Subject Code/Name: MED4301 - Medical science honours research skillsWorkload:
completely varies depending on your project, but expect to be doing fairly full-on days for 5 days a week.Assessment:
- Progress report (Hurdle)
- Literature review (75%) (Hurdle)
- Department oral presentation (25%)Recorded Lectures:
No. There are some intro lectures only at the start of the unit.Past exams available:
N/A.Textbook and Website Recommendation:
None needed, although some choose to peruse statistics books as well as textbooks specific to their field of research as the year progresses.Lecturer(s):
Many, but only in the first week.Year & Semester of completion:
Semester 1, 2016Rating:
Alright, so this unit is code for "Medical Honours year"; it's an optional year available to students of the Monash MBBS(Hons), and in the new Monash MD, as part of the Bachelor of Medical Science (Honours). The degree can be completed any time after second year, provided you have an average above Credit and have a worthy application. Most people do the year after fourth year, but there are also a smattering of people who brave the year after second and third year too. Since 2016 there has been a limit on the number of students who can take a BMedSc(Hons), and the current limit is hovering at around 65 students; this includes both domestic and international students. Therefore, there is a little competition to get a place in this additional degree and people have been missing out. The exact criteria of who gets selected for the degree is not well known, but it's thought that marks from previous years of the medical course play an important role, as well as the strength of the written application.
Everyone has their own reason(s) for taking a year off med to do a degree like this, but I had several reasons that were important to me:
1) I had just finished my major exams for med school and I know that pretty much every
year forward was going to be progressively more
intense with more
responsibility. That's something that I look forward to, but I felt a break from all of that was also in order. This seemed like the perfect time.
2) I hadn't had much opportunity to do research during med school. Often doing research in med school means being in the right place at the right time with the right people - that unfortunately didn't click for me during my first two clinical years. Oh well, that happens, so I decided to do so some more formal research and gain some much-needed experience.
3) Looking forwards, it seems a PhD could become almost mandatory in the fields I am becoming keen in, and I honestly wanted to test the waters and see if I could handle one research year before jumping into the deep end later in my career with ~3 years of research.
4) I was really interested in two different fields of medicine and wanted a bit more exposure (research AND clinical) to both, so I found a project that involved that, and now I have a better idea about what I want to do in life. Will that change in 6 months when I'm back in final year? Perhaps, but it's peace of mind right now
5) In the back of my mind was always getting an Intern job for 2018. In Vic we don't have random allocations for intern spots like they do in many other states (eg. NSW), so I thought having some research on my CV can't hurt
I think it's worth noting, that despite having so many reasons, I was about 0% keen on doing an Hons year for probably 3.25 years of my medical degree. I was lucky to have an awesome mentor during my Obs/Gyn rotation who talked to me a lot about the importance of doing other things. He himself did a BMedSc(Hons) during his medical degree, and even though the subject of his minor thesis was as far from Obs/Gyn as could be possible, he still found it to be a very rewarding and educational experience. It was only really after his inspirational words of wisdom that I also entertained the thought of the degree. As said, there's always a bit of luck involved with opportunities presenting themselves, and I was lucky that this doctor and I had those chats.
Before launching into the content of the unit, which mainly comprises of the literature review, I think it's worth discussing a few important things one should consider before embarking on an Hons year of any sort (even relevant to the scholarly elective offered in Melbourne and Monash MD programs!). A lot of people get hung up on 'how cool is my project', or 'will I get published', or 'is this too intense' and so forth. While those are all important questions, I believe the most important thing in a successful Hons campaign will be your supervisor
Choosing the right
supervisor is more important than choosing the right
project. When I was told this by a BMedSc(Hons) alumni before I embarked on my supervisor-hunt, I was skeptical, but in hind-sight I am really glad that I heeded that advice because the supervisor can really make or break the year. So here are couple of pointers that I think are really important about finding the right
supervisor in the field of your interest.
