Frequently Asked Questions

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Frequently Asked Questions about SIM and the Scholarly Requirement at HMS


What are the goals of the program?

HMS faculty created the Scholars in Medicine Program out of a belief that every Harvard medical student should learn how to pose a scholarly question and answer it. Tackling a scientific problem can spark curiosity, develop critical thinking skills, and provide you with the tools needed for future discovery. Thus, the SIM Program aspires to provide every Harvard medical student with a mentored experience of scholarship and the training to accomplish it. This is accomplished by:

  • Introducing students to the challenges and rewards of carrying out, analyzing and writing up a scholarly project and
  • Developing a mutually beneficial partnership between a student and a faculty mentor.

The process of discovery will be as important as the outcome; you and your mentor will be partners in this process. The mentor-mentee relationship that results will add value to your Harvard education and we hope it will have lasting personal value.

Click here to read about the program and several ongoing projects by current second year students.

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What characterizes a good scholarly project?

A good scholarly project addresses a question that has been carefully chosen and clearly defined so that it can be answered during the course of the project. The question should be your own, even if it is part of a larger research program.

A wide variety of questions will be supported. Your project might address a fundamental biological question, a clinical outcome, or a question related to population health. You could ask a question about health policy, study the provision of health services, or undertake a community-based participatory research project. Your question might involve testing a specific hypothesis, or may perhaps be more open-ended: for example, you might work on ethnography or study the history of medicine. Some 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 scholarly project will:

  • be a student-driven, though mentored, project,
  • pose an answerable scholarly question
  • 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

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Is instruction available for students who have not submitted proposals before?


The centerpiece of the Scholars in Medicine Program is the required "Pursuing Inquiry in Medicine", or PIM100. This course is designed especially to provide first-year students with the tools to identify an area of scholarly inquiry and pursue it in a rigorous manner. Consisting of a mix of large-group, tutorial, and one-on-one sessions, it meets six times through the fall and again on Tues/Thurs afternoons in January. From the first meetings in September, students will be exposed to a variety of disease fields and types of investigation. Students will also be given practical instruction on everything from finding mentors to writing a well-argued fundable proposal.

By the end of the course, if you are planning to do a summer project after year 1 you will be well-prepared to submit your funding proposal to the HMS Faculty Committee on Scholarship in Medicine or to external funders.

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Will there be more than one route to my scholarly project during my four years?

There are actually several routes to finding your scholarly project. A summer project following your first year could be the genesis. If the project engages your imagination, and you and your mentor agree, you can apply to to expand the project and develop it as your definitive scholarly project. You will be able to work on your project part-time in Year 2, and you will have a month of elective time in Year 3 to spend on it if you choose. You are not required to finish the project until Year 4, when there is elective time to do so.

However if your summer project is not something you wish to develop further, you may commit to a mentor later, in fact any time until the end of Year 3. In Year 3, the Principal Clinical Experience (PCE) will introduce you to clinical medicine and the medical specialties, and by the end of Year 3 you will be well on the way to choosing a field for residency training. You may choose to link your scholarly project to your area of specialization. If you follow this route, you may wish to use your elective month in Year 3 to develop the project and devote at least three months during Year 4 to work on the project, with additional time for writing.

An additional route is deciding to take a fifth year for scholarship – about half of HMS students now do so. Customarily, you would take the extra year at the end of Year 3, after the PCE, and then return for a final year to complete your clinical requirements and apply for residency. The extra year has several advantages beyond helping you fulfill the scholarship requirement:

  • You are not charged tuition for a fifth year, although you will pay some fees such as health insurance.
  • You may cross-register without charge for up to two courses to support and enrich your research experience.
  • You can apply for a fellowship to cover your living expenses. Common sources for fellowships include the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Sarnoff Fellowship in cardiovascular disease, Fulbright fellowships, Fogarty Fellowships and various Harvard Traveling Fellowships.
  • You can also apply to HMS for stipend funding during all or part of a year spent in research or other approved types of scholarship.

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How do I find a scholarly project and a mentor?

