Extracurricular Research Guide—How to Crush Research as a Premed

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Admissions committees only want to accept students who are certain they want to pursue a career in medicine. The main way they can reasonably deduce that you are serious is by looking at the activities you list in the Work and Activities section of your application. Have you immersed yourself in the medical industry? Do you have adequate extracurricular research experience, clinical exposure, and volunteer/community involvement?

Research is a critical component of your medical school application. Nearly every accepted student will perform some sort of research during undergrad, so it’s vital that you have research experience as well. Working as a research assistant, also known as a student researcher, is the way to collect this valuable experience.

Our guide to extracurricular research will discuss what being a research assistant entails, how to find a position, its benefits and drawbacks, as well as how you can make the most of extracurricular research.

 

The Purpose of Extracurriculars—What Schools Look For

The Work and Activities section of your medical school application (extracurriculars) is the first place admissions committees look, along with your personal statement. Although it’s the fifth section of your application, your extracurriculars give admissions committees a sense of your personality, motivation, interests, and whether or not you fit the mold of the medical student they’re looking for.

You can choose as many as 15 premed experiences to include in the AMCAS Work and Activities section. These will range from extracurricular activities to volunteering experiences to employment to honors and more. You will discuss the impact that each of these activities has had on you as well as your decision to become a doctor.

Doctors wear a lot of hats, and admissions committees are looking for applicants who are certain they want to become doctors. A diverse range of activities shows not only that your interests and experiences are well-rounded, but you actually know what you’re getting into.

Primarily, medical schools are looking for activities in a few core areas—research experience, clinical exposure, and community involvement.

While variety is certainly something admissions committees look for, you do not need to dedicate the same amount of time to each of these areas. Choosing activities you are authentically enthusiastic about will help you speak and write about them with passion, which will especially help come interview time. If you aren’t interested in discussing an extracurricular, your interviewer won’t be particularly interested in listening to you either.

Plus, the more passion you have for an activity, the more likely you are to take on a leadership role within it. Admissions committees are always on the lookout for strong leaders, as the ability to lead effectively is a sought-after quality in physicians.

Choose a range of experiences you are authentically passionate about to provide admissions committees with a clear image of who you are, what you stand for, what you’re capable of, and how you will contribute to their student body.

For more information, read our AMCAS Work and Activities Section Guide. For osteopathic applicants, read our AACOMAS Experiences and Achievements Guide, and for Texas medical school applicants, we have a TMDSAS Activities Section Guide.

 

What Is a Research Assistant?

There are two main types of research. Knowing the difference, and your preference, will help you find the position that’s right for you.

Basic/Bench Research

Basic research, also referred to as bench research, is research performed in a laboratory to evaluate scientific questions from a cellular, molecular, and physiological level. Usually, this will consist of performing experiments on cells, tissues, and animals. Since it can take weeks or even months to learn the techniques and often longer to achieve consequential results, it’s considered a time-consuming and labor-intensive form of research.

Although this can make it difficult to earn a publication, it does give you valuable insight into how research works at its foundational level and is an impressive resume builder. And it should also be noted that admissions committees typically consider your basic research experience as proof enough of your dedication to developing your research and medical skills even without a publication. Plus, bench research will give you a lot to talk about on your application and during interviews.

Clinical Research

Clinical research is when you work with patients or patient data to answer a clinical question relevant to the current practice of medicine. This research is more flexible and can often be completed with a computer, such as when performing a chart review. This means it may be easier to publish something quickly. However, keep in mind that if you’re not interacting with patients, most of your time will be spent searching through charts. Plus, admissions committees may not consider clinical research experience to be as equally substantial as basic research experience.

The more time you spend in either basic or clinical research, the better. An avid and proven passion for research let’s admissions committees know you’re intellectually inquisitive and committed to advancing science and medical knowledge. This is certainly a quality admissions committees want to see in applicants, as doctors are lifelong learners. If you’re looking for something to really bolster your application, aim to secure abstracts, presentations, and publications.

 

How to Find a Research Position

To find a research position, you have to have an interest in the topics the lab is exploring while also having the basic experience necessary to gain a position.

Searching for a mentor is usually the most difficult part of the process and can take a lot of time and effort. Most universities have a list of research labs you can find online. Choose a Principal Investigator (PI) you want to work with. Essentially, a PI is the leader of the lab and your future boss.

Use your university’s resources to find a list of PIs and then email those people directly. If you already know the kind of research you want to do or have a specialty of interest (neurology, cardiology, etc.,) look for labs that perform that kind of research.

