Pre med research opportunities help you develop essential skills and attitudes for becoming a doctor, whether you are applying to MD or DO, and especially if you are looking to pursue an MD-PhD program. Having research experience is important for one particular reason: every competitive medical school candidate has it. But how to find the right research activity? And how do you know if it’s a quality experience?

In this article, we will help you determine what research experience will bolster your medical school acceptance chances, and provide you with tips that will help you find the perfect pre med research opportunity for you!


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What Kind of Research Projects Should You Participate In?

Before we jump into the list of pre med research opportunities tips you can utilize to find the right program for you, it’s important to learn what medical schools are looking for when they review research experiences in your application, whether it’s the AMCAS Work and Activities section or Experiences section of the AACOMAS application process. So, what should you look for in a pre med research opportunity?

Would you like more tips for finding the best research experience? Check out the video below:

Quality vs Quantity

This is the golden rule for all your application components. It's not the number of words in your medical school personal statement that will impress the admissions committees, but the quality of thought and articulation. It’s not the quantity of medical school recommendation letters that will help your candidacy, but the quality of those references. And it's not the number of your research activities that will help you develop important research skills, but the quality of your experience.

When looking for opportunities to pursue, do not focus on the number of experiences you should have. Focus on the quality of the program, its objectives, and the kind of skills you will be able to develop during the project. Are you going to be able to hone your research, communication, and teamwork skills? Or maybe you will be able to test your attention to detail? All these skills are essential for a medical school student. Having only 1 good research experience which helped you hone these skills will be much more valuable than 20 projects where you do not get the opportunity for self-improvement. This leads me to my next point…

Time Commitment

Medical school admissions committees like to see dedication, responsibility, and commitment in their applicants’ applications. Your time commitment to a research project can demonstrate these qualities. If you jump from one pre med research project to the next without having much effect on the project itself, this myriad of experiences will not impress the committee members. This does not mean that you have to be the lead investigator in a project, but it does mean that you should dedicate a prolonged period of time to one project. This shows to the committee that you were really a part of this research project, that you were a part of the team, and that you dedicated your time and effort to working on this research.

If the committee sees that you simply spend a few days or a week at each of your 20 projects, this will demonstrate that you were not really involved in them in any serious way and that you could not have possibly been a big part of the research process.

So how many hours of research do you need to impress the committee members? While the quality of your experience matters more, aim to have around 400-500 hours in total. This means that if you participate in a research project for a couple of academic semesters on a part-time basis or dedicate a full summer to a research project, you will hit this number without any problems.

Interested in seeing an overview of ways you can find premed research opportunities? Take a look at this infographic:

Research Skills

Getting involved in research that is directly related to your field of interest is a great feat, not only because this will impress the medical school committee but because you will certainly enjoy the experience! However, keep in mind that quality research experience in any field will be seen as a great advantage. Whether you choose to get involved in clinical research or social science research, you must aim to develop certain skills. Research skills are easily transferable, and the field of your research project is not as important as the skill set it hones, such as gathering and analyzing data, verbal and written communication skills, analytical and critical thinking skills, and so on.

Results

Your research experience does not have to result in discovering the cure for cancer. For you as a student, a pre med research opportunity can result in a publication or conference participation, or a great reference letter for medical school from your principal investigator.

Essentially what I mean by “results” is that a quality research experience should result in more than a mention on your medical school resume or CV. A research experience should leave you with new knowledge, new skills, new connections, and new opportunities! If you loved the research project you participated in, it might inspire you to pursue more research! If you develop good relationships with your teammates, you are more likely to have future network connections that can help you through medical school and residency. If you learned new skills and discovered new talents, they can become a part of your life as a medical school student. Basically, a research project should result in more than a check mark on your med school application.

How to Find Pre Med Research Opportunities

So now that you know what constitutes a good research experience, let’s go over some of the ways you can find top-quality pre med research opportunities. It’s important to note that all the options we list below are available to traditional and non-traditional medical school applicants. If you have been out of school for a few years, you can still reach out to local hospitals and physicians or look for research positions in colleges near you. However, if you are a non-traditional applicant worried about your lack of research experience, we also list some options that may be more fitting for you at the end of our list.

Reach Out to Professors, TAs, and Instructors at Your School

Approaching your instructors in a science class is the first and easiest step to take if you are looking for research opportunities, especially if you do not have any research experience at all. Your professors and teaching assistants might be personally involved in research projects or know colleagues who are participating in research at the moment. You can ask if any positions on the research team are available and if so, who you can send your research assistant cover letter and resume to. These projects are often looking for assistants, scribes, and other team members who can help in the research process.

