Find an Undergraduate Research Position

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As any pre-med student is aware, research is a crucial component of the medical school application. With nearly every accepted student performing some sort of research during undergrad, it is imperative to ensure that your application is as competitive as the rest. Therefore research is a must, but being smart about choosing the type of research and the environment in which you work will help facilitate the success of your experience. Here are some tips to streamline the process of finding a research position.  

Basic Science or Clinical Research?

There are two main categories of research in the medical field, and each has its pros and cons. Knowing which type you are targeting may help you identify the position that is the best fit for you. Basic science research, or “bench research,” entails working in a lab with experiments involving cells, tissues, or animals. This type of research is challenging and time-intensive. It can take weeks to months to learn techniques and even longer to perform them and get meaningful results. In some cases, this may make it difficult to get a publication. On the other hand, basic science is a great experience to understand how research works at its foundational level. This sort of work is also impressive to interviewers at medical schools because it shows dedication, investment of time, and development of skill. Even without a publication, basic science research is an impressive resume builder and a huge talking point on interviews. Clinical research entails working with patients or patient data to collect data about a medical question. This can be in the form of actual patient interaction such as interviews, or in-depth chart review from a database or medical record. The benefit of this research method is that it may be a more flexible pursuit, which can be done on the computer such as in the case of chart review. It is often possible to gather data more quickly, and therefore sometimes results in easier and faster publication. The downside is that it may be more mundane work if you do not get to interact with patients. Instead of performing experiments in the lab, you may be spending more time sifting through charts. In either case you will gain useful experience. The majority of positions are basic science in nature. However, it is good to be aware of the opportunity for both and think about which you prefer.  

Searching for a Mentor

This is often the most difficult part of the process. It will take some time and effort. Most universities have a list of research labs you can contact. Look for these lists online. You will have to identify a PI (Principal Investigator, essentially the head of the lab and your future boss) with whom you want to work. Seek out the listings of PI’s from your university, and email those individuals directly. If you have chosen between basic science and clinical work or have a specialty of interest (cardiology, gastroenterology, neurology, etc.) you can look for labs in these fields. Many schools also have a system that allows you to earn class credit while completing research. If you have this option, the university may have a more outlined approach to contacting PI’s who are part of that program. This is good because you know you will be working with someone who has familiarity with pre-med students in their lab. Another great avenue is the most old-fashioned one: personal contacts. If you know another student who works in a lab and had a good experience, seek out their advice and see if you may apply to the same lab. If there are professors who you have been impressed with, see if they have a research lab and email them. You may even be able to impress them at office hours before asking to join them on a research project. One key is to seek out someone who will be supportive of a premed student. Great indicators are someone who has had students work with them before, particularly if they helped those students get publications. Another good sign is someone who is responsive to email and appears approachable. Once you do contact a PI, see if it seems like a good fit. Getting a position is most important, so don’t be too picky; but try to feel out the PI and determine if your goals will align.  

Send Out Emails

The next step will be sending out emails to several labs. If you are able to find direct contact information for the PI, go for that. Be aware that they many not respond. Don’t be discouraged by this! It may require emailing several PI’s before you find a position.  If there is contact information for a lab liaison or manager, this is also a good option. In the email state the following: your name, your year in school, your basic career goals. Express interest in what the lab is doing. Even if it is not your first choice, acting interested is crucial to demonstrating your viability as a member of the lab. It may help to do a bit of background research on the lab and perhaps even include one sentence about your interest in one or two of their projects. Above all be professional, as you will essentially be entering the workforce as a working member of the lab team!  

Close the Deal

Eventually you will get some responses! Be persistent until you do! Once you make contact, speak with the PI or lab personnel about what your role would be. Be sure that it is a role you are willing and able to take on. You must be realistic about how much time you have to give and whether your availability meets the lab’s expectations. You also may politely ask if it may be possible for you to get a publication if you do strong work. Don’t fixate on this, but if it seems appropriate it is not necessarily wrong to ask. Keep this in mind though: in addition to the experience listed on your application, research is a phenomenal opportunity to get a strong letter of recommendation. This may be its most valuable output of the research experience. Even if you don’t get published, the goal should be to do your best work. If you impress your colleagues, the PI will generally be delighted to write you a strong letter. This will definitely strengthen your application. With these simple keys, and some persistence, you will surely lock down a research position. Good luck!
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