pharmacy school.
The development of research skills can enhance pharmacists’ capability to deal with constant changes in science and clinical practice.1 Clinical practice often requires pharmacists to interpret, use and communicate published research findings.1 Early involvement allows student pharmacists to gain exposure and become more comfortable with the research process while acquiring skills in data and time management, critical thinking, and drawing evidence-based conclusions.
How and why to get involved
The most important first step is determining what kind of research interests you. Would you rather be at the lab bench working with cell cultures, or would you be more comfortable working from your computer? Pay attention in your classes. Are there fascinating topics that you want to explore further? Personal experiences can also help point you in the right direction. I was born without a thyroid gland and as a result am naturally fascinated by endocrinology, which led me to develop and carry out a project about hypothyroidism. If you have lost a loved one to cancer, you may want to make a difference investigating potential new therapeutic targets in an oncology lab. A chemistry lab focusing on the synthesis of new drug molecules is another option if you love chemistry and want to build on your organic/medicinal chemistry knowledge.
Take a responsible conduct of research course if you can. Your school may already require this based on available research opportunities. You can gain experience with writing abstracts and learning how to critically evaluate original research in the course. A course like this can also give you valuable insight on the most important components of research, such as mentoring, IRB approval, animal research, and avoiding plagiarism and unethical behavior.
Being involved helps you form connections and develop a support system. My consistent attendance at my school’s weekly graduate seminars has led to friendships with graduate students and conversations with faculty. Hearing advice from multiple people can be extremely beneficial for your personal growth and can help you build a strong professional network.
What has research taught me?
Research has taught me these five critical skills.
Reciprocity. Mentors are taking time and effort to invest in you and your project. As the mentee, you drive the relationship and play an active role. Take initiative, be prepared for meetings, and listen to your mentor’s suggestions. Always think about both sides and enter research with a long-term mindset.
Patience. Writing, editing, and publishing a manuscript can take months. The progress you make won’t always be on your preset schedule. A final draft and publication do not happen overnight.
Perseverance, resilience, and courage. My initial attempts at research did not end well, leaving me hopeless and discouraged. I have learned how to persevere in the face of uncertainty, fear, and rejection. It can be scary to put yourself out there. Even if the thought of standing up in front of people makes your knees shake and heart race, your knowledge can bring out confidence you never knew you had. Research allows the shyest and quietest individuals to shine.
Independence and resourcefulness. Your mentor is a source of guidance, but they won’t always be by your side. Learn how to use your resources rather than emailing your mentor every time you have a question or feel stuck.
Teamwork. Research teaches you how to collaborate with a common shared goal. Mentoring: It goes both ways
Getting involved with the right mentor and identifying what your goals are for research is essential. Research teaches many important and translational skills that extend beyond the project’s topic and is a commitment that takes patience and perseverance. Mentorship is an essential part of success in research, and a partnership that can benefit both mentors and mentees.
Ask yourself some tough questions. Are you open to feedback? Are you comfortable asking for help? What do you want out of a mentoring relationship? Strong and supportive mentorship is vital for research success. The right match and an established relationship will make life easier for both parties. Initiate a conversation with faculty to discuss any ideas or current collaborative projects. Weekly meetings about class material helped me establish a relationship with a professor who later became my research mentor.
Five key features of effective mentoring relationships can be explained through reciprocity, mutual respect, clear expectations, personal connection, and shared values.2 These elements will enable you and your mentor to develop a stronger connection and tackle any setbacks or issues as a team. You and your mentor should have a clear idea of what you hope to accomplish together. Honesty and communication from the beginning about the feasibility of a partnership can prevent heartache and disappointment later. Determine how to communicate in a way that works best for both of you. You and your mentor cannot read each other’s minds!
When things don’t go right
Despite your best intentions, you may wind up in a mismatched situation. Personality clashes, unrealistic expectations, the wrong project, or poor timing may be the reason for the lack of harmony. Ending a mentoring relationship in a civil and professional manner should always be the goal. Reflect on what could have been done differently and move on with grace. In extreme circumstances, science can get nasty. Racism, discrimination, sexual misconduct, or personal attacks are not okay. Do not be afraid to seek help if these issues are happening.
Enjoy the ride
Being involved in research has been an unforgettable part of my journey. Treasure the opportunity and enjoy the ride, even when you wake panicking from a research nightmare (we have all had them). Research will not always be butterflies and rainbows. Even with the best mentor, editing a manuscript is difficult. Learning and mastering new lab techniques takes time. Getting used to animal research can be painfully challenging. That first rejection from a journal will sting. Moments of frustration, mistakes, and setbacks are inevitable along the way. Remember that there will also be smiles and victories to celebrate. Learn from others who have been through it all before. You will become stronger, more resilient and a well -rounded future pharmacist by contributing to science in meaningful and innovative ways.
1. Murphy JE, Slack MK, Boesen KP, et al. Research-related coursework and research experiences in doctor of pharmacy programs. Am J Pharm Educ. 2007;71(6):113.
2. Straus SE, Johnson MO, Marquez C, et al. Characteristics of successful and failed mentoring relationships: a qualitative study across two academic health centers. Acad Med. 2013;88(1):82–9.