As an undergrad, one of the reasons you devoted so much time to a research experience was to earn an epic letter of recommendation–one that speaks to your strengths, resilience, character, self-reliance, cultural competencies, ability to solve problems, and contribute to a group effort. This letter will be a comprehensive endorsement of your medical school application complete with specific examples that influenced your PI’s opinion. This one letter has the potential to outweigh all other letters from a professor whose class you attended, or from someone who oversaw a volunteer program you participated in for a semester.
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.
Author’s Note: It is widely believed (and for good reason) that undergraduate research positions are highly competitive. This belief leads to the misconception that obtaining any research position is the goal.My experience with undergraduate research position applicants has taught me that having a genuine interest in the position is one of the most important tips that I can give potential undergraduate researchers. This importance is echoed by numerous colleagues I’ve spoken with on the subject over the years, and those interviewed while writing Getting In.
The misconception that any research position will do can also have lasting negative effects on the success the student has once they are in the position. Over the years I have found that students instinctively know whether they are interested in a potential position before they apply for it. Those students who take any position just to be done with the search end up in disappointing experiences, which can affect how enthusiastic their letter of recommendation is at the end.
This article provides undergraduates with a new way of approaching their search for a research position by explaining why the choices they make at the application stage are so important for getting an interview and for their success in the lab afterwards. It’s relevant because it focuses on a topic that is almost never mentioned in the mainstream advice on how to find a research position.
When selecting your classes each semester you apply a methodical approach. You no doubt consider several factors such as: What will satisfy major requirements? What will help you prepare for the MCAT and add weight to your transcript? And, of course, what sounds the most interesting? Essentially, you don’t play “registration roulette” and find yourself in advanced string theory when you really need a cell biology course.
Yet, when it comes to an undergrad research interview, most students don’t know that they need a solid strategy for asking questions that will allow them to evaluate the position. Instead, many approach interviews with a single goal in mind: get an offer to join the lab. Although this is a good goal keep in mind, it should not be your sole objective in a research interview.