Finding the best project usually begins with finding the right mentor in your chosen field of interest. You can learn a great deal about potential mentors by reading some of the work they have published. In your discussion with potential mentors, ask them to suggest some questions that you might work on; often you will choose one of those ideas to develop as your project. Note, it is not expected that students will independently come up with project ideas, as usually they do not have enough background in the field.

During the first year of medical school we will expose you to a diversity of fields of medical scholarship and provide many resources for your search to stimulate your academic interests.

You will prepare your project, with the advice of your mentor, by writing a detailed funding proposal in your first year for summer or term-time funding. This process will provide a chance to gauge the quality of the project and the strength of your mentor relationship and help you make the critical decision of whether or not you want to further develop this project into your Scholarly Project and Final Report.

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When should I get started?

You will lay the foundation of your scholarly project from the very beginning of your first year fall semester.

All students will take a course in Year 1 entitled "Pursuing Inquiry in Medicine." The course will begin with an introduction to the nature of scientific inquiry and the role of a hypothesis in research. You will also be introduced to the diversity of types of biomedical research – much of which may be new to you, even if you did research in college. The January portion of the course will introduce you to writing a formal funding proposal for your summer project.

During your first semester you will also meet with one of your Society Fellows, who are instrumental to the student guidance process. They will be able to advise you about a summer project and the scholarly project.

The PIM course, the advising process, student interest groups, and other resources will help you to identify a mentor and an idea for a summer project.

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Does a summer project qualify as a scholarly project?

Nearly all students do some sort of summer project following their first year. While on its own, a summer project does not meet all the requirements of the scholarly project, it can constitute an important first step in the Scholars in Medicine Program process. Finding, developing, formally proposing (through a grant proposal) and completing a project is a valuable experience. Through this process you will learn how to engage with the literature, write a tightly reasoned proposal, and get to know a mentor and his/her area of scholarship.

If you wish to develop your summer project into one that meets the scholarly requirement, you would write a reflection paper and scholarly project proposal that discusses how you would extend the project.

Even if you decide not to continue with this project as your scholarly project, you will have had the valuable experience of writing a proposal, which will assist you in developing another proposal for your scholarly work.

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Does the scholarly requirement apply to students in London Society or pursuing graduate degrees such as MD/MBA or MD/PhD?

MD/PhD students will fulfill the scholarly project requirement with their dissertation. London Society students are already required to submit a thesis. Students who complete the MBA, MPH, MPP, MPA or MEd degrees during medical school will be expected to complete the first-year HMS research course and submit a scholarly project to Harvard Medical School. Their scholarly projects can be undertaken, starting in the year of their other degree study, as joint projects between Harvard Medical School and their respective other degree programs, and will be subject to joint review and approval.

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Could you provide examples of how students will meet the scholarly requirement?

The vignettes below describe the paths taken by four fictional students to fulfilling the scholarly requirement.

During the summer following his first year, Student A uses a publicly available dataset that provides longitudinal data from Massachusetts compared to neighboring states which did not institute payment reform to determine whether Massachusetts healthcare reform increases self-reported utilization of healthcare resources by patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus. He continues work on the project in Year 2 by doing additional analyses of the demographic and disease characteristics of patients responsible for the increased utilization and decides to make it his scholarly project. He completes the analysis and writes a manuscript for publication in his Year 3 elective month, submitting his final scholarly project Report in Year 4.

Student B begins a service improvement project in the summer following Year 1, surveying low-income patients in a community-based family medicine practice about attitudes towards pap smears in order to understand why the follow-up rate is low for abnormal pap smears. Based on their responses, she decides to design a new system to communicate results to patients. She completes the design work in Year 2, plans and participates in the assessment of the outcomes by the practice team, part of which happens in Year 3, and analyzes and writes the results for her scholarly project during Year 4.

Student C arrives at HMS with a strong interest in basic scientific research. Her summer research project on stem cells is only partly successful, but the field fascinates her. She uses her Year 3 elective month to write an application to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for 5th year funding and works in the lab for one year. In her final year she continues some lab work and writes her scholarly project report. She receives permission to submit her project report as an Honors thesis as well.

