Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Scholars in Medicine Program at Harvard Medical School

by Gordon Strewler, MD, Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Master of the Walter B. Cannon Society

Beginning with the entering class this year, Harvard Medical School has created an opportunity for its students to in carrying out an in-depth scholarly project of 4 months to a year, working closely with a member of the faculty.  The scholarly project will be a graduation requirement for HMS students. (The requirement is satisfied by a PhD thesis, in the course of another degree program, e.g. MPH, or by the HST thesis.)

HMS students have always done research and service projects, both in the US and abroad. Some are truly wonderful; others lack focus and rigor.  The new requirement stems from a belief that every Harvard medical student should know how to pose a scholarly question and answer it. Tackling a scientific problem will spark a student’s curiosity, develop critical thinking skills, and provide students with the tools for future discovery. The process of discovery will be as important as the outcome, a partnership between student and mentor.

A good scholarly project addresses a question that was carefully chosen and clearly defined so that it can be answered through the student’s inquiry. The question will be the student’s own, even if it is part of a larger project or program; it may be a fundamental biological question, a clinical outcome, or a question related to population health.  Some students will ask a question about health policy, study the provision of health services, or undertake a community-based participatory research project. The scholarly project will usually test a specific hypothesis but may be more open-ended: for example, a student might work on ethnography or study the history of medicine. Students may start with a clinical improvement project in the hospital or a service project in the community, and formulate from that experience questions they would like to answer.

A student’s scholarly project will

  • Be a student-driven project, though mentored effort
  • Pose an answerable question relevant to a medical field and attempt to answer it within a scientific framework
  • Establish a one-on-one mentoring relationship with a faculty member
  • Engage with the existing scholarly literature
  • Demonstrate original work in design and implementation
  • Employ appropriate methods
  • Generate relevant observations and/or data
  • Reflect original work by the student in the analysis, evaluation, and write up


Finding the right mentor for this scholarly project will be a key component to the success of the project. During the first year of medical school students are exposed to a diversity of fields of medical scholarship and provided with many means to help them find the right mentor. It is not expected that students will come up with ideas for research independently, because usually they do not have enough background in the field. We seek mentors who will commit the time, energy, enthusiasm, and skills to advise the student along their process of discovery.  To date, over 580 faculty members have posted project ideas online, including 21 from the Department of Pediatrics at the MGH.

Many routes to the scholarly project

A summer project between Year 1 and Year 2 can be the beginning of a student’s scholarly project.  Students are looking for summer projects now. The student can continue working to expand the project in Year 2 and develop it as the definitive scholarly project.  Students will be able to work on their projects part-time in Year 2, and they will have a month of elective time in Year 3 to spend on it if they choose.  Students are not required to finish the project until Year 4, when there is considerable elective time to do so.

Students may commit to a mentor and propose their scholarly project at any time until the beginning of Year 4.  In Year 3, the Principal Clinical Experience (PCE) introduces students to clinical medicine and the medical specialties. Students may choose to link their scholarly project to their area of specialization.  If students follow this route, they may wish to use their elective month in Year 3 to develop the project and will devote at least two-three months during Year 4 to work on the project, with additional time for writing.

Additionally, students might elect to take a fifth year for scholarship – about half of HMS students now do so.  Customarily, students would take the extra year at the end of Year 3, after the PCE, and then return for a final year to complete theirr clinical requirements and apply for residency.  The extra year has several advantages. Students are not charged tuition for a fifth year, although students will pay some fees. Students may cross-register without charge for coursework to support and enrich their research experience. Students can apply for a fellowship to cover their living expenses. Common sources for fellowships include the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Sarnoff Fellowship in cardiovascular disease, Fulbright fellowships, Fogarty Fellowships and various Harvard Traveling Fellowships. Students can also apply to HMS for stipend funding to cover their living costs during all or part of a year spent in research or other approved types of scholarship.

Specifics of the scholarly project

All funded student scholarship at HMS, including the scholarly project, is based on a rigorously argued proposal, which the mentor approves.  The faculty mentor and student sign a mentoring agreement that accompanies the proposal. Proposals are reviewed by a member of the HMS Faculty Committee on Scholarship in Medicine who is expert in the field; the student is expected to respond satisfactorily to the reader’s critique before approval.  Approval by a member of the Faculty Committee on Scholarship in Medicine signifies both approval of the project and the award of funding.  Students

The expected minimal length of scholarship is three-four months over the course of medical school. It is anticipated that many students will elect to spend more time on their projects, particularly those in the experimental biological sciences and those who wish to carry out global health research outside the US. There are few constraints on the subject of scholarship, but in all cases it is expected that you will engage vigorously with literature in the field, use it to pose an answerable scientific question, carry out an independent and original investigation, analyze the data and write a report.  Most students will carry out quantitative research but qualitative research, historical research, and ethnography are also encouraged.  A review article would be acceptable if it answers a specific question with rigorous methodology and merits publication.

Specific mentor role

A mentor to a student carrying out a scholarly project will:

  • Help the student develop a tightly written proposal
  • Sign a mentoring agreement to supervise the scholarly project and include in the agreement a short description of the student’s project
  • Assist the student with any IRB matters for animal or human studies with local and HMS IRB offices
  • Contribute to student stipend funding, where possible
  • Guide and advise the student throughout the project period
  • Ensure that the student is integrated into the work of the lab/department/agency
  • Approve a scholarly abstract and scholarly product at the end of the scholarly project
  • Ensure student participation in the annual Soma Weiss Student Research Day in January           

More information

If you are interested in submitting a project or want more information on the HMS Scholars in Medicine Program, here are a few links to get you started:

To the SMO searchable database:


To post a scholarly project opportunity (you will need to login to eCommons):


To the SMO homepage, where you will find a mentor orientation and more information on the Scholars in Medicine Program:


Contact staff members Jean Hess, jean_hess@hms.harvard.edu, 617-432-0951, or Kari Hannibal, kari_hannibal@hms.harvard.edu, 617-432-1573.

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