It’s very possible your school has a program in place in which you can earn a class credit while completing research. If so, your college may have a detailed approach to contacting PIs who are part of that program. This is a great option, as you know the PI will have plenty of experience working with premeds in their lab.

Another way to find a research position is to reach out to your personal contacts. Do you have a friend who enjoyed or is currently enjoying their experience in a certain lab? Ask their advice and check if you can apply to the same lab. If you’ve been particularly impressed by a professor, check to see if they have a research lab and reach out to them. To help your chances, utilize their office hours and impress them with your dedication and enthusiasm before asking to join them on their research project.

Look for someone who is supportive of premed students. A good indication of this is if they are approachable and respond to emails quickly or they have worked with premed students before and helped them secure publications. Once you contact them, evaluate whether or not your goals align and if you will work well together. Be sure to ask peers and upper classmates what they’ve heard about the PI and if they’ve worked with them before. It is imperative that the lab is supportive of premeds.

Know that it may take emailing several PIs before finding a position. Do some research about the lab so that you can express enthusiasm about what the lab is doing. Highlighting your genuine interest in one or two of their projects won’t go unnoticed. Remember that you will essentially be joining the workforce, so keep your emails formal and professional.

Be persistent. Once you do make contact, ask plenty of questions about the role so that you know whether or not it’s something you’re really interested in and can commit to fully.

Learn more: How to Find an Undergraduate Research Position.

 

The Benefits of Research Experience

Gain Valuable Experience

Working as a research assistant teaches you how to navigate the research space, set your own agenda, communicate with mentors, and be a helpful member of the team. These are skills that will help you immeasurably throughout your medical education and future career, particularly during your clinical clerkships.

Research skills are also extremely translatable if you stay in the same research space. If you love what you did in undergrad, you can hit the ground running when you get to medical school and get good publications. But even if you change the kind of research you’re doing, you can still apply the same knowledge and skills. You’ll know that research in general is a slow, uncertain process that requires the right people to have the best experience.

Increases Your Chances of Getting into Medical School

Undergraduate research is a major component of medical school applications, and one of the first things admissions committees look for. Research is the foundation of advances in therapies and healthcare. Getting actively involved in research shows admissions committees that you’re intellectually curious and interested in learning as much as possible. The vast majority of doctors consider themselves to be lifelong learners, as medicine is constantly evolving, so demonstrating an interest in research is definitely beneficial to your chances of acceptance.

Keep in mind that the most important thing is demonstrating that you know how to examine and analyze data, ask pertinent questions, and reach logical conclusions. Therefore, you could choose a non-hard-science field. For example, if you love anthropology, find a way to get involved with the research in that department.

Ample research experience shows admissions committees you love to learn, and that’s what they want to see.

A Chance to Gain Publications

Earning a publication is not necessary, and it’s not always possible, but it can be a huge benefit to your application. A publication is a quantifiable metric of your success as an undergraduate.

If publishing is a priority for you, look for a lab that publishes frequently. Find a PI with a proven track record of working with undergraduates and helping them get published. Not all PIs will prioritize undergraduate publications, so this could be difficult to find.

Communication is also critical. Clearly express your overall goals to your PI at the outset. Say that you want to make strong contributions to the lab and hope to take on more responsibility as you continue to prove yourself. Make it clear that, if possible, you would like to be published in some capacity. Keep your tone hopeful and humble. Based on their answer, form a plan moving forward. Don’t bring it up again until you have firmly secured their confidence and trust.

Learn more: How to Get Publications from Undergraduate Research.

In addition to publications, you may have the chance to present your work at events and national conferences. This is a great opportunity to practice your presentation skills while getting to feel like you’re somewhat of an expert on a very specific topic. These are great networking opportunities that can help you meet leaders in the industry.

 

The Drawbacks of Research

Experience Is Often Required to Gain a Position

The experience you need will depend on the position. For some labs, it will be almost like an entry position, where you will start with basic PCR technique and cell culture. The PhD students there will help you along because you aren’t expected to know your way around the lab yet, as you’re only an undergrad.

The basic experience most labs want is a few biology and chemistry labs that happen as prerequisites for medical school. If you have taken several prerequisites in biology, it’s likely that you already know your way around the lab, so you may be able to find a position.

It depends on the lab and the responsibilities of your position, but do not expect you will be able to get a research position without lab experience.