1) You don't have to know
someone to do a project with them. I stumbled upon my supervisor by luck. Once while I was doing my aforementioned Obs/Gyn rotation, I got to my clinic a little early and ended up googling some of the other doctors on the same floor. I managed to find a Professor, who I had never met before, but who had been involved in some really interesting work and who has supervised students in the past. I decided then and there to start drafting an email. I was perhaps a little too fastidious, maybe to the point of obsessional, with how my email looked and what type of vibe it gave off, so I probably went through 2-3 drafts! But I was lucky to get a quick response and we arranged a face-to-face meeting in his office soon afterwards. For the record, here is a copy (de-identified to name and place) of my email for anyone interested (it almost looks creditworthy as I look back on it now haha):
Dear Prof <removed>,
My name is <removed> and I am a current undergraduate fourth year Monash medical student, based primarily around <removed> and <removed> for this year, with an additional week-long stint at <removed>. So far in my studies, I haven’t done any research and hence, have become interested in completing a Bachelor of Medical Science honours year in 2016.
One of my friends, <removed>, completed a BMedSc under your supervision last year and through conversations with him, I found out about you and the very positive experience he had! Similar positive sentiments were discovered when I read about another student who featured in the '<removed>', <removed>, who also had a very enjoyable year under your supervision. Following in their footsteps, I was wondering if you would be willing to take on a medical student for an Honours year next year?
Although I realise it is “early days” for my learning and journey through medicine, I have developed a liking and an interest in neurology, especially after a rotation I did last year at <removed> under the guidance of Prof <removed>, among other consultants physicians. Given their stroke unit, I’ve been particularly fascinated by strokes, their symptomology and their management, and would be keen to learn more about and participate in the research that happens behind the clinical scenes regarding this condition. However, I am also very open to part-taking in research in other areas of neurology as well.
If you would be willing to take on a medical student and have any suggestions for potential projects that might be suitable, I would be very keen to have a chat and learn more. Unfortunately I am currently based at the <removed> (and for another 3 weeks!) so won’t available for any direct face-to-face contact until my term is finished here, due to very strict attendance regimes imposed on us. However, I am contactable via email, and if you have any free time after that 3 week period I would be very keen for a quick chat regarding any possible opportunities for research in 2016 under your supervision.
Thank-you for taking the time to read this, and I look forward to hearing from you.
2) Now that you've found a few people that you think might make good supervisors, you have to think: what actually makes a good supervisor? Here some some important questions you want to be seeking answers to:
- Have they supervised Hons students before? What did those students think of their years? I found it to be really useful, as per my email, to get in contact and seek the thoughts from previous students. You may have to do a bit of 'stalking' to find these things, but they'll forgive you for being keen in their Hons year experience; people are often very keen to discuss how they went! You want to be knowing not only how they went in terms of grades (obviously H1 is ideal), but also the other things which will be covered in this list. If your prospective supervisor has never supervised before, that's not a deal-breaker imo, everyone has to have a first student to supervise, and you'll often find first-time supervisors tend to err on the side of over-supervision rather than under-supervision, which is good. They'll often also provide a senior researcher/clinician as the co-supervisor, to help them as well as you - again a good thing.
- How much time will your supervisor have for you? I was lucky to have an amazing supervisor, who I could meet virtually any day, and who I could call or text or email any time. Obviously meeting every day is over-kill, but having that level of support was something that not many of my colleagues had. The more support you have - the better. You should have meetings face-to-face at least once a week, even if it's just to touch-base over lunch or something. Ensuring that you're guaranteed at least one meeting a week is really mandatory for you, and I'd be very wary of choosing a supervisor who couldn't guarantee that.
- How busy are they? Are they supervising other Hons or PhD students? Will they be on lots of leave? These things are important. Your supervisor needs to be able to actually supervise you, and that implies that they need to be there. While in all honesty, they've got lots
of more important things to do with their life than read a draft or listen to an oral presentation, they kinda should be doing that and if they don't seem like they have the time then maybe they've got enough on their plate already. I was lucky to have a supervisor and a co-supervisor who both took an interest in reading my drafts and listening to me practice my oral presentations, and again, I can't thank them enough for that level of support.