If you're working on a research assistant cover letter and are looking for tips to make it stand out, check out this infographic:

Keep in mind that your chances to participate in this opportunity and any of the opportunities we list below depend on your academic standing, your skills, your references, and more. This means that if you are performing poorly in this instructor’s class, you have little to no chance of getting invited to participate in the research project. You must work hard, get good grades, and develop a relationship with the instructor before you can approach them for this opportunity. If you are a good and dedicated student looking for research opportunities and they are not participating in a research project personally, they can recommend you to their colleagues, which will help your chances of getting the position.

So, start by reaching out to the instructors you know and who have seen your work ethic, intelligence, and responsibility. In addition to speaking with your instructors, pay attention to any job postings or volunteer postings on your school’s website and job boards. While research opportunities are rarely posted externally, it does happen. Then you can direct your resume and cover letter directly to the email address indicated in the posting.

Check Out Other Colleges

If you find that no research opportunities are currently available in your own school, check out colleges and universities near you to see if their science departments are looking for research assistants. Some departments openly post volunteer research positions on their website, so do make sure to check them out.

If you do not find any postings on local schools' websites, don't panic. As I already mentioned, many schools do not advertise their positions externally, but it does not mean they do not exist. You can personally reach out to instructors in the departments that interest you the most and introduce yourself. Explain that you are a student at another school who is looking for research opportunities. Mention that you are willing to do any task that is required of you and that you are looking to develop quality research skills. Do not mention money. Starting as a volunteer is the perfect opportunity for someone who does not have any research experience. Focus on self-improvement and development at first, and then demonstrate to your research team that you are a dedicated, responsible adult who they can trust and work with. You might move up the ranks if such an opportunity is available.

Utilize Your Connections at Pre Med Clubs

If you are involved in a pre med club or society at your school, ask your pre med peers about their research experiences. Older students might know which professors at your school always need research assistants, so even if these professors are not your direct instructors, you will know who to reach out to. Older students may also advise where to look for opportunities at your school and beyond. Perhaps they shadowed a physician who is always involved in research and can always use an assistant. Or they gained some clinical hours for medical school in a hospital that is currently involved in a research project. Do not be shy to ask for help from your older peers. They have been in your situation and know how frustrating this search can be. They also know if an experience will be of value to you, point you in the right direction, and give tips based on their own experiences.

Reach Out to Hospitals and Physicians

Your own extracurriculars for medical school can lead you to research opportunities! After spending much of your time and effort gaining quality shadowing hours and volunteer hours to learn new skills and build new relationships, these extracurricular activities can also be used to find research experiences. Reach out to the doctors you shadowed, especially if you managed to develop a friendly rapport, and these physicians would remember your work ethic and intelligence. Even if they are not participating in research personally, they may give you the names of their colleagues who are looking for assistants or know of research projects happening in their institution.

Additionally, check out the websites of local hospitals, medical facilities, and research facilities. They may advertise research jobs. You can even reach out to your family physician to ask if they know of any research projects happening in your town/city at the moment.

Find Summer Programs

Summer research programs are ideal for most pre med students. You can dedicate an entire summer to a research experience without being pulled in too many directions. While you may take a class during the summer, students tend to have a much lighter academic workload and can dedicate most of their attention to extracurriculars like research. Summer research programs are specifically designed to involve students in research. They help you build quality skills and connect you with professionals in your field. A huge advantage of these programs is that you can focus on research only. After successfully completing a program like this, you may not need to gain any more research experience to bolster your application.

Finding and applying for summer research programs will take some time. Firstly, take a look at the AAMC directory that outlines the available summer programs in the United States. To find research opportunities in Canada, search for available options online. Look into famous programs like SROP at UofT and Undergrad Research Opportunity Program at the University of Ottawa, and remember that there are many more!

These kinds of research programs are offered by many colleges and universities across the United States and Canada, so make sure to weigh all the pros and cons of programs you find appealing and start preparing your applications, as these can be quite labor-intensive. You may be required to gather a multitude of documents such as transcripts and reference letters, prepare components like essays, and fill out lengthy application forms. Some programs come with scholarships and stipends, which will alleviate the need to keep a part-time job during the summer.

The potential downside of summer research opportunities is that many of them have a variety of fees. As some of these programs are designed specifically for students who have no or limited experience in research, they ask students for application and program fees instead of paying them for their research participation. Considering how much medical school costs, and other related costs like MCAT cost, application costs, and interview costs, you might want to sit down and plan your budget before you send in applications to summer research programs.

For more info on premed research, check out this video on undergrad research, why it is valuable, how to find good opportunities, and how to stand out in applications:

Look for International Opportunities

If you are adventurous, you can look for pre med research opportunities abroad. These can be great for exposing yourself to new cultures and learning a new language. However, if you want to be strategic, you must keep a couple of things in mind. If you complete a research project outside of North America, this might look great on your resume and med school application, but you might not miss out on a quality recommendation from your supervisor. This can happen if your research supervisor does not know the English language, for example. Furthermore, the admissions committee may wonder whether you pursued this opportunity because you were truly intrigued by the research project, or as an excuse to travel. Unless your application shows that taking up this opportunity was a genuine desire to participate in this kind of research experience, it may come off as a distraction rather than a serious endeavor. So, keep this in mind when you plan your research project abroad.

