Pre-Med Academics

What Every Premed Should Know About Undergraduate Research

Investigate the below to gain a fundamental understanding of undergraduate research and some of its intricacies. Plus, gain clarity on the extent to which research should be a part of your journey into medicine.

Having research experience on your medical school application is an excellent way to make a contribution to medicine while also gaining extracurricular hours. Perhaps you’ve watched your fellow pre-meds scramble to find labs to work in and hustle to get publications to add to their CVs. Maybe you’ve stressed over sending cold emails to a few Principle Investigators yourself. Conducting research as an undergrad is a wonderful thing, but it’s not everything. Investigate the below to gain a fundamental understanding of undergraduate research and some of its intricacies. Plus, gain clarity on the extent to which research should be a part of your journey into medicine.

What Is Undergraduate Research?

According to the Council on Undergraduate Research, undergraduate research is “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.” Through this research, students can enrich and advance society while also learning a tremendous amount of knowledge in their field. There is a crucial need to research in the field of medicine.

What Are The Advantages to Doing Research as an Undergraduate?

Doing research as a pre-med student will most certainly benefit your medical school application. It demonstrates your ability to work on a team and ask important scientific questions while exposing you to methods, protocols, analysis, and the process of scientific inquiry. Whether you are running PCR in a wet lab or doing data entry in a clinical research department, your roles can vary greatly depending on your skills and interests. Research is defined as the mechanism by which medical knowledge is advanced.

Getting involved in it has the potential to amplify your passion for medicine while also finding solutions to some of the biggest medical problems, and you get all of that for just participating. Even better, if you are in the right lab, at the right time, and with the right mentors, you can get a publication out of it too. All of these things will help your application stand out. However, the research comes with a price.

How Do You Get Research Experience Without Research Experience?

How can I get into a lab when the hiring managers prefer students with research experience (or even require it), and I don’t have any research experience yet? Where can I get my first experience from?

Trust me, you are not alone. It’s natural to have a lot of questions about how to land your first research position. Here’s are a few ways how to land a research position.

Three Ways to Be a Competitive Applicant to a Research Lab Despite No Previous Experience:

  1.  Meet with the Principle Investigator – Set up a meeting with the PI well before you’d like to start working there to discuss their work and your interest in it (you can do this with or without mentioning your upcoming search for a research position – planting the seed of your enthusiasm and dedication will go a long way when it comes time to formally express your interest in working with them).
  2. Customize your CV – Amplify your skills most relevant to each particular position. Applying to a clinical research lab with a lot of patient-facing work? Make sure that your interpersonal skills are standing out on your CV (community engagement, peer support roles like tutoring, etc.). Applying to a wet lab that requires a lot of technical skills?
  3. Showcase Your Related Accomplishments – Highlight the excellent work you did in the Chemistry Lab as you executed each experiment and report diligence. Leverage the connections you made with professors, mentors, and career center advisors. You most likely won’t need a letter of recommendation to apply to work in a lab. This is an application process dominated by cold emails and hopefully warmer conversations. However, if a professor or mentor can send a short email to a PI on your behalf, that would be a great supplement to your CV, especially if that professor or mentor has any connections to the labs/research that you are interested in.

Luckily there are tons of resources out there to help you with all of these tips and more. Check out Dr. Mehta’s article titled, Finding an Undergraduate Research Lab as a Pre-Med Student” for more information.

Factors To Consider Once You Land Your Undergraduate Research Position

Once you find a lab and start working, there is a lot to balance. You could be dedicating upwards of ten hours a week to lab work spread out across the week and the weekend. This will be a test of time management and organization for sure.

You may also realize that not all labs or departments have the infrastructure to support undergraduate students. From an administrative standpoint, having short-term research assistants can often be more disruptive than productive to the team, although this varies depending on the department/lab. This variability demonstrates the fact that the research experience a student receives is largely dependent on the team they are working with, not the research being conducted. This is the double-edged sword of undergraduate research.

You can complete an amazing research project, but if you leave that lab without having made any meaningful connections or valuable personal discoveries, you may not have gained much other than a bullet point on your CV. This levels the playing field for all students who didn’t get into the big-name labs doing the research that gets published in the biggest journals. At the end of the day, it’s all about the connections you made with your lab mates and mentors and the lessons that you learned about yourself, life, and medicine.

When it comes time to describe your activities that will go on your medical school application, you may not remember the exact time course of your PCR or the specific strain of mouse that you used. Yet, you will remember the day that the PhD student in the lab taught you a cool trick to help you analyze samples. You’ll recall the day that your PI sat with you and told you about all of their failed experiments to help you feel better about yours. Those are the stories that will resonate with medical school admissions committees during interviews.

Do You Need Research Experience to Get Into Medical School?

No, but it sure helps. Research experience is often seen by pre-med students and as a means to an end – that end being an acceptance to medical school. However, the best way to benefit from your research is to look at it as a means to a beginning. Use research to dive deeper into your passion for science and medicine and as a way to discover new reasons to choose the path of medicine you are passionate about

As you consider whether or not a traditional research experience is of interest to you, remember that it is not technically required in order to get accepted into medical school. If you can create an experience that provides the same outcomes, such as clarity in your pursuit of medicine and exposure to scientific inquiry, then I say go for it!

Don’t be afraid to create your own research project and bring in the mentors that you most connect with. By no means is there one way to get to medical school. With each application cycle, students are becoming more creative in their approach. Trust your gut, remember your “why medicine?”, and seek the advice of a great mentor.

The physician advisors at MedSchoolCoach have helped guide thousands of students down the right research path for them. Look them up if you need help with strategic planning for your medical school application to make your research extracurriculars stand out!


Have more questions about getting into med school or becoming a doctor? MedSchoolCoach has a team of admissions advisors who’ve all served on admissions committees. They are available to help you better your med school application and boost your chances of getting into medical school. Look them up!

Olivia Brumfield

Olivia is a senior at the University of Rochester where she expects to receive a B.S. in neuroscience. She is an aspiring physician with expertise in program management, clinical care, and REDCap with intermediate fluency in American Sign Language. She a Clinical Research Associate at the University of Rochester Center for Health + Technology, as well as the host of the PreMeducation video series.

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