- If you're doing a lab project, what's the lab like? What will your hours be like? Best to know what you're getting yourself into before the year starts and you've signed a year away, rather than coming in Day 1 with a bunch of assumptions and getting a rude shock. Lab work, which wasn't the focus of my project (thankfully!), can be a nightmare in terms of hours and stress, and this can start well before your lit review is due! It can also be incredibly rewarding and interesting, but it's never easy work. Be warned.
- What's their publication history like? They don't have to be pumping out papers every other month in high-impact journals, but it's probably ideal to have a supervisor who has some publication experience with regular publications in decent journals. This can be checked by sussing them out in Google Scholar or their faculty bio page, rather than asking them about their professional career which can be awkward. Again, not a make or break for the Hons year itself, but might help once the year is done and you're thinking of publishing (if your project persists!).
- See what resources you'll have access to. Will you have access to a statistician? Will you have a desk and computer? Will you have stats software? I was lucky to have all three, and it made life considerably more comfortable. Again, you don't want the rude shock of coming to Day 1 with no place of your own, get these things organised before you sign the papers.
- What other things can you do during the year? Will you be able to present a poster or go to a conference? Will you be able to attend teachings? I was fortunate to not only attend clinical teachings in neuroradiology, I was also able to GIVE my own tutes to the local Monash MBBS(Hons) year 3 students and the Melbourne MD year 2 students. This was awesome because these activities really broke up my day, kept things interesting, and was amazing revision for me.
So now that you've got a supervisor in a field of your interest and filled in the paperwork, the year is starting. And I mean that literally, time to get off your backside and start preparing for this unit in the holidays. No time to slack off. Without giving too much away (for privacy), my project was in the field of neuroradiology (neurology + radiology) and involved interpretation of various brain MRI sequences in patients who had a condition that causes a type of stroke. During medical school, we learn that MRIs are a useful thing - but that's about it. So I took it upon myself to use the holidays to get familiar with all the background "assumed knowledge" so that when I was reading papers that talked about "susceptibility artifact" or "field inhomogenieties" or "time to echo", I'd know exactly what they meant. I found it really useful to do this early, before my year formally started, because once the year did formally start I could easily sift through the literature. I also found using textbooks at this point in time was also ideal, they provided good summaries and overviews, and were also fairly up-to-date without being cutting edge and confusing.
Being prepared early is important for stress. The year tends to pan out a little like this...
If you can do a bit to bring that graph down a little, should you? Absolutely! Be a little proactive, sacrifice some time "with the lads", and do some of this basic reading. It's not taxing, and it'll put you in really good stead for the year.
Once the year starts, start reading more in-depth about your foci of research. Start with reading Review articles from top-notch journals. These often provide amazing overviews and lots of quality references to then sift through depending on your area of interest. I used these references (and references from references!), as well as generic Google Scholar searches, to stumble upon most of the articles I read and cited in my own lit review. What you want to be doing in your readings, and ultimately in your literature review, should resemble an upside-down pyramid. You want to be starting off reading broadly (ie. textbooks to gain assumed knowledge, then Reviews) and then delve deeply into your area of research (ie. individual studies) to see what gaps your study might be able to fill or contribute to. I'll come back to this pyramid later, it's important.
Keeping up to date with the research in your field is also really important, and there are a few ways to do this:
1) Sign up to the journal mailing list. Often journals will email their table of contents to your inbox for free, and you'll then need your uni proxy to access the article free of charge. This is useful, but not every journal does this.
2) Doing regular Google Scholar (or similar) searches with a truncated time element (eg. "since 2016"), this is tedious.
3) Physically checking each journal, either online or as a hard-copy, to see what's new. Again, incredibly tedious.