Student D comes to HMS wanting to carry out a global health project. During her first summer she joins a mentor who has an established project in Brazil. While working on this project, she becomes acquainted with the local site and collaborators, and begins to identify potential future projects. Working with her mentor in Year 2, she develops a specific project and she submits materials for IRB approval before starting PCE. Using one month of elective time during PCE, she responds as needed for IRB approval, submits grant proposals to fund a fifth year, and makes a 2-week visit to the site to arrange final details for the project. She takes a global health summer course at the start of Year 4 and then spends nine months at the site conducting the project. She returns to HMS in summer of Year 5 and alternates months doing clinical electives, analyzing the data, and writing up the results. She submits her project for consideration for honors.

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Can you show me a timeline with key SIM milestones?

The following timeline summarizes when the SIM requirement can fulfilled over the course of the four years of medical school:

Year 1

  • Fall: Attend Pursuing Inquiry in Medicine (PIM) course sessions starting in September. Attend Society briefings and content area sessions held in the early fall. Start looking for a summer mentor and a project and develop mentor and project ideas for approval.
  • January: Intensive proposal development within PIM
  • Feb 6: Submit summer project proposal draft
  • April 1: Revised summer proposal deadline

Year 2

  • Fall: Reflection on first summer's work
  • April 1: SIM proposal submission point for scholarly project

Year 3

  • Variable: Use elective month to advance your SIM project or formulate a SIM proposal for submission

Year 4/5

  • July 1: Last deadline for SIM proposal submission
  • Oct 1: Statement of intent due for honors thesis; all students submit outline of Report to Faculty Committee on Scholarship in Medicine
  • Feb 1: Deadline for submission of honors thesis
  • Mar 1: Deadline for submission of final draft of scholarly project for mentor's approval
  • April 1: Last deadline for submission of SIM scholarly report

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What is the review process for the SIM proposal?

All funded student scholarship at HMS, including the Scholarly Project, is based on a rigorously argued proposal. The faculty mentor co-signs the proposal. Both faculty mentor and student sign a mentoring contract as well. A member of the Faculty Committee on Scholarship in Medicine who is expert in the field reviews proposals; 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.

The expected minimal length of scholarship is three to 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.

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What should the final report look like?

The scholarly project report will be submitted electronically and will typically include the following elements:

  • Title Page
  • Abstract
  • Table of Contents
  • Glossary for any abbreviations
  • Section I: Introduction (background including a clear statement of the scholarly question and its significance, as well as an up-to-date review of the relevant literature) - not more than 15 double-spaced pages
  • Section II: Methods
  • Section III: Results (observations, data analysis)
  • Section IV: Discussion, Conclusions, and Suggestions for Future Work - not more than 20-25 double-spaced pages for sections II – IV.
  • Section V: Summary
  • List of references annotated in text
  • Tables and Figures

In some cases results of the scholarly project will have been published before submission of the final report. It will be permissible to include a published manuscript as part of the report, but in those instances we expect the inclusion of separate sections entitled Introduction and Discussion, Conclusions and Suggestions for Future Work, which will serve to put the published work in a larger scholarly context. In other cases, the purposes of the report will be better served by an alternative format; the format of the report will be the responsibility of the assigned reader.

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Down the road, could I use my SIM project to apply for graduation with honors?

Yes, if approved by the Faculty Committee for Scholarship in Medicine.

The MD degree with Honors in a Special Field is awarded to graduating degree candidates who have performed original and meritorious investigation in a medically-related subject and have demonstrated ability, scholarship, and special knowledge of the field of which the chosen subject is a part. An original thesis, describing basic or clinical research, or other scholarly investigation (e.g., in the social sciences, ethics, history of medicine) involving a minimum of four to six consecutive months (usually more in the experimental biological sciences) must be submitted, and will form the basis for an oral exam. The MD Honors Thesis must be distinct from any prior or concurrent graduate-level thesis (e.g., MPH, PhD).

Candidates who would like to be considered for Honors in a Special Field must consult with one of their Society Fellows, complete an Honors Statement of Intent Form and submit it with the appropriate signatures. To be considered for Honors, a student must be in good standing at the Medical School. Oral examinations are held from February through April of fourth year.

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