Should You Get Involved in Research?
To best address the question of whether or not one should get involved in research, let’s first discuss the word “should” in the context of medical school admissions. The director of pre-professional advising at my undergraduate alma mater recently requested I take the stage and speak with him before a large, slightly-intimidating crowd of incoming students at this year’s Admitted Students Day. Each student indicated they had been considering a career in medicine and was accompanied by their family. He began the presentation by requesting all prospective students in the audience turn off their mobile phones and keep them off until they take up several leadership positions on campus, maintain a 4.0 GPA for the first two years of study, learn to speak Spanish, have at least three basic science publications, and rescue a village in an underdeveloped country! While I appreciated his sense of humor, his aside underscored the reality in which many students who hope to be successful in the medical school admissions process find themselves. To be “competitive” applicants, there are many things we feel we must do (e.g. leadership, shadowing, volunteerism), and research is often included as an activity we “should” do if we want any chance of receiving a highly-coveted acceptance offer.
Before Admitted Students Day, however, I stopped by to thank a research mentor in orthopedics and asked him what advice he would give if he were to be in my position. He gave the following as advice to premedical hopefuls:
“From an investigator’s perspective, it’s easy to determine which premedical students are truly enthusiastic about the conduct of research as opposed to those who want to do research as a means of padding their application to medical schools. There are many ways to stand out in the competitive process of medical school admissions, and while doing research certainly helps, it is only one of those ways.”
I agree with his position and would assert that his advice lends itself to a more general argument for pursuing only those activities which are personally meaningful and allow you to develop professionally. To quote Andrew Carnegie, “Put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket.” Time as a premedical student—whether taking classes or working, and somehow fitting in time for activities while preparing for the MCAT—is precious, just as it will be in medical school and thereafter. Therefore, the opportunity cost (i.e. the “what else” you could be doing with your time) associated with participating in an activity you are not passionate about is far from negligible. While the AMCAS application allows for entry of up to fifteen experiences in the work/activities section, it is far more important to devote your time to activities to which you can meaningfully contribute your efforts over a longer period than it would be to spread your efforts over many activities for shorter periods and achieve results that have less of an impact over time. It then follows that should you choose to get involved in research, you should aim to find research mentor whose interests align with your own and who has expectations that are realistic given your limited availability. This will not only make the research endeavor more enjoyable, but will allow you to consistently meet (and potentially exceed) your supervisor’s expectations. This, in turn, may allow your research supervisor to write you a strong, personal letter of recommendation, should you request one. To quote my director of pre-professional advising (who I’m sure is quoting another scholar), “Time is the currency of love.” Invest your time wisely; you won’t get it back. Now, let’s talk about research!
What Type of Research Should You Do?
Do I think you should get involved in research? Absolutely! I think part of the reason why medical school admissions committees would like to accept applicants who have allocated a great deal of time to research is because these applicants would have thereby demonstrated an interest in actively shaping the future of medicine. The process of research is enriching: it encourages critical thinking, empowers individuals to challenge previously-held assumptions, fosters faculty-student relationships, teaches troubleshooting, provides a safe space to learn from constructive criticism, and much more. Since your time is limited, however, I would strongly urge anyone considering research to find an investigator whose research truly inspires you—research that is internally motivating. Although your goal may be to apply to medical school, you do not need to limit your search to research which strictly relates to medicine. For example, if you’re interested in astrophysics, geology, or marine biology, I would encourage you to pursue your interests and discuss what you learned in your applications and interviews. As an additional bonus, your research activities—regardless of whether they result in an abstract, presentation, or publication—could give you a unique set of experiences that will help you tackle a commonly-asked question in medical school supplemental applications: How will you contribute diversity to our incoming class/medical school/campus community?
Finding a Research Position
At this point, you might be eager to participate in research but may not know how or where to start. I add “where” because often colleges and universities release research newsletters to increase awareness of research occurring on campus. Many institutions also advertise opportunities for undergraduates through different avenues, such as through the advisors associated with your major. While each is a good way to start your search, there are likely many projects that are not as well-advertised but may still be of interest to you. This is where networking becomes critical. I could very well be biased by my experiences at a large public university, but a protocol followed by many undergraduates is to email as many faculty as possible to request a position in their lab. These requests are often impersonal and/or informed only by a brief glossing-over of the faculty member’s recent publications. DO NOT DO THIS. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport discusses this protocol and how many professors simply opt not to reply to emails as their default response because “it is the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile. If you [do] not make a convincing case and sufficiently minimize the effort required by the professor to respond, you [would] not get a response.” It would prove too cumbersome to respond to every email which reaches a professor’s inbox, especially if they do not satisfy these conditions. Newport also provides an example of an email which meets these criteria:
“Hi Professor, I’m working on a project similar to topic X with my advisor, Professor Y. Is it okay if I stop by in the last fifteen minutes of your office hours on Thursday to explain what we’re up to in more detail to see if it might complement your current project?”
I like this example because it provides a clear reason for initiating communication and demonstrates respect for the professor’s limited availability. If a professor does not follow up on an email, I would try my best to respectfully approach either him or her—perhaps during office hours or after a lecture/seminar—or at least leave a note with their administrative assistant if they have one. A word of caution: While I would encourage persistence, please go about approaching faculty with the utmost respect and professionalism. If they reveal they do not currently have a position open or the resources to train you, do not get disheartened and do not take the rejection personally. If they are looking for someone with a different laboratory skill set (e.g. they’re looking for someone skilled in animal handling and performing aseptic surgery, and your skillset does not match this description), this could be an opportunity to learn in disguise and could very well lead to another opportunity in a different lab. Speaking of different labs, if a faculty member does not have room for you in their lab, I would recommend you ask if they know of any other faculty members in their department who may be looking for assistance. Do not get discouraged; when one door closes, another opens.
Beyond email, there are many ways to network in person to find out about ongoing research projects. For example, when I was shadowing, I met an anesthesiologist who was the vice chair of research in anesthesiology and introduced me to my first lab simply because I asked her about available opportunities. Professors often will find ways to introduce their research interests in their lecture materials. If their interests overlap with yours, do not be afraid to discuss potentially contributing to their research either after lecture or during their office hours. Additionally, if you are a member of a club with a special interest (Neuroscience Club, for example) or an honors program, perhaps your peers or faculty advisors could direct you to an opportunity if you let them know you’re interested. Lastly, if you discover an opportunity is not as fulfilling as you initially thought it would be, be persistent and remain motivated.
About the Author
Dennis is an incoming medical student at Yale School of Medicine and is currently participating in the Summer to Advance Research Training Program at Yale. As an undergraduate, he conducted research in orthopedics and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. During his gap years before medical school, he coordinated clinical studies in hematology and oncology. He also enjoys reading, running, and weightlifting.