Medical Student Research: A Survival Guide

Extracted from The Office of Student Research, Medical Student Research Program and the Yale M.D. Thesis Requirement: Guide for Students and Faculty Sponsors:

Each year some students elect to conduct medical research for their M.D. thesis in one or another area of the humanities, social sciences, and the arts (including medical history, medical ethics, medicine and the law, film, photography, medical sociology, medical anthropology, and literature).  Like other kinds of student research, the creative discipline required in pursuing the M.D. thesis in these areas helps shape the physician-scholar by cultivating critical judgment, imagination, and scholarship, while developing critical research skills and making an original contribution.  At the same time, the challenges involved in research pursued in the archive, library, or field may differ from those encountered in the laboratory.

The Office of Student Research recognizes that distinct methodologies may be required for research conducted at the cutting edge of the humanities, social sciences, and the arts.  It is committed to fostering an environment in which students are supported and encouraged to produce work of the highest quality and rigor that is in keeping with the best standards of scholarly research within the discipline in which they are working.  Students who wish to pursue medical research projects in the humanities, social sciences, and the arts are eligible to apply for competitive research stipend support.  Support from the Office of Student Research is given for student research stipends only, not for the costs of the research itself. 

Given the diverse nature of the fields encompassed by the medical humanities and the arts, it is not possible to delineate a single method or approach that suits all projects.  Students should work closely with their advisors to gain an understanding of the research methods and forms of analysis best suited to the discipline in which they are pursuing their thesis, or to develop approaches appropriate to interdisciplinary work.  All research must attempt to answer a focused question related to medicine that is of interest to other scholars in the field.  Research originates with a question, or hypothesis or problem, and requires a clear articulation of a goal and a systematic plan of approach.  A starting point is to review critically the research literature on the given question and related areas.  It is important to recognize two ways in which rigorous research in the humanities and the arts may differ from exploration in the laboratory and clinical sciences.  First, such investigations may be (though by no means always) qualitative, and may not be advanced by statistical analysis.  In other cases, studies would be significantly improved by a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods.  Second, while research in these fields must answer an important question related to medicine, the question may not be formulated as a testable hypothesis.  Alternative ways of thinking about the aims of a strong research project, informed by the best-practice research norms of different disciplines, are the construction of an evidence-based “argument,” or the production of generalizable knowledge, or (for the arts) the inclusion in the written thesis of material that is thoughtful, important, and makes an innovative contribution. 
Sometimes the mentorship needed for a qualitative medical research project is easy to identify.  For example, if you were interested in understanding how and why an ill chicana/o resident of San Antonio, Texas chooses between consulting a curandero and consulting a practitioner of biomedicine, or if you wanted to understand what pediatric residents learn about social and cultural issues during their outpatient experience in a New Haven clinic, you might want guidance from an anthropologist or sociologist in addition to a pediatrician.  You would want help from an historian if, starting with an interest in how cultural factors shape responses to “new” diseases, you decided to explore Peruvian responses to cholera in the 1830s, British responses to HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s, or New York City responses to multi-drug resistant tuberculosis outbreaks in the prison system during the 1990s.  If you were interested in the larger cultural meaning of the depiction of women physicians and medical students in late-Victorian novels, or of internship experiences in late-twentieth-century autobiographical and fictional accounts, then probably you would want to seek guidance from mentors in literature and history.

Medical students whose interests have led them to a set of questions about health and culture, medicine and society, may not know which scholarly fields offer the most promising research and analytical tools.  If you were interested in a project that would make an innovative contribution to understanding the relationships between poverty and health in New Haven, for example, you might find yourself asking questions about culture that various interpretive methods from the humanities, social sciences, and the arts can help address.  Perhaps you want to understand what health and illness mean to HIV-positive mothers and how they make sense of the relationship between health and poverty in managing the lives of their children.  Or perhaps you want to understand how information about serving as a paid clinical research subject circulates in the community, and how the role of the healthy research “volunteer” is perceived.  Or possibly your interest is in childhood obesity and you decide to explore sports, body image, and cultural esteem among 13 year old girls in an intercity school, or you decide to enlist photography as one medium to explore the nutritional environment of childhood poverty.  All of these projects use methods regularly used by scholars in the social sciences, humanities, and the arts.  If your research interests involve such questions about health, culture, and society, then we encourage you to contact the Yale Medical Humanities and the Arts Council.  We are available to help identify the kinds of guidance best suited to your aims (email

Medical students may work with any approved Yale University faculty member on their thesis so long as the work is supervised and sponsored by a full-time School of Medicine faculty member in whose department the thesis will be reviewed.  Such dual mentorship often is particularly appropriate to medical research in the  humanities and the arts, and enables students to draw upon the rich mentorship resources available elsewhere in the University.  The Humanities and the Arts Council can help students identify prospective medical school mentors, but also can help identify co-mentors from across the University whose primary faculty appointments are outside the School of Medicine.