9 Proven Strategies to Secure a Research Position as a Pre-med Student
There is no denying: research is practically required of med school applicants nowadays. It may not be an explicit requirement, but at least 80%, and sometimes upwards of 97% of students accepted to competitive M.D. programs, have some research under their belt. The answer to the age-old question, "How hard it is to get into medical school?" is - to put it briefly - "It's really hard!" Having research experience can help your application and chances of admission.
I remember my days as a pre-med college student. I desperately wanted to be a doctor, and I didn’t understand why research had to be involved. "I want to see patients, not work with lab mice!"
Well, part of the reason medical education in the U.S. and in Canada is so strong is precisely because they train physicians to be not only clinicians, but researchers as well. They hope that tomorrow’s physicians not only prescribe treatments, but also help find better ones. After all, medicine is an ever-changing field, and a good medical doctor is also a scientist and a researcher. In fact, by the time medical students graduate, some of what they have learned during their training may already be outdated. Therefore, as a future medical doctor, you must learn how to keep up with new information so that you can provide the most scientifically sound diagnoses and treatments for your patients. Engaging in research at this stage demonstrates one of AAMC’s core competencies for entering medical students, defined as “scientific inquiry”. You are essentially telling the admissions committees that you know how to search for and decipher scientific literature, as well as conduct scientific experiments to improve patient care. In AAMC’s words, a good doctor with an excellent sense of scientific inquiry “applies knowledge of the scientific process to integrate and synthesize information, solve problems and formulate research questions and hypotheses; is facile in the language of the sciences and uses it to participate in the discourse of science and explain how scientific knowledge is discovered and validated.”
So let’s get to the meat of it: how can you secure a research position as an undergrad?
(1) The first step is to find out what you are interested in. You may not know exactly what you like, but what excites you? Think back to your classes. What made your heart beat faster? Was it learning about the brain? Consider a neuroscience lab. Understanding the immune system? Consider working with vaccine development.
(2) Remember, research doesn’t need to be medical—any research is okay, as long as you demonstrate intellectual curiosity and ability to apply the scientific method. If you love psychology, sociology, or even astronomy, feel free to explore a project in those areas. I used to think the only kind of research was lab research, and I was wrong. You can partake in clinical research with patients, field research with insects, among myriad other possibilities.
(3) Figure out where you want to do research. Do you want to take on a project in your undergrad campus during the semester? Or do you want to go back home for the summer and work at the local university? Or even, are you interested in going abroad and doing research in Europe or Central America?
(4) Once you’ve decided on a field of research, look online at the list of professors conducting this research in your institution of choice. Write their names/emails down. Narrow it down to 15-20.
(5) Contact them! Write them a short, polite, and reasonably formal email indicating your interest in their research. Ask if you could possibly chat with them in person (or even on the phone) to hear a bit more because you have some questions about their research. Expect several not to respond, others to respond with little interest, and a few to write back with interest. Just like anything else the 80/20 rule of life applies here so don’t get discouraged if 80% don’t show interest.
(6) Before actually speaking to those who respond, read about their work. Skim their published articles by looking them up on PubMed. Come up with some genuine questions about their research.
(7) Once you speak to them, and if you feel the researcher and you have bonded in some way, let them know that you are really interested to learn more by working with them. Ask if they are interested in you working/volunteering in their research project (or lab). If they enjoy mentoring, they may even give you your own small project within their bigger project.
(8) Always feel free to follow up those who don’t respond with an email 5-7 days later. If they still don’t respond, then it’s time to move on. After all, you want to work with people who value you.
(9) If you are successful in involving yourself in research, try to set a goal: even simple results (or even methods and anticipated results!) can be presented in a poster at your university’s symposium. Remember that any presentation or publication shows that your time doing research was productive and worthwhile.
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