Penn Medicine MD-PhD

Guide For First Years Interested In Summer Research

For some 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.

  1. Everyone should keep in mind that it is very, very important to start planning early. If you are planning for a summer 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 mid-spring deadlines! If you wait until late in the spring to decide what to do, you may miss out on the chance to be funded.

  2. Think about what areas most interest you. If you have no idea what you would like to do, one place to start is the Combined Degree and Physician Scholar Programs Office or website ( The website includes information about a variety of funding options. In addition, this resource can help you get started as you gather information about different areas of research. Our website has links to useful sites.

  3. 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 short term students. You might start with your course directors and lecturers, if their expertise is in one of your areas of interest. 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.) Other helpful folks:
    • Dr. Skip Brass, Associate Dean and Director of the Combined Degree & Physician Scholar Programs (CDPS)
    • Dr. Horace Delisser, Program Director of our NHLBI grant for underrepresented minority students
    • Dr. John Farrar, a faculty member at Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Program Director for the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics Summer Fellowship
    • Amy Nothelfer, Coordinator, Elective Research and MD-Masters Programs 

    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 - Educational Opportunities ( under Summer First Year - Guide to Planning. Click on the 2012 and 2013 Student Experiences links.

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

  4. 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. If so, request a chance to meet with them to discuss possible projects. If not, perhaps ask if there are others they would recommend.

  5. Think about funding. Look at the Funding Opportunities for Short Term Research and also ask potential mentors if they are aware of relevant fellowships. Remember that if you apply for a fellowship, you may not receive the award. It's a good idea to have a backup plan. Another option is to ask your potential mentor if he or she would have funding for you. Some mentors are able to provide stipend support from their research grants. In addition to looking at the short term programs, you might want to also look at the year out opportunities. This summer can be a great time to lay the ground work for doing a year of research after your third year.

  6. When you meet with a faculty member to discuss possible summer projects, explore whether he or she would be a good summer mentor for you. 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. 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 in the summer: don't choose someone who will be traveling extensively while you are working on your project.

  7. 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.

  8. If you apply for external funding and are awarded a research grant, you will need to notify the Registrar's office of your plans by completing and submitting the Arranged Activity form. This documentation is needed in order for your research experience to be a part of your academic record and on your transcript.