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Pre-med research: A beginner’s guide

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Pre-med research: A beginner’s guide

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?

By | 2018-04-18T20:18:37+00:00 July 11th, 2013|Pre Med Undergrad|22 Comments

About the Author:

Bryce is a professional writer, editor, and admissions consultant. He’s between undergrad and medical school at the moment, trying to get out of debt before takes on a lot more. If you like how he writes, you might consider having him help you with your personal statement.


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  11. Salma January 4, 2013 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    When should I start worrying about research? I’m currently a freshman..

    • Bryce January 5, 2013 at 3:25 pm - Reply

      As soon as possible. You need 2 years under your belt before you apply to medical school. The more the better.

      • Deklerk January 8, 2013 at 5:47 am - Reply

        I am a sophomore, now entering my second semester. What are the chances that I can still leave up to the requirement of having 2 years of research. Seeing how I have already planned my extracurricular activities for the next year or two(volunteer, shadow, work etc.), there is no time for up to 2 years of research. I volunteer at a near by hospital during the summer, and i plan on doing so every summer until I apply to Med School. In addition to that, I work. I also shadow during the summer. On top of all of that, I plan on studying for the MCAT. As you can see, my summers are/will be very hectic. What do you think of participating in a research activity during school semesters?

        • Bryce Johnson January 8, 2013 at 12:06 pm - Reply

          That’s pretty common. Premed students very often spend 4-12 hours a week working in the lab during school. If you’re lucky, the professor will pay you, so you can treat it like a part-time job. That being said, you can’t really get around the 2 year rule without seriously compromising your chances, so if you’re having a hard time fitting everything in before you apply, you might consider pushing your application season back a year or two.

          • Deklerk January 8, 2013 at 11:13 pm

            Alright. Thank you.

  12. chrissy January 11, 2013 at 7:32 pm - Reply

    thanks for your comments! why not team up with other advisors, book writers, sanford brown, suzanne miller, mindy openner, kaplan or others? do you recommend these?

    • Bryce Johnson January 12, 2013 at 8:24 pm - Reply

      I’m not sure I understand your question. Can you clarify what you mean by “team up” and how these people are relevant to premed research?

  13. Mylan March 4, 2013 at 8:18 pm - Reply

    2 years? Where did you come up with that number? I’ve had friends interview all over. Even those that have done lab research with Fred Hutch and HHMI, that barely spoke 2 mins about research during interviews. I hear research helps applications but only a little compared to shadowing or more healthcare experience.

  14. Sam November 18, 2013 at 9:31 pm - Reply

    I’m a junior in high school currently. I know it’s early, but do you have any recommendations for things I could be doing to prepare myself more?

    • Bryce Johnson November 30, 2013 at 9:24 pm - Reply

      Some of the best things you can do at this stage of the game include learning good study habits (here’s a good link for that: http://collegeprepfaq.com/good-study-habits), taking honors-level classes whenever possible, learning to set and achieve goals, and taking summer classes and online classes that will help prepare you for your pre-med curriculum once you hit the university. Here’s another link from our sister college prep site that addresses some early steps for someone serious about medical school later on, such as learning good note-taking skills, mastering time management, and taking the most advanced science and math classes available in middle school and high school: http://collegeprepfaq.com/prepare-for-college.
      Taking AP science and math classes during high school, and then preparing and taking the AP tests when you’re finished, will give you a leg up when you begin your college career. You can start college with up to a year’s worth of credit if you have taken all available AP classes during your high school years. Here’s some more specific advice about AP tests: http://collegeprepfaq.com/ap-tests.
      It’s good that you’re planning so far ahead. Just use your time now to solidify some great habits and study skills. Ten years from now, you’ll be relying on those same skills as you study anatomy and physiology!

  15. susan erlich January 18, 2015 at 12:27 am - Reply

    but now I am on track with a 3.5 gpa in fall of 2014. my overall is a 3.2. I have done tons of shadowing but no research. I have also done tons of volunteering at the local childcare center, as I plan to do pediatrics. I also work. I also plan on securing some research this summer. I am enthusiastic about being a doctor. I am a junior. I plan on doing my mcats early. Can one apply for med school in their third year, and if so, am I on the right track with what I am doing now to be prepared.
    thank you ever so much for your advise.

    • Bryce Johnson March 31, 2015 at 5:00 pm - Reply

      Hi Susan, You probably already realize this, but an overall GPA of 3.2 is low for medical school. You’ll need to step it up to be competitive. Especially your science GPA. And you don’t have a lot of time to register higher grades. Your volunteering should be in a medical setting. And you need a few months of solid research, plus some leadership skills you can show off to the adcoms. You can certainly apply early, but you’ll look better to the admissions folks with more of your class grades finalized and more extracurriculars in hand. And as I say to everyone who asks, you can’t underestimate the importance of your letters of recommendation and your personal statement. Check out my posts on both. If you’re talking the MCAT early, go in prepared or don’t do it. It’s such a huge commitment that your time could be better spent on research and shadowing rather than prepping for and taking the MCAT twice. The upside is it gives you the opportunity to take it again if needed. Just consider whether you want to face the MCAT twice!!

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