Pre-med research: why you need to do it, where to start, and what to keep in mind

pre-med researchAdmissions committees think it’s important for you to know how to think critically, ask important questions, and be able to explore them rigorously. Which is why pre-med research experience is a must for every med school applicant. In the AAMC admissions book, most schools report that anywhere from 80% to 100% of their matriculating students have research experience going into med school, and it’s something admissions interviewers ask applicants about. So, don’t skip research. Unless you won the Nobel Peace prize, fed the world’s poor, and/or the Dean of Admissions is your dad, you’re not going to get into med school without it. It’s pretty standard, in fact, for applicants to have two years of research under their belts before they apply, so you’ll want to get started long before your application cycle.

I don’t know any of my professors very well. Is it going to be hard to find pre-med research opportunities?

Nope. Although you mostly see them while they’re teaching, professors spend quite a bit of time in the lab (or in their offices) researching and writing. That may not be the case at junior/community colleges since these schools don’t typically require their faculty to be publishing on a regular basis. But at most four-year universities, professors are going to be working on a project or two at the least, and most likely they have some grunt work they’d gladly pass off to an undergrad looking for research experience.

That said, don’t jump into a research project just because you find out a professor is looking for undergrad help, or just because he or she asks you to join their lab. I think that’s a mistake lots of students make because they know they need research experience and the opportunities aren’t usually publicized very much. But research assistantships are not hard to come by, even at schools with lots of aspiring pre-meds and pre-PhDs. Instead of jumping into the first project you find, spend some time looking around for something you’ll enjoy and a professor you wouldn’t mind spending a fair amount of time with (sometimes the hardest part).

How do I find the right professor and/or project to work on?

First, ask yourself what you’re interested in. If you hated Ochem, don’t go gunning for a pre-med research job with an Ochem professor, just because he writes good letters of recommendation, or is an interesting lecturer, or publishes a lot. You want to find something you have a natural interest in that you won’t get bored of learning about after long hours in the lab. That said, you shouldn’t confine your search to the sciences either. It’s true, most pre-meds get research jobs in chem or bio labs, but that’s not required, by any means. If you’re an anthro major, look for pre-med research projects in anthro. If you’re into geology, look for research in rocks. Whatever field you’re in, people are thinking critically, asking important questions, and exploring them rigorously, which is why, again, medical schools want you to have spent time doing research. I spent three years studying health systems with a public health professor and never set foot in a lab to do research for a professor. It was a ton of reading and writing and even a little traveling. Because I was doing something I was interested in, I came to love my project and take ownership of it, and published and presented at conferences several times.

Once you decide on the subject you want to pursue, log onto your school’s website and look up the faculty pages for the department you’re interested in. Pull up their CVs if you can, or a list of research interests and ask yourself which ones sound the most interesting. If there are links to these professors’ publications, it wouldn’t hurt to look at them in order to get a better feel for the research they do. It also makes for good talking points when you’re asking them if you can work for them.

I found a few professors I’m interested in working with. What’s next?

Write up a short e-mail sharing a little about yourself (1-2 sentences), expressing interest in the research the professor is doing (give a reason or two why), asking if they’re looking for help in their lab, and finding out if there’s a time you can stop by to talk about it. It may be a good idea to tell the professor what sort of experience you have in research, what class(es) you’ve taken in his/her field (including labs), and how soon you’re willing to start. Send the e-mail, but if you don’t hear back within a few days, do some digging, find out when the professor’s office hours are and pay him/her a visit. Be prepared by having read some of the professor’s research, and be able to talk about it semi-intelligently. Be straightforward, ask what he/she is working on in the lab and if there any projects you can help with.

Whether you get a yes or no, it’s important to remember it probably wasn’t based on your merits. You got it depending on whether or not the professor needed someone to help out. That means that if you get it, you shouldn’t walk into the lab thinking you’re God’s gift to the world, and if you don’t, it doesn’t mean the next professor you ask won’t say yes. You can keep an eye out for research positions at cancer centers and research companies, but you’ll probably have to have some experience doing pre-med research elsewhere first.

What should I expect to get out of a research position long-term?

First and foremost, a really strong letter of recommendation. If you stick with a professor long enough (at least a year, generally) and show him/her you’re able to work hard and think clearly, you should receive a letter. It’s pretty well-understood that students are expecting letters going into a research position, in my experience. You should also be aware of opportunities within the lab to present the research you’re doing at school, state-wide, and at national conferences, and to publish in peer-reviewed journals. These are great resume items that tell adcoms that you really engaged in the academic community and made serious contributions. That said, don’t let resume items be the reasons you do things in the lab. It’s okay if you don’t publish or present at a conference while you’re an undergrad—although you really should try to do one of the two—so don’t annoy everyone by letting them know you’re there to get a leg up. This goes for most things in the pre-med world, but you should be aware that people know your kind. They know that pre-meds have to do things they don’t want to to get into medical school. They assume you’re going to be insincere and self-absorbed, so prove them wrong by being humble and genuine and getting to know people well. You never know what good will come from strong work/school relationships.

General points to remember:

-Find something you like learning about.

-Approach the professor, showing him/her that you’re competent, articulate, and able to commit to at least a year in the lab.

-Get to know people in the lab. Have fun.

-Plan on asking your professor (probably not your PI) for a letter of recommendation when you apply to med school.

-Keep an eye out for opportunities to present and publish your work. Don’t feel like you need to take every single one, but try it out a few times. Professors want to see you do this anyway, so they’ll be supportive.

Here are a couple other helpful posts:

—Undergrad research experience for pre-meds

—Shadowing: make the most of the experience

—Building my resume in the summer

—Is pre-med consulting worth the cash?