How to Get Research Experience

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Working in a research setting can help make you a competitive medical school applicant and help you to determine if a career in medicine or medical research is right for you

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How do I find a research position?

If you’re currently in college, check with your institution’s science or undergraduate research websites for opportunities to assist with faculty research projects. You can also review faculty bio pages and lab websites for more information. Next, reach out to your immediate network: express your interest in assisting with a research project to your science professors, academic advisor, and your pre-health advisor.

Try exchanging ideas with your peers and upper-classmen for advice on research opportunities at your institution. You can also ask peer advisors, resident advisors, or any fellow premedical students for introductions to principal investigators (PIs). You might even try the “Undergrad-Grad-PI” method. This is where you first reach out to undergraduate students in research labs to learn about their responsibilities; they oftentimes are more responsive. Then, reach out to the graduate or post-doc students to learn about the research question being investigated. After this, read the most recent paper or abstract the lab published. Once you complete these steps, you can approach the PI more confidently and more effectively demonstrate your commitment to and understanding of their project.

Your school’s career center or student employment office may know about research job openings, and they can also offer resume help and go over interview tips and techniques. Remember, opportunities may be on or off campus, full- or part-time, paid or unpaid, or part of a summer program. Once you find a position, you can connect with your school’s fellowships or awards office to inquire about research funding opportunities.

If you’ve already graduated, consider looking into open positions. Research hospitals, universities, and biotech companies are always looking for lab technicians or clinical research coordinators (CRC). Job opportunities are typically posted on the career pages of their websites.

When should I begin gaining research experience in college?

Some premedical students begin their research experiences during their first year of college, and others begin research positions after they have already graduated. On average, most students secure a research position junior or senior year. There are three big factors that will impact this:

  1. Your level of interest in pursuing research. If you are really excited to investigate a question under a mentor, you might find yourself reaching out to professors early and often. Other students may focus on gaining clinical experience, and therefore wait later in their academic career to start research.
  2. Readiness for the research project. Different PIs will have different expectations for preparation. A research project might require you to first take coursework in basic lab sciences, statistics, or another advanced topic specific to the project. Other PIs may prefer to train you “on-the-job” through their graduate or post-doc students. This will impact when you are ready to join a project.
  3. Finding the right research project. There is a process of reviewing different PIs and research projects to find the right fit for you. What subject do you want to investigate? Do you want your research project to take place in a lab or non-lab setting? Is there an independent question you want to investigate with the help of a mentor?

When is the best time to look for a position?

According to Kate Stutz, Ph.D., Director of Pre-Health Advising at Brandeis University, if you’re interested a research position during the academic year, the best time to look for positions is at the very beginning of the semester. There also tend to be a lot of research opportunities in the summer, both paid and volunteer, through set programs like the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REUs). It’s best to start applying for summer research positions in December-February for the upcoming summer. Remember, typically there are more applicants than available spots so get your applications in early. Each undergraduate institution will be different, therefore make sure to connect with your advisors and peers for feedback on when to start looking.

What’s the best way to apply?

The outreach email message that you send to potential research faculty is very important. This message should include a formal introduction of yourself, evidence that you are familiar with their research project(s), and a clear, specific ask. Identify what you hope to contribute to the project. Do you want to clean the glassware or analyze lab findings? Consider attaching your resume as well.

Dr. Stutz stresses that networking and persistence are crucial to finding a position. Make sure you’re using all of your network, including your peers and professors, to find open positions. Don’t be afraid to send follow up emails; faculty are very busy and often overlook emails. Sometimes, it can be even more effective to stop by a professor’s office hours to hand deliver your materials and indicate your interest in person.

How should I prepare for an interview?

With any interview, it’s important to make a good impression. Be sure to dress appropriately. Come prepared with a resume. Use your campus career center for advice on proper attire and resume best practices.

Often during interviews, you’ll be asked about your career goals. It’s helpful to be able to speak about the steps you plan to take to meet those goals. Talk about classes you’ve taken, especially upper-level science courses. Speak about your skills, your knowledge of techniques, and the equipment you’ve used throughout your coursework. Be prepared to discuss the lab experiments you’ve completed. If you’ve done any sort of research—even in your coursework—keep track of it. This shows you have experience.

Lastly, interviewers often ask candidates if they have any questions. Dr. Stutz suggests asking something that indicates you’ve done your own research into their project. You could ask where they see their research going in the next three years or what challenges they anticipate. You could also ask about expectations for undergraduate researchers; do they expect you to work 20+ hours a week? Full time over the summer? Do they require you to have work study or to sign up for research credits? Asking these questions ahead of time can help you plan ahead and determine if this position is the best fit for you. Check out these 
interview resources for more tips.

Does research experience have to be in a wet lab?

No! Research can be performed in any field or subject. We’ve had successful applicants with research in classics, sociology, history, and policy, as well as applicants with research in biology, biochemistry, and neuroscience. Medical schools value all types of research. Research can take place in a scientific lab that requires advanced devices and procedures to obtain data for analysis. Research can also take place in the humanities or social sciences where participant interviews or surveys are needed to obtain an individual's life perspective. The clinical research field is constantly investigating patient outcomes and how to improve care through clinical trials or analysis of patient data. As a premedical student, consider what question you want to investigate further. Do you want to learn more about how health inequities impact disadvantaged communities in your area, or perhaps you want to know more about the protein channels involved in memory cognition? Once you choose a direction, you can then partner with a research PI for guidance on how to navigate your question.

Sierra Perez, Pre-Health Advisor at Brandeis University, shares not to be afraid to get creative with your research question. She has been impressed by the medical school applicants who have created independent questions that address the community needs. “Applicants are recognizing the critical needs of specific populations, such as homelessness, LGBTQ+, veterans, youth with disabilities, etc.,” she stated. “There is also a demand for translational researchers, or individuals who can take complicated bench topics and apply it to the clinical world.”

Is research experience required to be accepted to medical school? 

It depends. Some medical schools are very research focused; they may require a research thesis or have research time built into the curriculum. Other schools are more community or clinically focused; they would rather have an applicant work in a healthcare setting or volunteer at their local soup kitchen than be at the bench moving clear liquids from one test tube to another. Research experience (in whatever discipline) is helpful for developing some of the Premed Competencies, such as critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, scientific reasoning, as well as teamwork and oral communication skills. How much you should engage in research depends on how much you enjoy it once you try it!

The majority of accepted medical school applicants have some form of academic or clinical research at the time they apply. Competence in research has become increasingly important in the medical field to improve patient care outcomes.

You can also review medical school mission statements to see if research is a focus at a particular school. You can read each school’s mission, and the number of accepted students in their most recent class who had research experience, in the Medical School Admission Requirements. Remember, it’s best to pursue experiences that you’re genuinely interested in, rather than just to check a box, but you may not know if research is for you until you give it a try.  

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