Involving Students in Research

Roseman pharmacy students often begin the program without any sort of research experience. Nonetheless, research experience is a selling point for those seeking residencies, which are becoming as desirable as they are competitive to obtain. This has led to extensive student interest in becoming involved in research during pharmacy school, preferably with the end of “getting a poster” or some similar trophy of scholarship to display on their CV. In the process, students usually also end up benefiting from ongoing, individual faculty mentorship and developing a broader, deeper skillset than they would have obtained from classwork alone.

Faculty Benefits
For faculty, involving students in research can, at a minimum, satisfy professional imperatives to provide more advanced learning experiences and help students achieve their career goals. But beyond that, faculty are also generally expected as part of their appointment to be involved in some level of scholarly activity and, theoretically, student participation can amplify a faculty mentor’s ability to execute this charge. In reality, the training and supervision necessary for students who are inexperienced, saddled with heavy course requirements, and short on time frequently negate the advantage of having extra hands.

Recruiting Students
A College of Pharmacy faculty forum discussion held January 21, 2020 on the topic of mentoring students in research considered practical issues surrounding student participation in faculty research. For example, one discussion centered on different ways faculty recruit students for research projects. One option was to use a more formal recruiting process that involves screening student credentials, perhaps followed by one-on-one interviews. This option has the advantages of notifying all students of potential research opportunities and providing an equitable mechanism for vetting those who are interested. However, the process can be time consuming. Many faculty members at the forum preferred instead to select students they had become personally acquainted with in some way; for example, in student organizations, pharmacy practice rotations, mentor meetings, or even during remediation. Beyond convenience, this approach takes into account real-world observations of a student’s work ethic, responsiveness, abilities, career goals, and potential to work amicably with the faculty member.

Student Qualifications
Faculty at the forum stressed the importance of finding a student who has enthusiasm for the work. Research is voluntary, so students are more likely to make the most of a research opportunity if they are committed to it in some way. A student with a keen interest or personal connection to the research project may have more intrinsic motivation to put in the ongoing, extra hours outside class necessary to make a meaningful contribution. And, although faculty seemed comfortable working with students having a broad range of academic abilities, they expressed discomfort employing students who might endanger their academic progress by diverting study time toward research work. Thus, faculty were wary of working with students on academic probation or who have a history of frequent reassessment.

Getting Things Done
Even well-intentioned students, highly motivated by the research and the beneficial effect it could have on their residency applications, may find research assignments slipping to the bottom of their bloated list of priorities. Faculty at the forum noted that one useful tool for focusing student research efforts can be the necessity for meeting abstract submission deadlines. A research mentor might consider creating, in consultation with the student, a schedule of specific dates and times the student will be expected to work on the research project, with abstract submission as an end goal. In addition, the College of Pharmacy’s longitudinal research elective course provides academic credit to enrolled students who participate in a sufficient number of faculty-mentored research hours during the academic year. The elective credits are attractive to the students and, because of its time requirements, the course can potentially promote productivity as well.

Sometimes students involved in clinical research are only allowed to access research materials at a practice site during their 6-week rotation, limiting the amount of productive time available. Faculty who face this situation shared that they try to maximize student productivity by having students engage in research planning and preparation prior to the rotation, maybe even during the P1 or P2 year, so they can hit the ground running and make the most of their time on site. Other faculty in this situation will extend the project over multiple rotations, increasing the number of students on the project.

Managing Expectations
Faculty also discussed how, because of inexperience, students sometimes have unrealistic expectations about research. Usually this manifests as thinking they can accomplish much more than is practical. Students may be excited about a hot area of study that involves specialized instrumentation and training that cannot be acquired in the time available to them. Sometimes students will approach faculty asking if there is a project they can complete a month or two before an abstract deadline. In class, while mentoring, and especially at the onset of a project, faculty can help students understand what is involved in producing original research so students can more realistically and effectively align their expectations with their time and abilities.

The collective experience our Roseman COP colleagues shared at the forum suggests that taking a thoughtful approach to student recruitment, qualifications, time management, and expectations can increase the likelihood of having a research experience that is beneficial to both faculty and students.

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Tyler Rose, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences
Roseman University of Health Sciences College of Pharmacy