Gap Year

How to Land a Gap Year Research Gig

Need a break from school, while also boosting your resume, getting a letter of recommendation, and earning some cash? Here’s how to land a gap year lab research job!

As the average age of an incoming medical student is now 24 years old, it is apparent that more pre-med students than ever are taking gap years before medical school. One of the most popular ways to spend those years are in a lab doing research… Which makes perfect sense.

Publications are an awesome way to boost your resume and to score a great letter of recommendation from an esteemed academic. Plus, if you’re interested in your field of research, it’s a lot of fun being on the front lines of the new discoveries in that field. Most research positions are associated in some capacity with a hospital, so you can gain more exposure to your future field to make sure it’s the right fit for you, while also doing some networking.

Personally, I took three gap years before I matriculated, and spent most of that time doing research in gastroenterology in Boston, Mass. Each spring, we’d receive dozens of applications and perform several interviews for new potential research assistants. This taught me what to look for in candidates.

Based on this learning, here are critical pieces of advice for candidates seeking and applying for a research position:

1. Emphasize Your Previous Research Experience

Though prior research experience during college is not necessary, it is extremely attractive. If we read on someone’s resume that they had experience dealing with the IRB, writing protocols, or working with pipettes/blood samples/consenting patients, we know that this applicant already “speaks our language” and likely requires less time to train. We also know that these applicants know exactly what type of position they were applying for, and would assimilate well into the team. If you have any of this type of experience, make sure it is prominent on your application.

2. Explain Why You Want This Research Position

Our lab specialized in Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). I was astonished by how many applicants didn’t even mention an interest in IBD in their cover letters or during interviews. Even if you don’t have a personal connection to what’s being studied, do your own research about the prospective research position, and tie the discussion to what interests you. You’ll instantly establish rapport with your interviewers.

3. Flash Your Cool Hobbies to Stand Out From the Competition

One of the largest costs of the pre-med journey is time. To attain competitive grades, medical students must dedicate an enormous amount of time to studying. Therefore, it’s easy to spend what free time you may have relaxing with your friends. But, if you’re able to dedicate time outside of class to a unique interest of yours, highlight this in your application and resume.

Unique hobbies and experiences are an invaluable differentiator versus other applicants because they are quite challenging to have hobbies while a pre-med student.

One of the applicants we hired had painted incredible artwork while in college, several of which were featured in exhibitions. It was fascinating to hear her discuss the artwork, and we actually spent most of the interview discussing it, despite her having extensive prior research experience. It was refreshing to speak with someone who had interests outside of science. Because most of us doing the interview were pre-med, we were awestruck at how someone could be successful at something non-science related while also taking Orgo and Biochem.

4. Do the Small Things That Make You Appear Like a Polished Candidate

Avoid typos on your resume/cover letter. One wrong letter or comma in your email introduction could result in your resume not being opened at all. And a simple typo may suggests you don’t pay attention to detail.

Send thank you emails – and an actual letter in an actual envelope may work even better, as it differentiates you from the crowd. Thank you emails put you into the top of the inbox, and if there are multiple candidates, that’s where you want to be.

Arrive on time for your interviews. In fact, if you are on time, you are late. Arrive 10 minutes early to check in, use the bathroom, and assure you look your best. This will also give you a few minutes to calm your nerves. And dress well, even if it’s casual Friday, and even if they tell you it is a casual work environment. And don’t wear scrubs, even if you are coming from a hospital environment. For men, wear a suit. For women, wear a suit with pants or a skirt.

Be respectful and friendly to everyone you meet. This may seem like a no brainer. But it is often overlooked. The person you bump into in the elevator could be well connected to the hiring manager. You never know. You need to be “on” from the moment you arrive in the parking lot until you depart.

5. Ask Good Questions During Your Interview

This is a great way to stand out because — shocker — everyone loves talking about themselves and their research. So, spend a few hours brainstorming exactly what you want to know about the position and the research you’ll be partaking in. And Google the people you expect to be interviewing with. And if you don’t know in advance, ask. It shows that you genuinely care. Plus, you’ll be able to more easily relate to your interviewers and their personal research interests.

Good luck applying and interviewing!

Spencer Evans

Spencer Evans is a graduate of the University of Michigan class of 2016 with a B.A. in Screen Arts and Cultures and a Subconcentration in Screenwriting. He is a medical student in the Class of 2023 at the University of Colorado at Denver. When Spencer isn't studying, he enjoys backpacking across foreign countries, snowboarding, and beating his roommates in Super Smash Bro's. In addition to writing for Prospective Doctor, Spencer loves writing screenplays and hopes to one day write a movie that will play on the big screen!

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