Competitive to Land a Position

The competitiveness (and availability) of research opportunities will completely depend on where you live, the institution you’re a part of, how many premeds are vying for the spots, and the reputation of the lab.

If you’re from a large school that has a notable research program, you’re going to be competing with several people for spots. If you get a spot, you might be part of a larger team with 10+ people competing for the attention of the Principal Investigator. Ideally, the PI will be your primary mentor, so having to compete for their attention could hinder your experience. Depending on the size of the team, you may end up working more so with someone who is working in the lab on their Post-Doc.

On the other hand, if you’re from a small school or a school that doesn’t have a strong medical program, you might find that there’s only a handful of labs available. You could have several students vying for very few spots.

Not All Researchers Are Good Mentors

A major part of extracurricular research is finding a good mentor—someone who will guide you on your premed journey and, eventually, write you a strong letter of recommendation.

But just because a researcher is prolific with producing and publishing papers doesn’t mean they’re a good mentor.

At the undergrad level, you need a good mentor more than you need papers. You are developing skills you’ll use in medical school and residency, and you’re vying for a strong, STRONG letter of recommendation. Having a strong letter from a Principal Investigator who was a good mentor to you is a huge asset, and admissions committees will definitely take notice.

Ask older students about their experiences in any labs you are considering to find out if the PI is supportive of premeds.

Repetitive Work

Research, especially basic science research, can be very repetitive. Expect lots of cell cultures, lots of PCRS, lots of iterative experiments, just lots of the same thing over and over again. Depending on your interests and personality type, this may sound great or terrible to you.

Either way, it does teach you great research methodology, and it helps you figure out if you like that kind of work. However, you may only develop a small skill set unless you’re with a great mentor who gets you involved. If they restrict you to one thing and one thing only, it’s going to be a dull, unrewarding, and deeply repetitive experience.

Nothing Is Guaranteed

Research is filled with uncertainty. You may get paid, or you may not. You may get a paper out of it, or you may not. Your experiments may not work out. The entire project might be scrapped. There’s a lot of politics and risk involved with research, depending on the lab you end up in or if labs are in competition with each other. There’s also no guarantee you’ll have many opportunities to work with the PI one-on-one, which could hinder your chances of securing a recommendation letter.

It’s a bit like a venture capital business. It’s possible you’ll get a great paper out of the experience and become an author, or you may only get lots of hours, experience, and, hopefully, a strong letter of recommendation.

Nothing is guaranteed in research.

 

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Research

1 | Choose What You Enjoy

It is vital to your success that you choose a research experience you will really enjoy, whether that’s basic research or clinical research. Most options will be basic science research, so know that your experience will likely be labor-intensive and time-consuming. That’s why it’s so important to choose something you’re genuinely interested in.

If you choose a research experience on a whim or just to get a publication, the quality of your output will suffer, and your lack of passion will be noticed not only by your PI, but also by your interviewer when it comes time to speak about it.

Choosing what you enjoy will help you invest fully in the experience, and it will help you form a strong relationship with your PI, who could go on to become a mentor, a letter of recommendation writer, or valued colleague to you down the line.

2 | Commit to the Process

Research is all about putting in the work. Attention to detail and strong work ethic are both vital in research—and these will both be tested, as the work is repetitive, tedious, and can take a long time to produce results.

But the more you commit to the process, the more you will be rewarded. Be proactive. Seek out opportunities to expand your role and take on more responsibility. This passion and dedication will not go unnoticed, and it could result in a strong letter of recommendation or even a publication.

Take some time to determine what type of research is the best fit for you and look for a lab that has the type of mentor you’d like to work with. After that, commit. It doesn’t look good to jump around from one lab to the next—It’s like continuing to switch teams. It will also be harder for you to build strong relationships if you don’t give them time to form.

Plus, the more you invest in the process and the more notes you take about it, the more you’ll be able to speak about your experiences on your application and during interviews.

Journal about all of your experiences—Not only does journaling aid self-reflection and self-awareness, it also helps you recall specific memories and details you can use in your personal statement or to describe your experiences in the Work and Activities section. Learn How Students Can Harness the Powerful Benefits of Journaling.

3 | Look for Strong Mentors

It’s important to look for PIs who are interested in acting as a mentor to premeds. As we said above, not all researchers are strong mentors, so it’s important to look for a lab with a PI who is inclusive, friendly, and wants to help guide your journey.

How quickly do they respond to emails? If you’ve met in person, how approachable do they seem? Have they worked with lots of premeds before, and have they helped those premeds secure publications? Speak to older students who have been a part of the lab. If it’s not a good environment for students, it won’t be a good environment for you.

