It’s no secret that undergraduate research is a key component of medical school applications. These days, very few students apply to medical school without some sort of research experience. Those who don’t include research experience are taking a significant risk, as they will be lacking a huge component of their application that nearly all of their peers will have.
How much does it matter to get published? Will publications really strengthen your application? How do you achieve publications? In this post, we’ll break down the importance of research publications as well as how to secure your own publications.
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 research to make themselves competitive applicants.
Solid research experience is essential to discuss on your primary and secondary applications, and it will 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 with it, you will be a more strong and competitive applicant.
The next key outcome of research experience is securing a letter of recommendation. While you don’t need to have a letter written by your research PI (or Principal Investigator—the head of the lab and your boss during your research time), 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 strong letter of recommendation.
A publication is the cherry on top of the sundae that is your overall research experience. The first thing to understand is that a publication is not truly necessary. Many students get into medical school without publications.
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, so it’s 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 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 the distinction is relevant is that the two categories can differ in the 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, however, offer you the opportunity to collect substantial experience, which can be more engaging to discuss on applications and during interviews.
Clinical research can sometimes be easier to publish because the data is generally simpler 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
Finding a lab that publishes frequently is an important point to consider if publishing is a priority for you. 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 may be difficult to determine which labs to seek out. Your strongest resource will be students currently in the lab or those who have worked there previously. 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 tell you what you need to know.
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. State that you want to be a strong contributor to the lab in whatever way possible. Make it clear that you hope to take on significant responsibility, and if it’s appropriate, you would like to be published in some capacity.
If you phrase this in the correct way, as a hopeful and humble request rather than a demand, it should go over well. It’s reasonable to ask the PI if this is possible. Hopefully, they will provide you with an honest reply, and you can make a plan regarding this going forward.
Do not make the publication a huge priority early on; instead, 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
Understand that you must earn your publications with hard work and dedication. The first step is doing your job well, with a consistently strong work ethic and continued attention to detail.
Beyond this, see if you can take on more responsibility. Seek opportunities to expand your role and do more. Mentors will take notice of this, and if your contribution is significant, 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’s something you think may be worth exploring, discuss it with your PI. Your initiative will generally be regarded highly, even if it does not amount to the exact desired outcome.
Enjoying the Experience
If you choose something you are genuinely interested in as opposed to simply seeking a publication, you will be more likely to work hard and succeed. Be mindful of choosing a lab with a PI and mentors who will guide and lead you effectively.
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 to see if you can make a publication happen!
Don’t stress if you are unable to achieve a publication prior to applying, as you can still be very successful without one. There’s also a chance that you can secure a publication during the application process, which you can update the admissions committee about later on.
Our doctor-led team can advise you on any aspect of your research to maximize your opportunity for publication, but more importantly, they will help you make the decisions that will lead to medical school acceptance.