Undergraduate research experience: a must-have!
Your medical school application should display a diverse resume, including good academic qualification (GPA), a respectable MCAT score, meaningful letters of recommendation, both clinical and non-clinical volunteer experience, shadowing hours and undergraduate research involvement. Of that list, most admissions committee members will tell you that three of those things stand above the rest: GPA, MCAT score, and undergraduate research experience. In 2016 alone, more than 75% of all med school applicants came to the table with research experience. That’s what you’re up against!
Remember: undergraduate research experience does not always equate to working in a scientific lab! You can do research related to art, history, public health, engineering, etc. The only stipulation that most admissions committees have is that the research is hypothesis based and contributes to peer-reviewed findings.
Skills and knowledge gained through research
Undergraduate research experience is so valuable because it offers a unique opportunity to see science in action. You take what you’ve learned in your undergraduate classes and you apply it to novel situations. To be able to take what you know and apply it to new, complex situations and questions is an invaluable skill that is the essence of medical practice. Simply put, you learn how to think critically. (That helps you for the MCAT, too!)
How to get involved in research
If you’re attending school at a large university, there are likely ample opportunities to gain undergraduate research experience. It will take some investigating to find professors who are looking for research assistants, but my best theory is: “seek and ye shall find!” I would start with professors you’re taking classes from. Get to know them throughout the semester, and once the semester is drawing to a close, have the courage to ask them if you could work on their research projects. If they aren’t looking for assistants, they’re sure to know a colleague who is.
If you don’t have luck going that route, you can always check out professors’ bios on the school website. Take a look into their CV and get an idea of what it is they study. Find a professor working on a project that interests you. Send them an email expressing your interest in his/her work. Explain your desire to learn more about the subject and how you would love to make a contribution in their lab.
If you’re at a small school with minimal opportunities for research, this may make things a bit more difficult. Again, though, you should start with professors at your school. They are part of the scientific community, and likely will have friends and colleagues who do research. If you have no luck there, reach out to professors at nearby universities. If you just can’t seem to find any research opportunities, your last shot may be here: https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/. You can find, and apply to, summer research opportunities at universities across the U.S. Most provide a stipend for living expenses. You will need at least one letter of recommendation and will need to take time to fill out multiple applications.
All in all, it’ll take some work to find a research assistant spot, but it’ll be well worth your time. It’s an integral part of your primary application and will set you apart from the rest of the pack.
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