Summer vacation represents a valuable opportunity to devote yourself full-time to extracurricular activities. Performing research over the summer is arguably one of the most high-yield and useful activities you can do to boost their chances of getting into medical school or residency. This paradigm is common knowledge, and many pre-medical and medical students spend one or more summers doing research. The real question is how do you make maximize the few short months you have to do research over the summer? In this post, I offer five tips for achieving a successful summer research experience. While this post is mostly directed to pre-med students in college pursuing summer research, most of the tips l give are also applicable to medical students.
1 | Always Be Enthusiastic
Enthusiasm is the bedrock of a successful summer research experience. Most students come into the lab with little experience in research overall or in the particular brand of research that is the lab’s specialty. A great way to make up for your relative lack of utility to the lab is to be enthusiastic about every new experience you encounter.
If you are doing research because you see it as a “requirement” for moving onto the next phase of your education, that is completely fine. Not every aspiring physician needs to enjoy doing research. However, you must still try your best to be as enthusiastic about your project(s) as possible. Many principal investigators (PIs), post-doctoral researchers, and graduate students realize that pre-med and medical students are doing research simply as a means to an end and not necessarily because they relish the scientific process. It can be a real turnoff for researchers who are genuinely interested in science to mentor a student who is just working in their lab so they can put it on their resume.
If, on the other hand, you are really excited by the research you are doing, then make it blatantly obvious. Your mentors will warm to your enthusiasm and entrust you with more responsibilities. This will, in turn, lead to more and better publications, as well as stronger letters of recommendation.
2 | Familiarize Yourself with Relevant Literature
Take the initiative to read recent papers from your lab. Start by going on PubMed and reading the five most recent PubMed papers from the lab on your own (pro tip: these will be the publications where the PI is listed as the last author). You should also ask your mentors to recommend reviews and seminal papers in the lab’s field for you to read. If you ever find yourself sitting around in lab waiting for things to happen, spend this time reading papers. Avoid doing unprofessional activities (e.g., browsing Instagram on your phone) in your downtime, even if more senior people in the lab do it. Reading scientific articles is extremely important and is just as much research as sitting at the bench pipetting or writing scripts in R, and your intellectual curiosity and initiative will impress your mentors and convey your genuine interest in the science.
3 | Constantly Ask What You Can Do to Help
Take the initiative and constantly ask your mentors if there is anything more you can do to advance projects or help the lab run more smoothly. From washing glassware to refilling pipette tip boxes to entering data in Excel, no task should be beneath you. As you grow in experience and your mentor’s trust in your abilities blossoms, ask for more responsibilities and more projects. Before you leave lab every day, always make sure to ask your mentors if there is anything else you can do to help. Like being enthusiastic, being eager to help will make your mentors warm to you and trust you more. This, in turn, will lead to stronger letters of recommendation and perhaps even publications.
4 | Be Cautious and Ask Questions
Many pre-med and medical students are smart and motivated people who may be unused to finding themselves clueless. When thrust into a new lab working closely with experienced researchers at the graduate or post-doctoral level, some students might feel intimidated and not want to appear slow or annoy their mentors with “stupid” questions. Consequently, these overeager students might avoid asking questions and charge ahead with experiments, to the possible detriment of all. Avoid being one of these students.
The best students are those that are cautious and ask questions. Doing so will ensure that you perform experiments correctly and learn as much as you can during your summer of research. It is okay to say that you do not know something and to ask for an explanation. In fact, since many graduate students and post-docs who agree to take on a student for the summer are likely interested in teaching and mentoring, your mentors will likely appreciate your curiosity, candor, and maturity. These qualities are also vital to success as a medical student and resident, and will likely be commented on in letters of recommendations written by your mentors. So, always ask questions and proceed with caution!
5 | Look for Opportunities to Present Your Research
Look for opportunities to present your summer research at a conference or other meeting. This experience will give you an opportunity to learn how to compile your data into a presentable format (i.e., poster or PowerPoint), communicate your research in a public setting, and network with other students and professionals. Sometimes these conferences even have prizes for particularly outstanding research. You can add the presentation (and any prizes you might win) to your resume, which will boost your chances of getting accepted into the next phase of your training.
Summer research is a valuable way to spend your vacation and will boost your chances of being accepted into medical school or residency. Students who are proactive, curious, cautious, and eager to help and learn will likely have a successful summer research experience. The five tips outlined in this post will ensure that you maximize the learning opportunities, future letters of recommendation, and possible publications you can get out of the summer months.