Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
So far, the vast majority of the undergrads I’ve trained during my research career have been premed students. With the numerous personal and professional advantages an in-depth research experience can provide, and how a successful research experience can support a medical school application, that is unlikely to change.
Most students prove to be an asset to my research team. They are motivated, dedicated, step up to extra responsibility without hesitation, and are helpful to their labmates. These are the undergrads who arrive at lab ready to work, ready to contribute, and ready to learn everything anyone is willing to teach them. These undergrads find the self-discipline to push through disappointment at the research bench, and like to be challenged—whether through learning a new technique, designing an experimental strategy, or interpreting data. They serve as ambassadors for their research and university at scientific meetings, present their projects at symposia, and occasionally, if all the stars align, earn coauthorship on a publication.
That being said, on occasion a student hasn’t worked out so well. Perhaps it was because the student was overcommitted and didn’t have time to pursue a research project, because the science didn’t interest them, or because the effort required to gain fundamental research skills was more than they were willing to give. But in my lab whether or not an undergrad and the research project are a good fit hasn’t been related to a particular career path or major. As my research program is cross-disciplinary, undergrad researchers in my lab have majored in biology, microbiology, psychology, physics and more. And although the vast majority have been premed, several have been pregrad, preprofessional or headed to the job market directly after graduation. Therefore, when selecting undergrad researchers for my lab, I don’t use career path as selection criteria. Instead, I try to determine whether a student will connect with the science, and are interested in working hard to achieve research benchmarks.
But some labs have a different screening approach. You’ve no doubt heard some labs prefer pregrad students or flat out don’t accept premed students for research projects. Sometimes the reason is that a lab feels that their resources, expertise, and mentoring is best used to train those who plan to pursue a career in research. For other labs, the hesitation might be due to unfavorable experiences with a few premed students. Still, some lab personnel might have been advised by a colleague against training a premed student to avoid a student with the “premed reputation” which to them could mean that a premed student might:
1. Have only one research goal in mind: To list a research experience on their resume
2. Be only interested in clinical or translational research, or believe that the only valuable research is done on human cell culture or certain animal systems
3. Be highly opinionated or socially awkward and might cause friction among labmates
4. Be grade obsessed and will bail from their research commitment if an A hangs in the balance
5. Plan to stay just long enough to get a letter of recommendation but not long enough to produce results or data to help offset the time their mentor spent training
So that begs the obvious question: should you claim to be pregrad, or on the MD-PhD track to increase your chances of securing a research position? After all, labs that don’t train premed students rarely state it on their website or in an advertisement for an undergraduate researcher. The answer is simple: No. It’s not worth it, or even necessary to misrepresent your career path to find a research experience, and doing so could possibly cost you a research position.
First, understand that it’s easy for an experienced research mentor to spot a premed student simply by glancing at a resume and transcript. For example, if in high school you volunteered at a hospital, and participated in charity events to raise money for human disease, then in college joined AMSA-premed, shadowed in a clinic, and took a premed health professions class you are obviously premed.
However, if you balanced those activities with participating in high school science fairs and community education outreach, then in college continued with science outreach and classes to prepare for graduate school, it’s plausible that you could be premed, pregrad or undecided. Likewise, if you state that you aren’t sure if you want to pursue an MD or MD-PhD without supporting evidence that shows you are genuinely considering both career paths, it will be obvious. And keep in mind that simply applying for research positions or taking the required lab classes for your major is unconvincing in the absence of additional activities.
Second, misrepresenting your career path can make your search more difficult because it could raise a “character issue.” After all, if a student is willing to misrepresent their career path to get a research position, will they handle research results with integrity? Will they be forthcoming when they make a mistake in the lab, or if they break something or will they try to hide the evidence? Chances are, when you apply to a research position the competition will be tough, so you don’t want to raise any “red flags” at the application step—and misrepresenting your career path definitely counts. Plus, the professor who reviews your application will be less likely to forward it to a colleague who does mentor premeds, if it looks like you’re trying to hide your premed status.
Third, misrepresenting you career path might land you in the wrong research position. In a lab, both your happiness and success are highly dependent on achieving your goals. I don’t mean your research goals—although those are important. I mean the personal and professional development you want to achieve through an undergrad research experience. Those goals are central to the experience you join, and all are connected to the lab’s culture, training opportunities, and the investment your research mentor makes in you. As a premed student, you want your research mentor on your side—advising you throughout your experience on opportunities that will ultimately strengthen your applications. If you pretend to be on a career path you aren’t, the guidance you get from you mentor won’t be customized to help you. Essentially, if your mentor doesn’t know your true professional path and goals, she can’t help you reach them.
When you search for a research lab, if you’re premed, avoid trying to convince a lab that doesn’t train premeds to take a chance on you. You will always be better off investing a little more time in your search to find the perfect research position in the right lab that welcomes premed students. And remember, there are plenty of labs that want premeds or don’t care what an undergrad’s career path or major is. Your job is to find the one that is perfect for you.
David Oppenheimer, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Florida and co-founder of Undergrad In The Lab. He has been working in the field of molecular biology for more than 25 years. His first research experience was as an undergraduate working on bacteriophage T4. As an undergraduate, he joined a research lab that emphasized the scientific method, critical thinking, and a genuine interest in learning. All researchers at all levels (undergraduate, graduate, and professional) were considered part of the team, and their contributions to the laboratory were valued. As a professor he tries to replicate that environment in his laboratory. His current research interests are focused on the proteins that control cytoskeleton dynamics, and how this influences plant cell shape. He also co-authored Getting In: The Insider’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience, which was published this fall.