You want a lab that encourages mentorships and understands it’s a stepping stone position. Do your research on how to make connections in research. Word travels fast, and relationships are important. In the end, securing any position matters, but try to find a supportive mentor to enhance your research experience and increase your chances of gaining a strong letter of recommendation or publication.

Once you’re a part of a lab, you’ll learn very quickly if the PI will be a strong mentor to you. One of the best ways to find out is when an experiment fails. Do they dwell on it, or do they move on and guide you to the next step?

4 | Cultivate the Mentor Relationship

Building relationships is almost more important than the experiments themselves. Your relationship with your PI/mentor is the main relationship you’re cultivating. The stronger your relationship, the more likely they’ll be able to write you a strong letter of recommendation.

Now, if it’s a 30 person lab, you may not have much direct interaction with the PI. In these cases, most of your one-on-one time may be spent with the Post-Doc, which isn’t a bad thing, but you still want to make a connection with the PI and ask if they can meet with you once a week, biweekly, or, at the very least, once a month.

There’s not a lot of solo work in clinical research, but in basic research, you will face more solo experiments as you build trust with your PI. You want to work in a team-based environment, but getting noticed by your mentor for your quality work and initiative is definitely a good thing. Do what you can to make yourself noticed, and be diligent about securing time with the PI.

5 | Take Initiative and Build Trust

You won’t have a lot of responsibility at first, but as you continue to build trust and take initiative, you will be given more responsibility.

The most important thing to remember about being a research assistant is to always be helpful. If a PhD student has an appointment but they need to run an experiment, offer to run it for them. Help the people who are mentoring you. Don’t say yes to everything, but say yes to what you can. Being useful is the ultimate way to build relationships and make connections. Take initiative; don’t just wait around to be told what to do. Be proactive, be a hard worker, be gritty, and be a team player.

Show that you’re needed there. If you prove to everyone in the lab you’re useful and a good addition, everything will work out with your relationships, and you’ll be well-regarded—not only by your PI, but by everyone you work with.

For more tips, read our 5 Tips for Summer Research Success.

 

How to Choose Your Extracurricular Activities

Choose extracurricular activities you’re genuinely enthusiastic about so that you can fully invest in them. Choosing activities you’re not energized by will make getting your hours a tediously boring and unrewarding experience. Your lack of enthusiasm will be noticed by your supervisors, making it all the more difficult to secure a strong letter of recommendation.

What are you hoping to learn or gain from the experience? For example, if you’re interested in honing your research skills, you will benefit from working in a lab as a research assistant.

Look into the extracurriculars you have available locally and through your school. Many colleges and universities have a list of labs who regularly work with premeds, so consult these first.

While choosing extracurriculars you actually like is a must, be wary of diminishing returns. If you already have 1000 hours in one activity, 100 more isn’t going to make much of a difference. It’s better to have a variety of different experiences than it is to invest all of your time into just one activity.

You don’t need to invest 1000 hours to show you’re dedicated to your extracurricular. Showing long-term commitment is more important than the number of hours you’ve spent in it, so aim for a sustainable number of hours. If you’re a full-time student, it’s possible you’ll be able to choose two part-time opportunities, but any more will spread you too thin.

Admissions committees and residency programs want to see well-rounded students with a wide variety of different experiences. What current weaknesses do you have? Which areas do you need to collect more experience in? Where have you already dedicated enough of your time and energy?

Prioritize your research, clinical, and volunteering opportunities. This range of experience will augment your application and demonstrate you’re an applicant with a wide variety of interests and skills.

 

Become a Well-Rounded Applicant

It’s very common for applicants to think the Work and Activities section isn’t as important as the other sections of their medical school application. However, this could not be further from the truth. The experiences section is the first place admissions committees look. They use it to gauge who you are, what motivates you, and whether or not you will make meaningful contributions to their student body.

As traditional hard metrics become less heavily weighted, other soft components, particularly research, are now front and center in determining a candidate’s competitiveness. If you find yourself wondering where to begin or not making much headway on your current research projects, our research course is for you.

We’ve distilled how to become a research superstar into a stepwise and repeatable process. These are the tactics and lessons we’ve learned from earning more than 60 research items each. The team behind the research course has more than 60+ publications, abstracts, and presentations, which has consistently wowed admissions committees. Learn more about The Ultimate Premed & Medical Student Research Course.

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