What to Focus on In Your Pre-Med Research Position
Taking a research position to gain research experience is becoming an increasingly important piece of the application package for pre-med students. Along with volunteer experience and shadowing or clinical exposure, it is now one of those factors that are technically optional (i.e., not a hard requirement) but widely recommended and part of the vast majority of students’ applications. This is not simply due to the increasing competitiveness of entry to medical school. Rather, it reflects the changing nature of medical education and the rising prominence of evidence-based medicine. Whereas in previous generations physicians and scientists worked separately with little direct interface, today medicine is driven by scientific advances and dominated by clinical practices that are founded in research. Therefore, the most successful physicians will be those who understand how to engage with research. Although many will not end up doing research as part of their medical career, gaining exposure to the scientific process early in your education is essential, and a pre-med research position is a great way to get started. If you are reading this because you already have a pre-med research position or are considering one, take note of the long-term importance of what you are doing. And, to ensure maximum success and enjoyment, here are five recommendations for what to focus on in your pre-med research position.
Develop a Relationship with Your PI
Depending on the size of the lab you join, you will have different levels of exposure to your PI. At R1 institutions with a high emphasis on research, large labs with several postdocs, grad students, and research scientists are common. In this lab structure, you may not see your PI on a daily basis. If this is the case, you should still seek out at least a couple of one-on-one meetings with them to discuss the lab, your goals, and your career trajectory. Meeting once each at the beginning and end of your research position should be a minimum goal, with additional meetings throughout if possible. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you attend a small liberal arts college and have the opportunity to work in a small lab with only undergrads, then you will have much greater access to your PI. Take full advantage of this. Meeting weekly or biweekly is an excellent way of getting to know your PI, including their academic background and research interests. It also helps them get to know you so that they can support and mentor you better. Another perk is that when it comes time for them to write you a letter of recommendation, they will know you well enough to write it themselves and include specifics that will stand out among the crowd of research letters. Regardless of the access you will have to your PI, make every effort possible to get to know them. If not directly, then try to learn about them from other lab members so that you can discuss their interests and even specific projects or journal articles when you are able to meet with them.
Interact with as Many Grad Students, Postdocs or Fellow Students as Possible
As above, how you accomplish this will depend on the size and nature of your lab. However, the principles are the same. If you are in a small lab with only other undergrads, get to know them and figure out ways of collaborating on tasks and projects, learning new methods, or figuring out how to improve your reading of journal articles. Or, if you are in a big lab with many senior members, introduce yourself and find out who has projects that interest you. In many cases when you join a lab you will be assigned a mentor, such as a grad student or postdoc, based on the interests you communicated when you applied for the position. But some labs offer significant flexibility and will allow you to shadow or work with anyone you like. Additionally, if you are in an especially large lab, your PI will likely not write your recommendation letter alone. If you spend most days with a certain student-mentor, they will either write the letter together with your PI or will provide them with information about you in order to write a personalized letter.
Be on the Lookout for Opportunities to Present Your Work
Communication is one of the most important yet undervalued skills in research. Your findings or advances will not impact anyone or anything if you don’t communicate them to the scientific community. Therefore, this is something you should practice early and often. Most labs have weekly lab meetings for members to share findings, challenges or roadblocks, and other updates with the rest of the lab. If your PI or mentor doesn’t have you present at least once during your research position, advocate for a slot to present something that you’ve done. Beyond presenting at internal lab meetings there are also often joint meetings between collaborating labs, as well as department or school-wide poster sessions. Finally, as will be discussed more below, there may be opportunities for you to present at conferences.
Publications and Conference Presentations During Your Pre-Med Research Position are Excellent (but NOT Required)
Publications are often the target of much discussion in terms of their importance for applications and their significance during undergrad. There is no definitive answer as every admissions committee and individual member will view publications slightly differently. However, there is a consensus that although in most cases they are helpful, they are never required and are in fact less important than other outcomes from a pre-med research position. This means that most committee members prefer that pre-med students gained significant exposure to the scientific process and learned something new from it over having their name appear on a publication. The reason for this is that being published does not directly indicate how much effort you put into a project or what you learned from it. It is far more important for you to be able to discuss your research experience and the details of the project(s) you worked on with knowledge and curiosity.
Conference presentations are treated similarly; although they can demonstrate advanced skill and knowledge, they are also subject to many external factors such as lab funding, timing of relevant conferences, etc. It is more important to present at least once during a lab meeting and be able to discuss your experience than to have a conference poster or abstract listed on your application. However, if there is an opportunity to present work at a conference or help publish in a reputable journal, by all means take advantage as they are fantastic ways of gaining deeper insight into the research process.
Learn a Wide Variety of New Lab Techniques and Methods During Your Pre-Med Research Position
As mentioned earlier, one of the main outcomes of a pre-med research position should be learning a new lab technique or method. In fact, you should gain exposure to as many new methods as possible because this will help you decide whether you like research, and if so, what area(s) interest you the most. Because of the wide variety of fields that are related to medicine or healthcare, it is difficult to give specific advice for this. However, there are two broad types of labs you might find yourself working in. First and most commonly, there are wet labs that utilize bench science methods involving primarily animal models (e.g., mice, flies) or a variety of reagents, chemicals, drugs, or other biological materials. Biochemistry, neuroscience, immunology, and others traditionally fit into this category. Less common and often less visible are dry labs, which center utilize human participants and/or computational methods. Health economics, psychology, cognitive science, and certain types of neuroscience labs usually fall into this category. The bench sciences are increasingly integrating computational models into their fields because they offer superior analytical techniques, especially for fields like genetics and genomics. However, if you are in a wet lab that doesn’t regularly use computational methods, consider asking your PI or collaborating labs to gain exposure to data analysis using these methods. On the other hand, if you are in a dry lab, you could do the same to see how animal models are bench techniques (e.g., PCR) are done.
Research positions are a source of stress or burden for many pre-med students who don’t like research, whether because of negative experiences with previous lab-based courses or because it is yet another requirement to complete before being able to apply to med school. However, understanding at least the basics of science will help you throughout med school and your medical career. You may even discover that you enjoy research and that you might want to incorporate it into your career. Regardless of your interest or prior experience with research, it is important to treat each new experience as a fresh opportunity to learn. If you take advantage of these tips provided here, you will set yourself up for a successful position both teaching you something new and providing a strong addition to your med school application.