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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/

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