Category Archive: Research

Getting Into Research: Part III

We’re continuing our series on “Getting Into Research” as a strategy to increase competitiveness for medical school. Check out Part I and Part II or continue reading for Part III:

3. Reach out.

You’ve got a couple avenues depending on whether you’re taking the co-op/research program approach or a direct approach.  Research programs and co-op programs often have strict application guidelines and deadlines, so this approach is easy: follow the instructions. If you want to learn more or you’re not sure about what they are looking for, reach out to the coordinators – they are often more than happy to entertain your questions.

The direct approach is more challenging.

Establish Common Ground

Establishing common ground is a critical way to reach out to someone professionally. Most researchers and people in industry won’t talk to you if you’re a random connection. You need to have some basis of connecting with them so that your contact doesn’t seem contrived.

First, look to see if you know anyone who has worked in the researcher’s lab.  If so, ask them to make an introduction. It’s always easier to make a professional connection when you have an “in”.

Second, if you don’t know anyone who has worked in the lab before, see if you have had any instructors in the same department (TA’s or professors). If nothing else, you can reference the fact that you took a class with someone the researcher knows.

Third, if you don’t have any connections whatsoever, look for common interests or themes. Are you an avid rock climber and the researcher has their department photo of them rock climbing? Bingo.

Get in touch

If you have someone to make an introduction, great. Wait for the introduction to be made, and then reply to the researcher directly with your introduction. If not, then craft a concise but complete email that will function as your cover letter.  Request an informational interview or ask about opportunities in the lab. Do not do both at the same time. Send your resume only if you are asking for opportunities.  Don’t send your resume if you’re requesting an informational interview, but bring it with you when you meet.

Email, don’t call. At least for first contact. If you really want to work with them and they don’t respond, you can call.
Your email needs to contain the following components:

  • Salutation
  • Brief intro about yourself (e.g. “I’m a Biology major here at [your school] interested in [your interests that overlap with the researcher’s”].
  • Reference to the common ground (e.g. “I learned about your research from my friend Joe Smith who worked with you last summer”)
  • Call to action (e.g. “I would love to meet with you and learn more about your research in person.  Please let me know if you are available in the next several weeks to talk more.”)
  • Thank them for their time.

Your email should lack the following (among other things):

  • An immature email address. If your email is ilovecutekittens1992@hotmail.com, it’s time to get a grown-up email address.
  • Seeming desperate. If you don’t know how to not sound desperate, have a friend read your email.
  • Any detailed review of their research papers or their work.  The researcher cares that you care, but not enough to read over an essay about their own work.  That’s particularly true since they know their work far better than you do, and the more you talk, the more you increase your chances that you will butcher it.
  • Random, unrelated stories of any kind.  Cool, you both like rock climbing.  You can talk all you want about it in person; it shouldn’t get anything more than a mention in your email.
  • Overly verbose or formal language.  Be a real person.  People know when you’re putting on a show.
  • More than 150 words.  Researchers are busy people and won’t read that much text even if they’re marginally interested.

The meeting

Dress cleanly but not too formally.  Researchers usually dress casually.  If you overdress, it says “I don’t understand you,” if you underdress, it says “I don’t respect you.”  Strike the balance.

And that’s it!  Ask questions, be interesting, see if it’s a good fit.  Ask if they have any opportunities for you to get involved.  Go with the flow of the conversation and you’ll be great!

Permanent link to this article: http://portal.mcatquestion.com/getting-into-research-part-iii/

Getting Into Research: Part II

We’re continuing our series on “Getting Into Research” as a strategy to increase competitiveness for medical school.  Check out Part I or continue reading Part II below:

2. Build your case.

Researchers are often very busy people. If you ask “do you have a job?” and they don’t, you’ll be lucky if they respond to tell you no. But if you ask “do you have time next week to tell me more about your research,” you’re in business. Researchers are far more likely to respond to a request for an informational interview than to a request for a job. If they see that you are interested in their work and just want to learn more, they may even create a spot for you that didn’t previously exist. This is a great way to learn about researchers’ needs. It’s also an easy way to get your foot in the door.

