Which Medical Research Opportunities Should I Partake In
As a premedical student, countless commitments such as coursework, volunteering, shadowing, teaching, and, leadership activities might take up your time. In such a demanding context, adding research on to your busy schedule can seem like a daunting task. However, there are ways in which you can maximize the value you get out of your research experiences, and make your investment worthwhile. In this post, we will discuss which medical research opportunities are worth your time as a premedical or medical student.
Does it matter what kind of research you do for medical school admissions? Does taking part in medical research opportunities matter at all?
While in earlier years, long hours spent in the lab were considered an impressive feat by Admissions Committees (Adcoms), today the quality and not just the quantity of the research is what matters most. The diagnostic process of coming up with a differential diagnosis for a patient relies on similar critical thinking skills as hypothesis-driven research, and hence medical schools want to see you engage in at least a basic amount of research to demonstrate that you can think practically using this framework. Research also helps you learn how to work in teams, a skill that is highly relevant to the practice of medicine. More research-heavy schools might want to see longer engagement in labs but the general consensus is that a premed student should try at least a semester or two of research. Hence, having a research project on your resume will definitely help your application.
Research can come in many forms. It can be clinical research (where you directly work with patients and their samples), or translational (research topics are directly relevant to patient care in the clinic) or basic (this is benchtop research, the results for which are not directly translated to the clinic; most undergraduate research falls under this category). While you can choose any of these categories of research based on whatever appeals to you the most, the quality of the experience is what will matter to medical school admissions committees. The quality of an experience in quantitative terms is generally measured by what you gained from the experience. For example, if you presented your research at a conference or published a paper, Adcoms will view your research experiences favorably. It is important to realize that almost every medical school applicant will have done a basic amount of research, and so the outputs of the research as mentioned above (papers, presentations), will be the easiest way for Adcoms to differentiate between the applicants. It is important to note that publishing a paper is a time-intensive and arduous process. It requires multiple rounds of editing and submission to journal editors for review. Hence, publishing as an undergraduate is highly commendable and especially valuable to research-heavy schools. Also, note that some research projects are relatively easier to publish or present than others. For example, on average publishing for clinical chart-review-based projects might be faster than wet lab basic science projects. Most schools recognize that it is difficult to publish as a premedical student, and you are not expected to publish as an undergraduate. Even if you have not made a formal presentation at a conference or on a paper, you should ask your undergraduate lab professor to write you a letter of recommendation detailing your contributions to the lab. This can be a good measure of the quality of your research experience and has the added benefit of satisfying one of your letter of recommendation requirements.
What is the best research topic for medical and premedical students?
A number of factors play into deciding the research topic for your medical research opportunity. Because any research topic can satisfy the basic research requirement for medical school, choosing a topic that genuinely intrigues you is important. Projects in undergraduate wet labs can be time-intensive commitments and so you want to make sure that you choose a topic that you enjoy. You can start by asking your course professors or graduate Teaching Assistants if they are working on any projects. You can also easily look up faculty at your institution, peruse their research interests and then reach out to a couple of faculty expressing your interest in working in their labs. Finally, you can also just create a research topic of your interest and then look up mentors at your institution who might be involved in similar research. Most professors are very open to taking undergraduate students, so do not be afraid to reach out if you do not know the professor personally. This is very normal and expected. Make sure you have read up on the professor’s research before the first meeting, ask good questions, and be honest about the number of hours you can commit to your medical research opportunity each week, and you will be able to join a lab that fits you in no time! It is important to invest some time in making this decision. You want to be really sure when you pick a lab that you will be sticking with it for the duration you have committed to. Medical schools like to see dedication and commitment to projects and so try to avoid skipping from one lab to the other. The chances of this happening can be minimized if you find a topic you like, a professor who understands your various time commitments as a premedical or medical student, and you are honest with the professor about how much you can and should contribute in the lab.
Finally, for those interested in doing any research in their future practice or for those especially interested in MD/Ph.D. programs, I would recommend spending a summer outside of your undergraduate institution in order to gain broader exposure to research. There are a host of Summer Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowships (SURF programs) that provide research experiences for undergraduates in their labs for the summer. Premier institutions like Mayo Clinic and MD Anderson offer translational research opportunities for their SURF students. There is also the Amgen Program which provides SURF opportunities at some of the top medical schools in the country. The AAMC directory (https://www.aamc.org/professional-development/affinity-groups/great/summer-undergrad-research-programs) provides a comprehensive list of summer programs in the United States. These programs are usually paid, involve delivering a presentation at the end of the program, and are an excellent means of building connections at medical schools you may want to apply to in the future. You can also ask your supervisors at these labs to write you a recommendation letter for medical school, especially highlighting the positive aspects of working with you during the summer. Some of these programs are very prestigious and highly competitive, so gaining admittance to these will definitely be value added to your resume and application.
A few final recommendations
In conclusion, the quality of your medical research projects is what matters most to Adcoms and not the number of opportunities you partake in. One long-term project is much more impressive than ten projects with superficial involvement. Adcoms want to see you show commitment and dedication, an ability to apply the hypothesis-driven framework and work collaboratively in research teams. These skills are highlighted through the outputs of your research, such as papers, presentations, and letters of recommendation from research advisors. Finally, the most important thing to finding medical research opportunities is to explore your interests and not be afraid to reach out, even if you do not know people personally. The more comfortable you get at networking, the better will be the quality of the research opportunities that will present themselves to you. This mantra applies not just to research but to any opportunities, you come across in medical school and beyond.
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