Pursue Undergraduate Research as a Prospective Medical Student

Narrow your interests and find researchers working in those areas to contact about research positions.

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Learn about your principal investigator’s research before you go on an interview.
Learn about your principal investigator’s research before you go on an interview.

Medicine and research will always go hand in hand. Medical advances cannot happen without research, and research is essentially how we produce knowledge in general, not just in medicine.

So it is no mistake that many medical schools are looking for applicants who have shown what it takes to think and work like a researcher. If you are a premed student who is interested in doing research but has never been exposed to it, as I was until my sophomore year in college, you are probably wondering how you're supposed to get an undergraduate research position.

Although schools have different resources and methods to funnel undergraduates into research positions, there is a traditional path for undergraduates interested in becoming a student researcher. 

1. Figure out where your interests lie: Are you interested in doing scientific research? Or would you rather pursue research in other fields? If you are interested in the sciences, would you rather study life science or physical science? 

Narrow down your research interests by asking yourself these kinds of questions. A lot of premeds do history, math, English, linguistics and other types of research that have nothing to do with the typical biomedical research. For medical school admissions, any kind of research is good as long as it is done consistently and thoughtfully. 

When I went through this process, I realized that I wanted to do some sort of cancer research. And although cancer research itself is very broad, it was a starting point so that I could start on the next step. 

[Check out the best medical schools for research.] 

2. Find principal investigators who share the same interest: Now that you have a general idea of what kind of research you want to do, start looking for principal investigators who have similar interests. 

There are various ways to go about this. Sometimes your undergraduate institution has a website or resource center that shows all the current research positions open. UCLA, for example, has a website dedicated to undergraduate research

You can also go to departmental websites and read professors' profiles and their research interests. As you find potential researchers, make a list of 20 to 30 that you would like to contact about a potential position. Make a spreadsheet to keep track of the information you need: name, email address and research profile. 

3. Create a general research CV: A CV is like a resume for academics. You need to create a research CV to send all of your potential principal investigators. 

The most important things to include in your CV are your GPA, research interests, courses you have taken that might relate to their research, any research skills you may have, any awards or honors and any other extracurricular activities in which you are involved. 

[Learn if a pipeline medical school program is right for you.] 

4. Email principal investigators individually: The best way to contact professors is to email them. Since you are sending the same CV to everyone, you will also need to write personal cover letters to each principal investigator to show that you are genuinely interested in his or her research. 

Explain your situation, level of commitment and the reasons why you want to work in that specific lab. Make sure the email is professional and not too long. You should be sending out 20-30 individual emails. 

5. Prepare for an interview: Be aware that you might get a response from maybe three or four principal investigators. 

When I applied for research positions, I sent about 30 emails. Three researchers kindly rejected me, one offered me an interview and the rest never replied. Principal investigators are busy people and many of them will not reply to your email inquiry. 

[Understand the factors behind medical school admissions.] 

But if a researcher does offer to interview you, make sure that you are ready. Learn as much as you can about his or her research interests. Read the papers the researcher has published, prepare questions and be enthusiastic. 

If you are applying for your first research position, you do not really have any previous experience to offer. Therefore, researchers often look for students who are dedicated, hardworking, smart and enthusiastic about research. 

Attitude is the most important thing if you have no previous experience. When you go into the interview, let them know that you would eventually like to have an individual project. They want to see that you are willing to take ownership of your research. 

In addition, if the principal investigator is unable to promise you a future independent project – where you have guidance from him or her or another research mentor but essentially the project is yours – you probably do not want to work there in the first place. Not having an individual project means you will be a grunt worker for the entire time.

When you are interviewing for research positions, remember that you should be evaluating them as they evaluate you. You need to ask yourself, "Is this a place where I want to work?" 

Will they offer you mentorship? Do they care about your success and can you contribute to their work? Do not just settle on a research position even if you know you aren't going to like it. 

Finding a research project that really interests you and research mentors who care about you go a long way toward doing meaningful undergraduate research – and that research will benefit you when it's time to apply to medical school. 

Edward Chang is a graduate of UCLA, where he attends the David Geffen School of Medicine. In addition to managing ProspectiveDoctor.com, he also counsels prospective medical school applicants. Contact him at edwardchang@prospectivedoctor.com or follow ProspectiveDoctor.com on Twitter, @ProspectiveDr.