4) Sign up to Twitter. Now you may be asking "has pi finally gone crazy? sign up to social media used by Donald Trump?!?" While I can neither confirm or deny that first question, Twitter is actually a modern gift to academia. Most journals have Twitter accounts and they post many updates about new articles. Not only that, but active researchers in my field also had accounts and posted regular updates. Being involved by following these journals and clinicians was the best way for me to be up-to-date with advances in the field. I also discovered so many other cool educational accounts to follow, but that's a story for another day
It's useful to download the papers you're looking at, and there are several ways to organise your downloaded studies. My supervisor used a program called Papers which I would probably use if I was to do the year again, but I personally resorted to just an ordinary folder on my hard-drive and having descriptive names of the papers I downloaded. No rights and wrongs here, as long as you're organised and you know where you read something for the purposes of referencing. Papers can also do referencing for you, so it saves you having to use a program like EndNote (which is what I ended up using).
Once you're doing some reading, make some goals. My supervisor wanted me to have a page of my literature review ready by the first week for him to look over. He later told me that he did this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he wanted to see if I could write, and luckily my writing was passable! Secondly, he wanted to see if I could meet deadlines. In retrospect, that was a really good plan! Writing bits, regularly, was the key for me. Some people liked to make semi-detailed summaries of studies in an Excel spreadsheet organsied by topic, and then spent a week or two towards the end of the semester writing the literature review, and that's also a fine strategy. I preferred to knock off little bits of the review every day or so. It really depends on your field of research and your own personal preference of how you want to structure the literature review. I was fortunate to have a plan of the review in my head which I could segmentalise really easily, but if your foci of research is a bit more obscure you may need to do a lot more reading before you can start to collect your thoughts. I'd suggest you try doing bits every now and again, and then if that's not working, to then try just reading more to collect your thoughts. Just make sure you have an overall plan before you start writing; your literature review should start off broad, and then should delve in, just like your readings it should resemble an upside-down pyramid. You'll find that this is reflected in the lit review marking sheets too, which you should always have one eye on too.
I'd strongly recommend you don't leave it until you're 'finished' with the lit review before showing your supervisor. Get their input early on. As said, my supervisor wanted to even see the first page that I wrote. I think showing your supervisor bite-size chunks of work and then the whole thing at the end is ideal because they may have suggestions about improvements and directions your lit review should be taking. Last thing you want is for you to produce this 7,500 word-long piece of work only for your supervisor to think you missed out on discussing some really crucial things. So ensure you keep in touch with your supervisor, regularly show them bits and ask for their general advice. Don't go overboard and get them to read every new paragraph you string together, but regular chunks are probably fine. They'll probably take a greater interest in your work if they know what you've been up to, and correcting or looking over a couple of pages of your writing isn't too onerous either. The other reason I mention this, is because your lit review will often include a summary of your project at the end. For me, this was a strict two-page summary of my aims, hypotheses, and methods. While you will have most likely started your project already at this point (especially if lab-based), you will still need some help to develop this and refine your goals for the next semester. So: show keenness, but be respectful.
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph - there is a word limit to this beast. 7,500 words, coming out of VCE or even med school, might sound like a mountain, but let me tell you that it is just never enough! Often your uni will give you a +/- 10% leeway, but even that's not enough! Some tips and tricks for getting through the word limit:
1) Supervisors are excellent at cutting the crap from your work. If you have words that need slaughtering, let them know and they'll draw red all over it! My younger sibling was also very fond of cutting down my words, for which I am very grateful.
2) Use tables to your advantage. Tables do NOT count towards word counts, so use them a lot if you can. Don't do it for the sake of it and have all these dodgy tables with two or three rows, but be tactful about it and use them when you can. I had a fair few tables in my lit review and didn't get penalised for it.
3) Use figure and table legends to your advantage. Again, these do NOT count towards word counts, and you can add a lot of detailed information into these. Personally, because I felt I was abusing the table hack, I didn't do this as well. But I know people who did both to great success - power to them!