Go through your resume, your coursework (including high school, if recent enough), and any other experience you’ve had which might be relevant. Tie together common themes into a narrative, tell your story. Update your resume and have it include as much technical experience as you can. Students will often create a “scientific” resume and a “regular” resume. Your experiences may be limited to working in the university bookstore, the dorm cafeteria, or as a server in a restaurant. Err on the side of including a few stronger positions that you have held that show your dedication and work ethic. You can also demonstrate these features with excellence in coursework or volunteer projects.

Make a list of your technical skills. This is a personal list and it’s there for you to remember what you’ve learned and add/replace items on your resume as needed for the researcher. As you get more experience and learn more, keep adding to your list. You’ll be surprised how quickly it grows.

Remember that your case involves more than just your resume.  As you look through your list of researchers, think about what concerns they may have. Is the lab a factory, housing over 100 scientists, or a small one with just a grad student or two? Your narrative should be tailored as best as possible to each lab. Here are some general rules to keep in mind that will help you answer concerns and boost your case:

  • Small labs (fewer than 5 people) are much more interested in mentoring students, especially first-timers. Researchers in large labs do not have time for you (sorry).
  • If you lack experience in the lab, one of the researcher’s primary concerns will be whether you can handle yourself and how much training you’ll need. You can overcome this by showing that you’re overall a competent and clean person. Think about hobbies you might have that require attention to detail – those are things you may want to emphasize if you don’t have a strong technical foundation.
  • Undergrads are usually managed by grad students/post-docs. That means that if the prof doesn’t respond, reaching out to their grad students may prove more successful.
  • Very large labs are inevitably prestigious. Prestigious labs want rockstars and are often the target of many qualified undergrads, which means it’s very hard to get in if you don’t have sufficient lab experience.
  • All labs want to see an overlap in interest. It’s common for researchers to hire a weaker student who shows genuine interest in continuing the work than a strong student whose passion is lackluster.
  • Many PhD and even MD/PhD researchers are wary of undergrads using them as stepping stones to med school. The best way to deal with this stigma is to express and demonstrate genuine interest in the work itself and their desire to put effort in the work.
  • Nothing strokes a researcher’s ego more than a student who has read some of the researcher’s publications and can engage in discussion with the research. Prior reading will also give you valuable insight into whether the lab’s work is interesting for you and heavily impress your potential boss.
  • All labs should pay their students, but the reality is many researchers salivate when undergrads come knocking because they see you as free labor. They may even apply for grants to pay for your salary and keep half of it to fund the lab instead of giving it to you.  This is something you should prepare to accept if it’s your first time in the lab, but don’t put up with it when you have experience under your belt. Your first time in the lab really is a learning experience and the researcher is investing time (and therefore money) to train you.
  • Not all researchers want the same level of commitment. Some only have a temporary opening while others want someone to stay for 2 years or even become a grad student with them (unlikely if you’re headed to med school!). Being aware of their needs will help you figure out how to position yourself. You can be up front asking this question, or you can also get a sense of it from current grad students in the lab.
  • If you’re planning on committing only a few hours per week, don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms and don’t expect to be paid. Researchers typically want someone who can commit 10 hours per week or more. If you aren’t able to do that, the summer is a great way to offer more commitment.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of the “Getting Into Research” series. Check out Part 1.

