If you’re a college graduate who eventually decided to apply to medical school, then you might feel a little pressure to catch up. You might wonder whether your application will pass muster with a medical school admissions committee.
A high GPA is not the only requirement for medical school. You also need certain science prerequisites. And beyond these core academic requirements, medical school admissions committees often like to see research experience.
“Research can do a lot to enhance your overall application, and as importantly, help prepare you for the profession.” says Faith Rushford, pre-health advisor for the University of Vermont Career Center. “Roughly 80 percent of admitted candidates have had some sort of research experience. Though not required for admission, you could argue that it should be, given its profound relevance to medical practice.”
Building Your Skills through Research Experience
The Association of American Medical College identified 15 Core Competencies for Entering Medical Students. A high quality research experience can support your development of these essential skills, including scientific inquiry, critical thinking, teamwork, resilience and adaptability, according to Rushford.
“A medical student, and ultimately a physician, should be able to read and interpret primary literature, have an understanding of the inquiry process and how it informs practice, and be able to deal with failure by returning to the question with strong problem-solving skills and new ideas,” she says. “A good research experience supports this kind of professional development.”
However, she cautions that you shouldn’t pursue research experience simply to boost your application.
“If a student is doing research just to check off a box or pad their resume, then I would say that’s not the best use of their time. Admissions is an evidence-based process, and a good interviewer will see right through a superficial experience,” Rushford explains. “A lot is determined by what you make of the opportunity – your level of curiosity and engagement. I have seen students come away with fantastic experiences, contributing meaningful data, helping to improve or develop a new protocol, co-authoring parts of, or entire, manuscripts, and, in some cases, presenting at conferences. This kind of substantive engagement, along with a strong letter from a principal investigator, can truly have an impact on an applicant’s profile.”
That said, are there any research opportunities out there for post-bacs? Yes, if you do a little homework.
Here are five ways to gain research experience before applying to medical school:
1. Search the job listings of research universities, institutions, hospitals, laboratories and businesses such as pharmaceutical firms. You’ll want to look for a “research assistant” title, which often requires only a bachelor’s degree in science. Also, clinical trials and studies may need research assistants. Visit any research university or the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) clinical trials website to identify and contact researchers who might need assistants.
2. Seek out research programs specifically for post-bacs, or college graduates who are not enrolled in graduate school. Check out the NIH’s post-bac programs, which offer full-time biomedical research experience for those who want to better understand scientific investigation. The National Cancer Institute also offers such research opportunities. In addition, you might peruse college, university and organizational websites focusing on undergraduate and graduate research opportunities. Even though you’re no longer in college, you may stumble across a research opportunity that fits your post-bac status. For example, visit the Association of American Medical Colleges, IBP Pathways to Science or National Science Foundation. And browse lists at the University of Vermont, Cornell University, University of California, Berkeley, Duke University and other large research institutions.
3. Take a continuing education class that allows you to engage in behavioral, clinical or translational research. The Vermont Center for Clinical and Translational Science offers such courses to non-degree-seeking students via the University of Vermont’s Continuing and Distance Education division. Emergency Medicine Research (SURG 200), for instance, allows students to interact with and collect data from human subjects in the emergency department.
4. If you’re still living near your alma mater, then peruse your college or university website to identify science faculty who are working on research that interests you. Visit individual science departments’ websites for faculty lists or scroll through the university’s “experts” database. Contact researchers directly to see if there are any jobs on their teams or to see if you can shadow them in their daily work; you never know where this might lead. It’s even better if your university has a college of medicine or affiliated hospital, another source for possible research opportunities.
5. Network, network, network. It’s the same advice you’d receive if you were looking for a job. In a way, you are. Contact friends, family members, acquaintances, former and current employers, former professors, fellow alumni and your college’s career services and alumni offices to find contacts that might lead to a research internship or a job in a laboratory, science organization, hospital, college or university. Do you know someone who works in a laboratory or at a college? Does your alumni office know someone? Call the contact to ask about any research internship or job opportunities, to conduct an informational interview to learn about their work, or to obtain the names of additional contacts.