How to Get Publications from Undergraduate Research

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It is no secret that undergraduate research is a key component of the medical school application. Very few students these days apply to medical school without some sort of research experience. Those who do are taking a significant risk, as they will be lacking a huge component of their resume which nearly all their peers will have. What is a more nebulous topic is research publications and their value. How much does it matter to get published? Will publications really strengthen your application? How does one achieve publications? Let’s take a look at some of these questions and demystify the topic.  

1 | How Much Do Research Publications Matter for Medical School Applications?

There is no exact answer to this question, but there are a few guiding principles. At the end of the day, research in itself, whether or not it yields a publication, is extremely important for medical school applications. All undergraduate students should complete some research to make themselves competitive applicants. Solid research experience is essential to discuss on your primary and secondary applications. This will in turn lead to questions during the interview process. It is almost inevitable that interviewers will ask you to discuss your research. If you can talk intelligently about your project and demonstrate that you had substantial and meaningful involvement, this will make you a strong and competitive applicant. The next key outcome of research experience is the potential for a letter of recommendation. It is not imperative to have a letter from your research PI (or principal investigator, the individual who is the head of the lab and your boss during your research time). With that said, research PI’s make great letter writers because they can discuss your skills and attributes outside of pure academics. These tend to make very strong letters; thus, one of the goals of research should be to obtain a good letter of recommendation. A publication is really the cherry on top of the sundae that is your overall research experience. Publication is not truly necessary. This is the most important thing to know first. Many students get into medical school without publications and it is not imperative that you achieve one. With that said, a publication does make you a stronger applicant. It is a tangible output of your prior achievement, a quantifiable metric of your success as an undergraduate. This certainly helps, and it is therefore a worthy cause to pursue a publication from your hard work in the lab.  

2 | Basic Science vs. Clinical Research

Now that you have some context, the first step is to decide what type of research you are targeting. The two broad categories are the following:

Basic science – research in performed in a laboratory to evaluate scientific questions from a cellular, molecular and physiological level. This usually consists of experiments collecting data from cellular or animal models.

Clinical Research – research conducted by collecting patient data to answer a clinical question pertinent to the current practice of medicine. This generally involves collecting data through patient interviews or chart review.

The reason this distinction is relevant to this discussion is that the two categories can differ in ease of publication. Basic science research is often more difficult to publish because cellular and animal experiments can be very time-consuming and labor-intensive, making these projects harder to complete. It does offer the benefit of substantial and often very powerful experience, which can be more engaging to discuss on applications and interviews. Clinical research can (though not always) be easier to publish because the data is generally easier to collect, especially if it comes from chart review. The downside is that chart review can often be less exciting and interesting than basic science work. Additionally, the experience may not be perceived by admissions committees as equally substantial to basic science. Most undergraduate students perform basic science research as these positions are more readily available, but it is worthwhile to understand the options when considering your path.  

3 | Find a Research Lab that Publishes Frequently

This is an important point to consider if publishing is a priority. Find a PI who is productive in terms of research publications. More importantly, find a PI who has a track record of working effectively with undergraduates and helping them get publications.  This is not always possible to find, as not all PI’s and research mentors will make undergrad publications a priority, but it is something to consider. It can be difficult to find information to evaluate this. Your strongest resource will be students currently in the lab or those who have worked there previously. Also consider consulting your major’s premedical advisors as they often have knowledge of this sort of thing. Finally, a basic PubMed search for prior publications may do the trick.  

4 | Communicate Effectively With Your Mentor

Communication is crucial from the beginning. When meeting with a PI or research mentor, clearly express your overall goals. I would recommend stating that you want to be a strong contributor to the lab in whatever way possible. You hope to take on significant responsibility and if appropriate based on your work, you hope for eventual publication in some capacity. If you phrase this in the correct way, as a hope and humble request rather than a demand, it should go over well. It is reasonable to ask the PI if they see this as possible. Hopefully they will provide you an honest reply and you can make a plan regarding this going forward. Do not make the publication a huge priority early on but revisit the topic later once you have gained your mentor’s trust and feel it is appropriate to open the discussion again.  

5 | Be Proactive in Your Research Work

It goes without saying that you must earn publication with your hard work and dedication. The first step is to do your job well with consistently strong work and attention to detail. Beyond this, see if you can take on more responsibility. Seek the opportunity to expand your role and do more. Mentors will take notice of this, and if you contribute more significantly you will be more likely to be rewarded with publications. Furthermore, this will increase your likelihood of receiving a strong letter of recommendation. If possible, you may even seek out the chance to meet with your PI one-on-one and discuss your ongoing work and possible future projects. If there is a question you identify while working, and it is something you think may be worth exploring, discuss it with your PI. Initiative will generally be regarded highly even if it does not amount to the exact desired outcome.  

6 | Have fun

If you choose something you are genuinely interested in rather than simply seeking an outcome like a publication, you will be more likely to work hard and succeed. Also be mindful of choosing a lab with a PI and mentors that you think are a good fit to guide and lead you effectively.  

Conclusion

Getting a publication from undergraduate research is a worthwhile goal, but it is certainly not imperative. Focus first on finding a good research position and gaining solid experience, which will benefit you in many ways. Once you have secured this, follow the advice here and see if you can make a publication happen! Do not worry if you are unable to achieve a publication prior to applying as you can still be very successful without one! If you would like any further assistance with this topic, our Med School Insiders team can advise you on any aspect of your research and how to maximize your opportunity for publication. Good luck!
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