Permanent link to this article: http://portal.mcatquestion.com/getting-into-research-part-2/

Getting Into Research: Part I

Research is a buzzword in every pre-med’s vocabulary. It’s an important step in learning about the fast-growing field of medicine and a way to get exposure to cutting edge discoveries. Medical schools like to see some research background in applicants, so most premeds apply for a limited number of spots. On top of the competition, researchers are wary of hiring undergrads for a number of reasons:

  • Lack of experience in the lab
  • Short-term commitments and low hourly work
  • Potential lack of interest in the research
  • Plentiful graduate and post-doc researchers to hire instead

These conditions make it difficult to get your foot in the door with researchers. Despite this, there are a number of things you have working in your favor:

  • Low level of commitment
  • Undergrads are cheap (often free)
  • Potential mentorship opportunity (scientists usually LOVE to mentor and teach; that’s why they got into the profession in the first place)

Play your cards right and set yourself up in the best light. You’ll do this by emphasizing your benefits and easing researchers’ concerns. So, how do we approach this process?

1. Identify interesting researchers.

Direct Approach

Not all research is created equal, but something is better than nothing. It’s more important (to a degree) that you do research that you find interesting than doing research with someone prestigious. Start by thinking about what kind of coursework you enjoy and what you don’t. Use that to narrow down the departments and types of researchers to put on your list. You should make a list that includes the following:

  • Name
  • Department
  • Email & Phone
  • Website
  • Size of the lab & number of undergrads vs. grad students (if data is available)
  • Description of the research

These columns will help you spend less time bouncing around websites looking for info you’ve already read. It will also help you learn more about the researcher, and frankly, researchers love nothing more than students who’ve done their homework and show interest in their work.

If you want, you can even rank the labs or simply group them in terms of interest. You will need a blanket approach and reach out to a lot of labs, because you won’t hear back from many of them.

(Summer) Undergraduate Research Programs

There are many school-sponsored research groups that help get undergrads into research. Find out if your school has any of these kinds of programs (often they are for summer research) and learn more about what they are looking for. A relatively comprehensive list can be found here on the AAMC website.

Co-op and other paid research jobs

These are often more competitive and favor more experienced students, but it’s great to get in touch with these organizations if they exist on your campus. They often have many resources to help you land a great position, and they also have listings of researchers who are hiring.

Check out Part II for how to build your case.

Permanent link to this article: http://portal.mcatquestion.com/getting-into-research-part-1/

Taking Time Off After Undergrad

You’re approaching the end of your undergraduate career and deciding whether to take time off after undergrad. Perhaps you applied to schools and didn’t get in (where you want to go), or for some other reason, you’re considering taking time off between undergrad and med school. What should you do in that time? How much time should you take off? You are not alone with these questions. A number of students in med school take time off after undergrad – some worked in industry jobs, others work on a nonprofit or volunteer, some backpack through Europe, others get a graduate degree or a post-bac. But what about you?

Step 1: Identify why you want to take time off

Is it to retake the MCAT? Is it to beef up your application due to a low GPA? Are you just burnt out after undergrad or do you want to indulge in a different experience before heading off to more school? Your motivations for taking time off will come up in med school interviews so make sure you take full advantage of that time.

As you think about your reasons for taking time off, consider what is most important to you and beneficial to you as an individual and applicant. Consider including volunteering, research, work experience, etc… to keep yourself active. An idle year or two will stick out in your application and interviewers will likely ask you more about your time off.  Be confident in what you will gain from your time off and be ready to stand by the activities you choose to pursue.

Step 2: Decide what to do during this time

Now that you’re sure time off is right for you, what should you do? Activities future med students typically undertake include:

