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 your chances of getting into medical school or residency.
Many premed and medical students spend one or more summers doing research. The real question is how do you maximize the few short months you have to do research over the summer?
This post will cover five tips for achieving a successful summer research experience. While this post is mostly directed to premed students in college who are pursuing summer research, most of the tips are also applicable to medical students.
1 | Show Enthusiasm
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 the experiences 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 premed 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 that 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 clear. Your mentors will warm to your enthusiasm and entrust you with more responsibilities. This will 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. 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 the lab waiting for things to happen, spend this time reading papers. Avoid doing unprofessional activities like browsing Instagram on your phone in your downtime, even if more senior people in the lab do it.
Reading scientific articles is extremely important. Plus, your intellectual curiosity and initiative will impress your mentors and convey your genuine interest in science.
3 | 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 the lab every day, always make sure to ask your mentors if there is anything else you can do to help.
Being eager to help out will help your mentors to warm to you and put more trust in you. This will lead to stronger letters of recommendation and perhaps even publications.
4 | Be Cautious and Ask Questions
Many premed and medical students are smart and motivated people who may be unused to finding themselves clueless. When thrust into a new lab where they are working closely with experienced researchers at the graduate or post-doctoral level, some students might feel intimidated; they don’t 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 who 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 ask for an explanation. Since many of the graduate students and postdocs who agree to take on a student for the summer are likely interested in teaching and mentoring, your mentors will appreciate your curiosity, candor, and maturity.
These qualities are also vital to success as a medical student and resident, and might be commented on in letters of recommendation written by your mentors. So, always ask questions when you are unsure 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.
What to Remember
Summer research is a valuable way to spend your vacation and it 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.
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