Also remember that these opportunities can be pricy, as you will need to pay for the application fees, travel, accommodation, and living expenses while living abroad.

Gap Year

If you are coming to the end of your undergraduate degree with a fear that lack of research is a huge gap in your background, then you might want to take a gap year to build your research skills. Gap year before medical school is a popular option for those who need a little more time to prepare themselves for medical school. For example, participating in research opportunities may help those who are wondering how to get into medical school without a science background. A gap year may also provide you the opportunity to pay off some of your undergrad debt. There are many premed gap year jobs that can help you with both: bolster your research experience and help you pay off outstanding bills. 

SMPs & Post-Baccs

Special master’s programs (SMPs) and post-baccalaureate programs are also a great option for students who need more time and opportunity to enhance their application.

SMPs can be the ideal choice for students who want to conduct research in an academic setting. Just like with other master’s degrees, you are given an opportunity to develop your own research project under the supervision of a primary investigator. SMPs give you enough time and resources to develop skills necessary for scientific research, such as building a hypothesis, gathering necessary information, literature review, testing of hypothesis, and more. Keep in mind that these programs are not cheap and require your full attention as any other academic endeavor.

Post bacc programs are designed with the purpose of helping students close gaps in their applications. Some offer more MCAT prep, some give you the chance to take necessary medical school prerequisites, while others may help you find quality research opportunities. You can find the programs that fit your needs via this AAMC directory. Make sure to check the programs’ websites if research opportunities are available via the post bacc or related facilities.

Conclusion

When choosing pre med research opportunities to apply to, try to find programs that you will truly like and be good at. If you are a science major who wants to work on a bioresearch project, don't hesitate to stay in your niche as long as you actually enjoy the work. If you are a humanities student and have a chance to work with a favorite philosophy professor on a research project, do not reject it because you think only scientific research is valuable to medical schools. This is simply untrue. Research in social sciences and humanities is also just as valuable, as it develops those critical research skills we talked about at the beginning of this article.

On the other hand, remember that you are free to branch out and experience new ways of learning. If not now, when? So, if you are a humanities major who wants to try a lab-based project, feel free to apply for these positions! If you are a physics major looking to see what research is like for social science majors, reach out to the appropriate departments to find these opportunities. Enjoy your experience and be open to new learning approaches!

FAQs

1. Do I need research experience to get into medical school?

While many MD and DO schools do not have strict research requirements, you should strive to participate in quality research experiences to be a competitive candidate. The skills you acquire via research are essential for medical school and the practice of medicine in general.

2. Why is research experience valuable to medical school admission committees?

Research helps students improve critical thinking skills, analytical skills, communication skills, and other important abilities. It demonstrates your curiosity, dedication, and sense of responsibility.

3. Is research experience more important than clinical hours or shadowing?

It’s not more important. All three types of experience are important in their own way. Clinical and shadowing activities help you experience the day-to-day responsibilities of a physician, test drive a career in medicine, and experience what patient interactions are like. Research activities build different skill sets. All of these experiences are highly valuable for pre med students.

4. Should my research for medical school be in science disciplines?

Not necessarily. If you would like to experience scientific research and would love to try working in a lab, you should definitely participate in lab-based research. However, you can also participate in social science or humanities research projects. These will also be valuable for you working in medicine.

5. How much research experience do I need to get into medical school?

There is no set requirement. Most importantly, your research activity should be of high quality. It should demonstrate skill-building and quality time commitment. Anywhere around 500 hours should be more than enough to convince the admissions committees that you are a responsible, mature student. You can choose to spread out these hours on a couple of projects throughout your undergrad degree or spend one summer doing one research project.

6. How can I find pre med research opportunities?

Start by searching for opportunities in your own school. You can also reach out to other local colleges and universities, medical facilities, and your pre med peers. You can also search for summer research opportunities and international programs. For a more detailed list, please review this blog in full.

7. Should I take a gap year to get research experience?

You can choose to take a gap year if you want to give yourself enough time to participate in a quality research experience. During your gap year, you can focus on bolstering your application with extracurriculars like research and clinical hours and prepare your medical school application.

8. I already graduated from college. Are there ways I can get research experience outside of college?

You can use many of the same methods we outline in our blog to find a research opportunity. If you have been out of school for a long time, you might consider enrolling in an SMP or a post-baccalaureate program to gain all the necessary pre med experiences.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting 


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