Hey Jae: how important is research?
I’m currently a sophomore at Stanford. My question is about research experience. I noticed that you have a lot of research/publication experience. How important are they?
It’s difficult to state how “important” research and publications are. Sure, they look good, and if you end up applying to research-oriented medical schools, then having research experience will certainly be an advantage, but even at those schools, research is never the end-all-be-all determinant of how good an applicant is; it’s just one facet. In my case, I didn’t have much clinical experience in terms of shadowing and whatnot, so my application depended heavily on my research, and some might say overly so–I actually got asked quite often on the interview trail why I wasn’t applying M.D./Ph.D. (fortunately, it was a question I was well prepared for, since my mentor and labmates had all asked me the same thing a million times).
The primary question to consider is not how important research is, but rather, how much you enjoy research. Don’t you dare start thinking of research as some sort of achievement you need to check off before applying, because it’s not. If you’ve never done it before, then definitely explore it, but only continue if you find that you enjoy the process. If you force yourself, it’ll only be miserable, and believe me, classwork, other extracurriculars, or hanging out with friends are far better ways to spend your valuable (and limited) time compared to a job you hate.
That said, research is a pretty broad term. If you look hard enough, you will probably find a really cool research topic that jives with your interests, whether it’s rainforest development, ethics, microfinance, etc. If you have trouble with your search, ask upperclassmen, TAs, and professors for help–Stanford is full of resources to help guide undergraduates, as are most other universities.
How can undergraduates get the opportunity to publish?
It’s pretty simple: just find a project you enjoy working on (with a mentor you like and trust), and spend a lot of time working. Oh, and ask about publishing opportunities from the get-go so that your mentor can help guide you along the way–this is part of the art to determining whether a lab/project/mentor is a good fit for you. If you’re looking at research labs and want to get a feel for potential publication opportunities, just find the lab’s website and check out how many publications they produce each year–the more, the better. The slight caveat is that large labs tend to produce more, but large labs also mean less personal time with the mentor, since you have to compete for his/her time. Keep this balance in mind. Also, each subject has a variable rate at which publishable results can be obtained. The nice part is, admissions committees are well aware of the fact that generally speaking, clinical research has a slightly higher publication rate than basic science research.
Overall, if you put in the time and effort and produce results, chances are you’ll find yourself with the opportunity to publish, whether it’s in the local literary journal, scientific magazine, or peer-reviewed journal. Be patient and diligent!
And did you work in the same lab for two years (and published multiple pieces on the same research)?
Yep, I worked in the same lab from sophomore year to senior year, but I did switch projects once, so my publications were technically from 2 different projects.
When is a good time to start research?
Good question. Answer: whenever you’re ready to. Be warned that research will typically take up ~10-15 hours a week, so make sure you’re ready to make that commitment and juggle your schoolwork, other extracurriculars, social life, and sanity. I think the most impressive example I can think of comes from the time I hired Scott–he showed up to the interview with a printout his weekly schedule marked with all the hours each day he could potentially dedicate to our lab–the guy actually gave up his acappella group (Fleet Street) for us. David and I were blown away, and we told our boss that we had to take him even though he was a junior and hence would only be able to give 1 year to the lab (as opposed to sophomore candidates, who can give 1.5-2, which is generally favored for project continuity).
Mind you, don’t go nuts and spend so much time in lab that you don’t have a life. If you find yourself doing this, you’re doing it wrong.
“Hey Jae” is a series that publicly answers questions from pre-med students. I get these from time to time through facebook, e-mail, etc., so I figured if one person’s wondering, more likely are too. Feel free to pose a question of your own through my contact page! As always, best of luck.
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