One common question we get from premed students is, “How can I get involved with research?”
Research for premed students is a great way to understand the scientific method and show medical schools that you can investigate scientific questions by critically thinking and interpreting empirical evidence.
With many premeds struggling to get started with undergraduate research, this blog post details tips for you to get involved and find a lab that fits your goals!
If you’re going to apply to medical school in the next 1-2 years, you’ll want to read our AMCAS Work and Activities blog post, which will show you WHY it’s important to stand out in your extracurricular activities and HOW to stand out on your medical school applications.
How to find research for premed students
#1. Talk to your professors
Many professors that you take classes with will be involved with their own research labs and projects. Schedule a time to meet with a professor whose class you did well in or particularly enjoyed and ask if they have any research opportunities for a motivated student to become involved with. Be prepared to verbalize why you want to do research with that professor and how many hours per week you would be able to commit. Note that not all professors will have openings or be able to accommodate a student. In these cases, you should ask if they know another faculty member who might be open to taking on a student.
#2. Consult your premed advisor and university’s research centers
If you attend a school with a dedicated premed advisor or a center for undergraduate research, these are great resources for finding research opportunities! Make an appointment to speak with someone about finding research opportunities and be prepared to specify what fields you might be interested in. Your advisor may provide you with a list of professors who are open to working with students that you can contact. Alternatively, you may be recommended to apply to programs that help undergraduates get started with research.
#3. Attend research meetings and journal rounds
If your undergraduate institution is associated with a medical school, an underutilized avenue for finding research is attendance of journal rounds/research meetings. Schedules for journal are often posted online and publicly accessible. During these, presenters will discuss their research with other faculty, attendings and principal investigators. Once you have attended a couple of presentations you are interested in, you may be in a reasonable position to ask about current or future openings in these individuals’ labs. Showcasing your interest by attending these events and inquiring about opportunities will impress faculty while showcasing your initiative!
#4. Look up professors online
Looking up professors and contacting them independently offers the most freedom in finding research for premed students. Check your school’s departmental websites and find professors whose research interests match those of your own (you can read their past publications on PubMed). Note that your research interests do not have to be explicitly medical or related to your major! What is more important is that the research you become involved with excites you and allows you to learn about the scientific process—posing a hypothesis/question, investigating it with an experiment/data collection, and analyzing the results.
premed research: Emailing and Interviewing Guidelines
Once you have created a list of professors you are interested in doing research with, it is crucial to send a well-written and sincere email that catches their attention. In your email, you should introduce who you are, state why you are emailing, and express specific interest in the professor’s work. You should also attach your cv and unofficial transcript as most professors will use these to gauge your suitability for working in their lab. If you have not had much past experience or relevant coursework, be candid and emphasize that you are eager to learn. A template email that can be personalized follows:
Sample Email To Research Opportunities
Dear Dr. [NAME],
My name is [NAME] and I’m a [#] year [MAJOR] major at [SCHOOL]. Through my past experiences and coursework, I have developed a passion for [TOPIC] because [REASON] and am extremely interested in pursuing independent research in this field.
I am emailing to inquire whether you might have openings for a motivated student to contribute to your research. In particular, I have read your [YEAR] paper on [FINDING]. [Mention what you find interesting about the paper—be sincere and honest ]. If possible, I would love to start working on a related project in your lab beginning [DATE].
Would you be available to meet sometime this week to discuss my potential involvement? I would also be happy to volunteer in your lab for a few weeks before we commit to anything to see if this is a good match. My transcript and CV are attached in case you are interested. I look forward to hearing from you!
If you need help with strategizing your extracurricular activities or have questions about finding research positions, contact the Cracking Med School Admissions team.
But… I didn’t get any responses
If you do not receive a response, you should respectfully follow up with a second email reaffirming your interest.
Meeting a potential research mentor or principal investigator
If you receive an affirmative reply, you should prepare for an interview to assess if the lab might be a good fit for you. We recommend students consider the following before meeting with a professor for research:
- Dress-code: most interviews for undergraduate research positions will be relatively casual. However, it is still important to put in effort to show that you take the opportunity seriously, so we recommend students dress business casual.
- Personal motivations/tell me about yourself: you will likely be asked to articulate your personal motivations and reasons for meeting to discuss research opportunities. Reflect on your personal motivations and practice a 2-minute “elevator pitch” about your background and past experiences which have led to your current position.
- Strengths/availability: you may be asked about your strengths relevant for working in a lab. Consider how you would communicate why you are a strong candidate. Also determine how many hours per week you have available for research—more time spent in lab usually allows greater responsibility and independence.
- Specific interest: be clear about why you are specifically interested in the lab you are interviewing for. Generally, a professor will not expect you to have an expert-level understanding of a research topic but will expect you to have done past reading about their work and display sincere interest.
Note that you may meet with a graduate student or post-doc instead, as in some labs you will work more closely with these individuals rather than the principal investigator. Overall, do not overly stress about an interview for a lab position! The meeting’s purpose is to get to know you as a person and not interrogate you with questions. Be yourself and come prepared!
Things to think about before committing to a lab or research project
Not all research for premed students results in a positive experience. Therefore, it is important to consider whether a potential lab is a good fit for you. Even if you are interested in the research topic, it is important that you work well within the lab’s culture. For example, do you get along with others in the lab? Do you feel that the environment is supportive of your learning? Does your working style complement that of your mentor? These are all important questions to consider when evaluating your fit for a lab.
In addition, you will want to reflect on whether the lab will advance your career goals. One criterion valued by medical schools is evidence of research productivity. Look up the lab’s past publications and ask whether they are supportive of undergraduates publishing or presenting on research at conferences. These opportunities will require a substantial time commitment to complete, so it is best to clarify expectations before starting.
Read our AMCAS work and activities blog post to learn how to stand out when writing about your extracurricular activities on your medical school applications. If you have any questions, fill out the contact form below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blog post written by Kevin Li and the Cracking Med School Admissions Team