  • Career Building
    • Post-bac. These programs are geared for individuals who perhaps did not have the highest GPA/MCAT in undergrad or are coming from non-science fields and have not completed their premedical coursework.  These are excellent programs geared towards giving you the foundations to apply and be accepted to medical school.
    • Graduate degrees. There are several programs that individuals pursue prior to medical school to gain experience and a broader knowledge base. Masters of Public Health and Public Policy are common for those looking to go to medical school.
    • Work experience. Many students choose to get work experience in a variety of industries prior to pursuing medical school. Engineering, business consulting, and scientific research can segue into med school and be a great way to explore other interests.
  • Outreach/Personal Fulfillment Experiences
    • Research or other volunteering. This demonstrates a commitment to science and health which is a key factor in the admissions process. It’s also a great networking opportunity since many individuals working in these fields have connections to doctors, med schools, and other med students.
    • Study, work, or volunteering abroad. This is a great opportunity to broaden your horizons with a totally new experience. It’s often a humbling test of your commitment to medicine and can enhance both your passion for your career and your application.
  • Relaxation (this is ok!)
    • You don’t have to be sick or experience trauma to justify a break. Students who choose to take a break can still be incredibly successful in the admissions process and in med school. The key is to take the time to ensure it’s right for you and that you can justify it. You should also take advantage of that free time to pursue other interests, hobbies, or other experiences above to stay active and keep sharp. Couple relaxation with one of the activities above to make a good case that your break was reenergizing to your health as a student.

Step 3: Stay Organized

While you’re taking time off after undergrad, remember to make a list of your mentors in college and to ask for letters of recommendation.  Don’t put this off until you’re ready to come back and apply; the longer you wait, the less chance they’ll be able to write a great recommendation with specificity.

Caution:  Remember that your MCAT scores expire eventually, so don’t take off so much time that you have to retake the exam!

The most important thing is to not stress out about taking time off. The average age at matriculation for schools is around 25, so you’re not alone.  As long as you plan and spend your time wisely, you will be well-positioned when you’re ready to attend. Use your time to grow as an individual and your experiences will compound to make you a better applicant, and eventually a more compassionate and effective physician.

Permanent link to this article: http://portal.mcatquestion.com/taking-time-off-after-undergrad/

Planning for College Freshmen

Welcome to college. You’re finally free of the constraints of high school – now it’s time to chill until the MCAT in a couple years, right? Wrong! If med school is on your radar, now is the time to plan the next few years of your college career. One of the biggest mistakes premeds make is not outlining milestones and critical early-stage activities in college like, connecting with faculty, joining key organizations, shadowing doctors and volunteering, or planning coursework.

Incoming freshmen this year also have one unique challenge looming: the new MCAT in 2015. Unless you take the MCAT by the end of summer 2014, you’ll be preparing for major updates to the exam. Current materials won’t adequately prepare you for the exam and should be taken with a grain of salt. Although we’ll be learning more about the exam structure between now and then, official practice materials won’t be made available until 2014.

Premeds are constantly vying for top spots in their classes, key internships and volunteer positions, as well as building relationships with well-known professors. To stay ahead, you need to have a game plan. Start thinking about the key parts of your application; what you’ll need and what milestones you need to achieve. The following chart displays some of these key components that you should begin considering.

Dates Recommendations Volunteering/Research Coursework MCAT
Now Identify key researchers, professors and other figures who may become your recommenders for medical school. You don’t need to contact them now about writing you a rec letter – just make a running list of individuals who can provide you good mentorship during undergrad and potentially vouch for you when the time comes. Though it’s early, think about the kind of work you might be interested in. Make lists of campus organizations and people to reach out to for opportunities. Look into summer programs where you can develop these interests. It’s never too early to map out your course plan based on the different majors that might interest you. Identify the key courses you need for med school and (especially with classes that have a reputation for being difficult) try to spread them out between semesters so you can focus. The earlier you take classes that cover content on the MCAT (e.g. intro bio, orgo, etc.), the better-prepared you’ll be for the exam. Many students fail to take these courses until after or during their MCAT, making it difficult to master the content!
Freshman + Sophomore Years Keep this list and revise it as you go through the next few years. Stay in touch with promising leads. Also, check out our post about Getting Solid Rec Letters. This is your opportunity to dip your feet in different activities – volunteering, research, sports, anything! Narrow down 1-3 key positions where you can truly develop a passion and gain leadership skills and experience. Of course you should do as well as you can in your courses! Go to office hours and get to know your professors. And please, don’t just take all science – take something you find interesting. You may discover a passion you never knew you had. As more content is released, get your hands on it and start practicing! At least you will have a sense of the type of content you’ll need to know and where your weak areas are.
Junior + Senior Years Continue building your network and narrow down your list of contacts – reach out to them and let them know about your interests and your goals; ask them to provide you a recommendation. Start reflecting on your experiences and thinking about how they might tie into your personal statement. Ensure you’re meeting all your coursework requirements and take any required classes that you’re missing.. Study hard and take the MCAT!

