Most premedical students understand that in order to be competitive for medical school, they not only need to complete the necessary academic prerequisites, but also certain extracurricular activities. Research is one of the most popular extracurricular activities, and there is no doubt that research experience can be beneficial for a medical school application. However, some students view research as an another checkbox off a to-do list for premeds. This mentality completely misses the point of doing research in the first place, and a halfhearted research experience may actually be detrimental in an application. So in this blog post, I’ll talk about the core question: Do you really need to do research over the summer as a premedical student?
I like to break down this question into a simple thought exercise with a series of questions.
1. What do you like or dislike?
Do you like research in general? Do you think deeply about questions, and try to answer them systematically? Are you persistent in the face of failure? If you answered yes to these questions here, then research may be a good fit for you.
This being said, research experiences come in many forms, and it is important to understand that different research environments can lead to dramatically different outcomes. So when finding a research opportunity, ask yourself a series of questions to find out what topics you like the best. Did you love biochemistry? Are you fascinated so much by cancer biology that you stay up and read about it all the time? You might want to look for a basic science research lab. Are you curious about how people interact with each other, and about phenomenon like implicit biases or stereotyping? If so, maybe a psychology lab would be a better fit for you. Was there a course you did or didn’t particularly enjoy in college? The topic of the research is what keeps you going – you need to be passionate about it or you will find it nigh impossible to continue when you hit a brick wall in your research (which, inevitably, happens in all research projects).
Next, let’s talk about the second factor beyond topic: lab culture. Do you prefer to work alone, in small groups, or big groups? This can be an important factor in whether you’ll fit in better in the small lab of a new junior professor, or a famous research group with hundreds of people.
Now some of you may have answered no to the first question. If so, that’s totally fine – you don’t need to do research to have a valuable summer experience. Let’s talk about your other options and their considerations in the next section.
2. What do you need in your application for medical school?
Are there premedical course requisites you haven’t taken yet? Have you shadowed clinicians or volunteered already? Identify what strengths you want to build on, or what weaknesses you need reduced for your AMCAS application to medical school. The summer is the perfect time to address these needs. I spent a summer studying for the MCAT and really valued the opportunity it provided to focus on the material, without the distraction of classes and clubs during the school year.
Remember: the summer is long. If you are feeling conflicted about what to do, don’t be afraid to do more than one activity. For one of my favorite summers as a premedical student, I interned at my local public health department, took a semester of Organic Chemistry, and worked at an ice cream place in town.
The summer is not the only time during the year available for research. Keep in mind that you may be able to conduct research in a lab during the academic year, although you will likely have less time during each day and week to commit to a research project.
So, do you really need to do research over the summer as a premed? The short answer is: it depends.
The longer answer is that you should spend your summers doing what works for you. Every student is different and we all bring different skills to the table. The summer is a perfect time to figure out where your interests and skills align, while also addressing any gaps in premedical requirements. Keep these two things in mind when deciding what to do for the summer.
Find opportunities that match your passions, and play to your strengths. Research may be a part of this picture, or it may not. Your summer experiences should be enlightening, intellectually stimulating, and fulfilling. Your summer may show you that you really like a certain topic or field. Or you may decide you are not as interested in something, or at least not as much as you had initially thought. Your summer is for you to discover and learn about yourself – take full advantage of it!