Tag Archive: medical school

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/

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/

What’s NOT on the MCAT?

Everyone talks about what you can expect to see on the MCAT, but it’s hard to figure out what information won’t be on the exam. For some topics (like quantum physics or astronomy), it’s commonly understood that they’re not tested. However, there are topics covered in intro-level science courses that are often confused for being tested on the MCAT. So, we’ve compiled a list of topics that will not be on the exam!

Writing

  • Starting January 2013, there won’t be a writing section on the MCAT!  The only sections will be Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences. There will also be an optional section at the end of the test that is intended to be a transition into the MCAT in 2015, but will not contribute to your overall score. Save your essay-writing chops for med school apps!

Verbal

  • Poetry or other expressive/nonstandard forms of writing.  While some social sciences passages may discuss poetry, you will not need to read and interpret poetry or other highly abstract/metaphorical texts.
  • Primary research literature.  Although natural sciences passages in the verbal section will discuss science, students often mistakenly think that reading primary research literature will be good practice for the verbal section.  This is simply not true.  The style of writing in research articles is substantially different from science writing intended for a general audience.  If you want more accurate practice, read review articles or science articles written for the public.
  • Specific content.  Although you may see passages about science, history, etc., you will not be tested on any specific content outside of information given in the passages.  Best practices for verbal say to leave your knowledge at the door and use only that information from the passage; do not rely on your background knowledge to answer questions on this section.

Physics

  • Calculus. Calculus is often integrated in physics classes, however, the only physics you are responsible for is non-calc based. That said, you should be familiar with the area under the curve and the equations/relationships where it is useful, as well as understanding the meaning of the slope of a graph.
  • Optical Diagrams. While you should know the Thin Lens Equation and the rules surrounding real/virtual and upright/inverted images for various lenses and mirrors, you will not be asked to interpret optical diagrams with rays of light. If you want to study this topic to get a better general understanding of lenses and mirrors, go for it, but you won’t be tested on such diagrams explicitly.
  • Constants. (It’s generally accepted that you will be given any and all constants you need to solve a problem – however, knowing some common ones may increase your speed on certain questions). The same is not true of equations – there are many of these you must know off-hand, like Snell’s Law, the Thin Lens Equation, Archimedes’ Principle, etc.

General Chemistry

  • Individual values for electronegativity. While you should know periodic table trends, you do not need to know the actual values. Any questions that involve distinguishing electronegativity between two elements will be clearly distinguished and easy to identify based on the general trends.
  • Solubility tables. These are good to know, however, the exam provides the solubility information needed to answer a given question. Therefore, you can get away without necessarily knowing your solubility tables. One caveat is your expectation to know which compounds are unquestionably soluble (e.g. NaCl, HCl, NaOH, etc.).

Organic Chemistry

  • NMR ppm shifts. While you need to know how to interpret peak splitting and peak area, you don’t need to be able to identify the specific functional group at various ppm shifts. Any problems that you see with NMR can be solved without memorizing these shifts.
  • Most IR spectroscopy peaks. The only ones ever really tested are C=O (narrow peak at 1700-1800 cm-1) and -OH (broad peak at 3200-3500 cm-1). Technically, other key functional groups are fair game, but in reality they almost never show up on the exam.
  • 13C NMR. General concepts around symmetry and peak height/splitting are still true for 13C NMR and therefore fair game for the exam. However, you likely won’t see anything about 13C NMR, especially anything that you don’t already know about 1H NMR.
  • Electron Pushing. Intro organic chemistry classes often go into electron pushing for understanding mechanisms. While this may be helpful to understand the steps of a reaction or why a reaction would occur, you will not be tested on electron-pushing diagrams explicitly nor will you be required to draw any electron-pushing diagrams.
  • Aromatics – naming and reactions. These are often confused as being on the exam, and even show up in many MCAT textbooks, but they are not on the MCAT syllabus.  Reactions like Friedel-Crafts or biochemical pathways that incorporate aromatics will not be on the exam without sufficient context for you to answer the question. However, do understand the electronic and basic reactivity properties of benzene, for example (like other alkenes, benzene is considered to be electron-withdrawing).

Biology

  • Non-human anatomy/physiology. While you do not need to know animal anatomy and physiology, certain questions may describe non-human anatomical/physiological structures and ask you to compare them to analogous human structures or systems.
  • Plants. You will not need to know anything about plant anatomy or physiology.  Plants may show up in genetics or population/evolution questions, but they will not require specific knowledge of plants.
  • Fungi. These are on the syllabus and questions regarding fungi have come up before, however, studying this topic in depth is very low-yield. At most you may see a single question testing basic features of fungi (e.g. life cycle). If a passage is provided regarding non-human physiology, there will very likely be adequate context to answer the questions without prior knowledge.
  • Names and structures of amino acids. You should know the four categories of amino acids: polar, non-polar, positively-charged and negatively-charged. However, you do not need to know the names or structures of any amino acid (except perhaps glycine, which has a hydrogen rather than an -R group). Amino acid structures will be given to you or described sufficiently to answer the question.
  • Enzymes and intermediate compound names for the steps of the major biochemical reactions including glycolysis, Krebs cycle, electron transport chain, and fermentation.  You should know the major reactants and products, what kinases do in general, and various big-picture takeaways from these pathways, but you do not need to know the intricacies as studied in many biochem classes.


The complete syllabus for the MCAT can be found here: https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/mcat/about/

Do you have more things to add to the list? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll add them to the list! All student additions will be marked with *.

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