4) You can pay for professional editors. I did not do this and I don't know anyone who did, but it was offered as an option on our handbook, so I thought it was worthy of a mention in this list.
You should aim to show a final draft of your lit review to your supervisors approximately 2 weeks before it's due. This gives them plenty of time to give some last-minute changes, and they'll thank you for not putting them under pressure given they probably have many other important things to do. This also gives you an opportunity to make sure you've ticked all the right boxes in the marking sheet, and to format your lit review into looking a bit nice. Include preface pages such as a Table of Contents (make sure this is automated with MS word!), a signed Declaration of Originality, a Declaration of Contributors, an Acknowledgements page, a List of Abbreviations, a List of Tables, and a List of Figures. These formalities are not only nice gestures to those who helped you along the way, but are also incredibly useful for an assessor who might be reading your lit review in chunks and/or is not overly familiar with the field. For your font, we had to use Arial 11 point with double spacing, although apparently fonts with serifs are inherently more readible. Don't be afraid to add a splash of colour to your subtitles too, nothing breaks up a page full of black text than a nice orange or blue subtitle! Just regarding these subtitles, some of my colleagues liked to number all their headings, but I found that this often looked a little ridiculous when it got to "126.96.36.199.4 Pathogenesis of X", so I preferred to abandon such numbering and stagger the tier of my plethora of subtitles with font size and italics. It looked cleaner imo.
Once you're done and dusted with the lit review, the ever-tedious process of TurnItIn is back in play. This program... well no one likes it and no one really understands how it works. We were only allowed to submit once, and thankfully my submission was <15% which was fine. You'll often find TurnItIn picks up the most random nonsensical things (eg. your name, or page numbers), and my Faculty didn't bother inspecting a script for plagiarism unless the similarity index was >20%. Most Faculties would likely have similar policies. Once this is done, we have submission, and then freedom?
Not quite - there is still an oral presentation. Some Hons do this before the lit review is done, other do it afterwards. I did mine beforehand. Basically this oral presentation gives you the chance to talk about the field, what you've learnt, where the gaps are in the literature, and how your project will aid the field. In terms of slide content, the adage is 'less is more', only include the important details and keep your slides neat and tidy. If you haven't done oral presentations before, this may be a bit of a shock because not only do you have to present to a time limit, you also field some questions from an intimidating audience of senior researchers who have been making these presentations since before you were born. The questions can come from anyone and can be about anything. Many of my questions weren't even directly relevant to my project... But this happens to everyone, and everyone is nervous and has some questions they answer well and others they answer less well. It's even ok to say "I don't know", better to be honest than ramble about like an idiot. The best thing you can do to prepare for this is to practice with your supervisors and ask them to be savage in asking questions, and to practice with fellow students who are going through the same thing. It's a daunting process, but also one I found to be useful in giving me ideas for my actual research project.
As with previous years, there are still the same old med soc events. For Monash med students, there is a society for research that looks after us (Medical Research Student Society) and we had a couple of boozey get-togethers to de-stress. Highly recommend keeping in touch with fellow students throughout the year, it's really important to not get isolated throughout the year. I was perhaps unlucky to be the only one at my hospital doing a BMedSc(Hons), so I would often either banter with the Melbourne MD (were my age) or Monash MBBS(Hons) students who were there, or travel to a nearby hospital to meet up with my research peers for brunch or something. Keep in touch with others, it's really important to not become a recluse during the year. And this becomes more important as the year goes on.
The last thing I'll recommend is to do other things during the research day. Research
is stressful and
is monotonous at times. We all need a break, and never feel guilty for stepping away for an hour or so to reflect on your progress and take your mind off things. For me, I took time off to attend teachings, teach others, and to just walk around nice Melbourne parks (maybe to also catch Pokemon on Pokemon Go
). Also do things after-hours, but taking good and productive breaks during
the day was something I found to be really awesome for my physical and mental well-being.
This is a tough unit, but is really only the taster for the next unit and the minor thesis