Don’t fail to plan because you “don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 3 years.” While you may not have a magic crystal ball (you may be able to grab one from your local mystic), the point of planning isn’t to dictate the rest of your life; it’s to give you a roadmap for key milestones you need to remember and prepare for. Plans can always be updated as your goals and milestones change, so start planning early! What are some of your goals for this academic year?

Permanent link to this article: http://portal.mcatquestion.com/planning-for-college-freshmen/

Getting Solid Rec Letters: Part II

This article is a continuation of Getting Solid Rec Letters: Part I

Seal the deal

Ok you’ve made friends with this mentor.  Now it’s time for rec letter writing.  When do you ask for it, what do you ask for, and how do you ask for it?   Don’t reveal that you want them to write you the rec letter until the time comes.  That is, don’t introduce yourself on Day 1 and say “Hi, will you be my mentor?  I really want you to get to know me and write me a rec letter next year.”  No.  Instead, ask them when the time is appropriate (give them at least 6 weeks to write the letter before it’s due; people hate it when you rush them and this letter needs to be solid gold).  It should be a pleasant surprise when you ask them, not a “I knew it…”

Be straightforward about it and don’t get awkward.  Tell them why you’re asking them (they’re someone who knows you well, who has seen you mature in your undergrad years, and can add value to your application by talking about XYZ qualities/experiences you have) and tell them how much you’ll appreciate having them recommend you.  If all goes well, they’ll be flattered.  Invite them to write it but give them the implicit option to decline, i.e. ask them if they would be willing to write you a rec letter.  They have to be free and comfortable saying no.  Because if they would say no, they’re not the person you want writing your letter.

Congratulations!  They accepted your invitation.  Make sure to tell them they have plenty of time to write it and it’s not due for a while.  Next, tell them you’ll give them more information about the letter.  Go home and put together a cheatsheet for them.  Make it very concise and to the point.  It needs to answer the following questions:

1. Briefly, why you chose them
2. Specific questions they need to address (if any)
3. The angle from which you want them to approach writing about you, referencing specific examples they could use.

This is a really important item because if you have multiple recommenders, you don’t want them all writing about how you’re smart and ignoring how you’re dedicated and empathetic.  Suppose you have 3 people and you want your application to emphasize 3 key qualities.  Well, simple: assign a each quality to the recommender who can best talk about it and have them focus on that.  Reference specific experiences or things you want them to talk about (this has to be things they’re familiar with).  Your goal is to proactively guide the rec letter to paint a complete picture of yourself.  Your rec letters are a chance to really emphasize certain qualities you want the adcom to know about you, or perhaps even to remedy weak areas of your application (say your GPA is low; have the person write about how brilliant and creative you really are).

Follow up

Nothing is worse than using people as a means to an end.  They wrote your letter and now you… cast them by the wayside?  No!  This leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth and they know when they’ve been used.  It can haunt you down the road if you a) ever need them to back you up in the future or b) they’re disgruntled enough to complain about you to the med school.  Worse, it’s just bad taste.  These are people who care about you.  Presumably, you care about them too.  Keep them updated on how you’re doing at various stages of the process.  Even once you start med school, keep in touch every once in a while to catch up.  Practice this kind of relationship building now because you’ll need it in your career as a physician.  Also, write a thank-you card (once the app is submitted; not months down the road).

