Pre-Med: Does Research Experience Matter?

As a pre-med, there is an expectation that you will pursue a medical research internship at some point during your undergraduate career or before applying to medical school. Among the many medical internships available to undergraduates, research experience on campus, typically in a wet lab, are some of the most sought-after. More than that, most successful matriculants to medical school do have at least some pre-med research experience on their resume.
Does pre-med research experience matter if you’re simply not interested in research? Not necessarily. The other factors that go into your medical school application — your MCAT score, GPA, and clinical experience — all matter a great deal more. It’s not necessary, and in most cases, not realistic to expect undergrads to be a part of published research. So, will a lack of pre-med research experience affect your application? Probably not. Should you consider it anyway? Yes.

Think Outside the Lab

Your perception of what your summer pre-med research internship will look like probably includes doing endless titrations while sweating under an itchy lab coat. In all fairness, that’s what a lot of research looks like — long hours in a lab — and that doesn’t seem that interesting or exciting, no matter how groundbreaking the underlying science might be. So if that doesn’t interest you, expand your idea of what research looks like. You can find pre-med research experience in clinical settings, working directly with patients, or in a field that has nothing to do with medicine. Researching sea turtles in the Caribbean is research, too. Think big. Your college or university is home to dozens of professors conducting research in everything from engineering to ethics. Get curious, and find a topic that aligns with something you already enjoy.

Trust the Process

Pre-med research experience isn’t about the end result as much as it is about learning how to formulate a research hypothesis, learning how to iterate on your hypothesis, and thinking through your results. When you think of research that way, you’re learning how to learn, which is fundamentally important to your experience in medical school and as a physician, even if you don’t do much research in medical school or as a doctor. The experience itself is valuable in teaching you patience, how to deal with setbacks, how to work alongside other professionals, etc.

It Is Not Resume Fodder

If you’re not interested in conducting pre-med research, don’t just do it to pad your medical school application or because you think you have to in order to get accepted to medical school. If you are successful enough in your medical school application journey to get to the interview phase, your pre-med research experience is fair game for medical school admissions officers to ask you about it. If you can’t speak to the reasons why you chose this particular pre-med research topic or worse, can’t explain what you were researching and what you learned, you haven’t bolstered your candidacy at all. This is why it’s important to pursue pre-med research in something you are interested in.

Building So-Called Soft Skills

Looking at research internships and experience, you’re learning so much more than the process of scientific inquiry. In many ways, your responsibilities will intersect with the same responsibilities you would take on in any part-time job. Your experience in organized research will help you learn how to operate under pressure, handle delicate situations, and be detail-oriented. And, since your pre-med research experience will make an appearance in your medical school applications, your principal investigator or your lab supervisor may very well be writing you a letter of recommendation that speaks to your curiosity and work ethic. Make this experience count.

Have a Good Reason for Why Not

Most medical schools have a holistic application review process, meaning the admissions committee will review your application as a whole, putting your GPA and MCAT score in the context of your leadership and extracurricular activities. Still, if your class schedule during the semester is loaded or you also hold down a job, it’s better to focus on maintaining a great GPA or gaining clinical, patient-facing exposure. You can always check out shorter summer pre-med research experiences for undergraduates when you have more downtime. Either way, when the question comes up at your medical school interview, you’ll want to give a compelling reason as to why you chose not to do research and what you chose to do instead.