Gaining pre-med research experience is one of the many steps you’ll take before applying to medical school. In addition to working on your GPA and MCAT score, building up your pre-med resume will involve clinical experience and likely pre-med research experience, in addition to volunteering hours or other extracurriculars. Although it’s not mandatory to be a part of research as an undergraduate or before applying to medical school, most applicants participate in at least some research.
There are many reasons to take on a role in a research project, either during your summer and winter downtime, or as a regular commitment during your school semester. Beyond getting the chance to participate in the discovery of new bodies of knowledge, you’ll get the opportunity to experience the research process, from ideation to experiments. Getting an intimate look at the ups and downs, making a commitment to a project for a long time, and learning how to communicate with fellow scientists is a tremendous background for your next steps in the science of medicine. Don’t forget that research experience doesn’t have to be a wet lab. Your research experience can span the gamut from social sciences to geology. But before you can start taking part in pre-med research, you have to find it. Depending on your university, this could be an easier or more involved process but no matter what, even if you’re currently not in school, you can find opportunities to get involved that you’ll be excited to talk about at your medical school interview. Here’s how:
1. Pre-health or department advisors are safe bets.
If you’re lucky to have a dedicated pre-med or pre-health advisor, be sure to talk to them as part of your regular meeting schedule or make an appointment to inquire about research opportunities. It’s best to do this toward the end of your freshman year, once you’ve had a chance to settle into your school schedule and make sure you can handle the additional responsibility without affecting your grades. Since making sure you’ll be a great applicant is part of their role, your advisor will know of research opportunities that are especially suited for pre-meds. They can also help you navigate the process of approaching the Principal Investigator, applying to summer programs and funding, etc.
2. Check your university job board.
Your college or university is likely to have an internal job board which will include departments posting for research assistants or laboratory help. Not currently enrolled? You can still find these listings on external university job boards, as well as those for hospitals, labs, and private industry. Some research positions may require you to already have a bachelor’s degree, which is great for those taking a gap year or two between undergrad and medical school, but you can absolutely find roles where you can take on varying degrees of responsibility while still in undergrad.
3. Network with faculty.
Building a relationship with your professors, TAs, and department staff is important for your experience as a student and also for your future as a medical school applicant. But don’t just do it for a letter of recommendation, do it because these teachers can become your mentors and foster your love of learning and science. Networking with your current professors and department coordinators can be a great source of leads for research projects that you can get involved in. If you’d like to conduct research outside of your department, take a look at department websites to find principal investigators that are working on research you can be passionate about. Think as far outside your own “bubble” as you want. Then, email the principal investigator with a short note about why you want to get involved, how you can contribute, and ask if they’re looking for some help.
4. Get involved in summer programs and internships.
The AAMC maintains a list of summer undergraduate research programs that you can apply to. This is a great way to spend a summer and be able to devote all your time and attention to a particular project while building relationships with people outside your immediate circle. The National Science Foundation offers Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in topics ranging from chemistry to social, behavioral, and economic sciences. These experiences are offered at institutions across the country and often have a small stipend for living expenses while you’re away. You can also find opportunities through the National Institutes of Health. The benefit of these dedicated programs is the focused time on research, other enrichment opportunities, and the chance to meet people that are as passionate as you are about a subject. This experience can be formative and something you can talk about in your interviews or personal statement.
Found some opportunities that you think might work? It’s time to apply or contact the principal investigator and ask for a short meeting. If you’re invited for an interview, either formal or more informal over a coffee or tour of the lab, you’ll want to come prepared. Here are a few must-do things before you go:
- Read up on the people you’ll be working with. Check out their educational experience, research interests, and read up on previous research.
- Become familiar with the research at hand, what are the goals, what new tools or methods are being used, etc.
- Look up the underlying science or topic being examined so you can ask thoughtful questions.
- Make sure you can answer the basics: why you want to get involved, what makes you a reliable person, and what you hope to get out of the experience.
- Take a look at your school, extracurricular, and persona schedule to know how much of a time commitment you can make. Be realistic with yourself and be honest with your principal investigator.