Permanent link to this article: http://portal.mcatquestion.com/getting-solid-rec-letters-part-ii/

Getting Solid Rec Letters: Part I

Ah, one of the most dreaded moments of the undergraduate career: emailing a former professor who never quite learned your name and asking for a letter of recommendation.  It’s hard to tell which is scarier – pretending you knew the prof well enough to write you a letter, or worrying about whether the letter will actually talk about you in any manner of specificity beyond “Shana was a great student and I highly recommend her.”

Therein lies the first blunder, and for many premeds, by the time you bother to read this, it’s already too late to remedy the situation.  So we’re going to talk about two things here: how to manage your relationships assuming you have time before your rec letters are due (at least a year before you apply for med school) and how to do damage control if it’s too late to make friends with a rockstar prof.

But first, we have to ask ourselves, what’s the point of a rec letter in the first place?  Is it due diligence for the adcom to see if you’re lying about your qualities?  That’s certainly one way to look at it, except that even if you’re an a-hole, that rarely shows up in the rec letter.  It’s rare that rec letters actively hurt applicants; what’s far more common is that rec letters fail to be a golden seal to give applicants an edge.  The harm in having a generic rec letter is that since very few candidates actually have good ones, if yours is unremarkable, you’re just like everybody else and your application doesn’t stand out the way it could.

So we’re not going to talk about how to avoid getting a bad rec letter; we’re going to talk about how to get that golden seal on your application that makes the adcom member think “wow… someone important is actually willing to stick their neck out for this individual – this candidate must be awesome.”

Find a mentor.

Not a peer mentor, but someone with a position of authority.  Most pre-meds make the mistake of going to one of their freshman/sophomore lecturers for rec letters and attempt to build good rapport.  At the end of organic chemistry lecture, just count how many people come down to ask questions and try to introduce themselves to the instructor.  Now, this may not be a terrible idea, it just likely has little benefit.  Orgo (and other pre-med instructors) teach hundreds of students per semester, run their own lab, and have multiple other obligations.  They rarely have time to form a meaningful relationship with a premed; unless they really take you under their wing, you’re not likely to get a good letter in the long run.  Pick professors from some of your smaller classes or individuals who will actually have the time to mentor you.  Someone who shares your sense of humor and can relate to you.

If you’re too late to foster meaningful relationships with a mentor, find a mentor-worthy person who knows you well.  This always outweighs a recommendation written by somebody whose title is fancy but who has to use your student number to look up your grade in their class when they write your letter.

If you’re looking for multiple mentors and recommenders, pick a diverse group.  Don’t pick people who all do the same thing; pick people who know you from different contexts.  Maybe one knows your brilliance in research while another knows how great you are as a leader, etc.  Diversity is key because you don’t want to be a one-trick pony.

Building the Relationship

It should come as no surprise that you actually have to talk to this person.  Tell them your story.  Tell them your motivations.  Tell them jokes (if the person hates your sense of humor, reconsider your choice of mentor).  Answer important questions without being asked, e.g. why you want to go to medical school.  Run ideas past them and get their feedback.  Ask them more about their career path and choices.  The best mentors are those who see you as a future peer; be comfortable around them and chat but keep the relationship professional, not casual.

Talk to this person on a regular basis (every other week at least).  Ask them for advice.  Be someone who is worth talking to… that means take the advice (assuming it’s not awful advice).  Then, follow through by reminding them of the advice they gave you, telling them what specific actions you took in line with that advice, and showing them what great results you now have.  If you don’t follow through, you’re just like everybody else.  This is about how to make you stand out.  When this person writes about you later, you will be a mentee and they will be seriously invested in making you a star because if you fail, then they fail.  They will write about you in a completely different way than profs who don’t care about you.

Check out Part II here!

Permanent link to this article: http://portal.mcatquestion.com/getting-solid-rec-letters-part-i/

About | Contact | About the MCAT | Disclaimer | My Account

Lee Simonov Services © 2012