Contributor: Simi Juriasingani
At some point, almost every Medical Sciences student has Googled the phrase “How to get into medical school”. It normally leads us to a checklist that looks something like this:
Diverse extracurricular involvement
Long-term community volunteering
Strong personal references
As we go through university, it can become a habit to categorize all our experiences in terms of these requirements.
But each experience is more than a means to an end. For example, your community volunteering or extracurricular positions aren’t just about the number of hours you have invested or the reference letters you will receive from supervisors. These various roles actively enhance your ability to empathize with others, along with improving your communication skills, leadership skills, etc.
As you work on your applications for professional healthcare programs (including but not limited to medicine) you will realize that they require you to reflect on your experiences thoroughly.
So, if you are the stage where you’re considering getting research experience or if you’ve already started working in a lab, it’s very important to think about WHY you are pursuing research.
While it is perfectly OK to pursue research to complete a requirement on your checklist or to get a great reference letter, you can probably gain a lot more than that from a research position.
Here’s a list of four things you may gain from any research experience without even realizing it:
1) Problem solving and critical thinking skills.
Almost all professional school applications and interviews will ask you to describe situations where you have exhibited problem solving or critical thinking skills. These questions can be tricky to answer. However, the research setting gives rise to plenty of opportunities for you to develop and display these skills. For example, your lab may be having difficulty cloning a gene and you may find a new experimental approach online that ends up solving the problem. Suddenly, this is a situation where your critical thinking and problem solving skills stand out and your supervisor can attest to it too! Keep track of your lab’s and your own roadblocks along with your contributions to solving them.
2) Meaningful connections and relationships.
Getting a reference letter can be a strong motivating factor for anyone pursuing research. However, it’s important to realize that your supervisor is not the only person who can serve as a reference. It’s best to focus on creating meaningful connections with all the people in your lab. By interacting with others in your lab, you’ll learn more about the people you are working with and that will open the door for creating lasting relationships. Your supervisor may become a long-term professional mentor and your senior lab mates may become close friends. It’s up to you to decide how much you interact with and help others. The more engaged you are, the more opportunities and support you’ll receive from everyone in your lab, and the quantity and quality of your references will also improve!
3) Commitment to evidence-based scientific innovation
A lot of students pursue research with the end goal of publishing a paper or two to improve their CV. While there is nothing wrong with this goal, there is more to a published paper than the citation it adds to your CV. The doors that open and/or close based on the experimental findings of your publication reflect your immortal contribution to what is known about a specific field. For example, let’s assume your paper investigates a protein that is implicated as a modulator of Alzheimer’s progression. If your knockout models exhibit changes in Alzheimer’s progression, you’ve confirmed that this protein is involved and it could become a drug target. However, if your knockout models exhibit no change in Alzheimer’s progression, then you’ve shown that this protein isn’t involved, which prevents other pointless investigations and wasted resources. If this process is something that ends up driving you, then you have gained a commitment to evidence-based scientific innovation. This is invaluable because current healthcare practices operate within an evidence-based decision-making framework. If your research achievements reflect a similar mindset, your applications to professional healthcare programs are more likely to be accepted.
4) The opportunity to truly stand out
It can be easy to see others around you who are applying to the same programs and wonder how you’ll stand out in the crowd, especially when everyone’s following the same checklist. While it’s true that every experience you take part in contributes to the uniqueness of your application, there’s nothing that will make you stand out like your research. Why? Because no two people work on the exact same research project. If you’re working with a senior student, you may not have a project of your own, but do not be afraid of speaking about your contribution because none of your peers will be working on the same project. Each research experience is different and if you emphasize the unique impact of your research in your applications, you will stand out!
We hope you’ll consider these factors when you think about why you’re pursuing research. In the meantime, we wish you all the best with your future endeavors!