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Undergraduate summer: Research or relaxation?

All your questions about whether or not to do research, answered by someone who’s been there before

Summertime is amazing. Not having class, being at home, sleeping in, enjoying the weather—and, most of all, not having any obligations. It’s a good chance to relax, but also the best time to take on something new. Those looking to practice medicine might be asking themselves: is there anything I can do during the summer to put myself in a favorable position to achieve my goals? Specifically, should I be doing research? This post is going to help you make the most of your summer and focus on some common questions regarding research. 

Is research necessary for me to get into med school?

I’ll start by saying that research is not necessary to get into medical school. This is the case with most extracurricular activities in general. There are people who get into medical school without any research experience. Since they are looking for well-rounded people who have many things to offer, not everyone who is qualified has done research. I will say, however, the majority of individuals who are in medical school have had some research experience in the past, whether it’s a summer research project, an honour’s thesis, Master’s degree, or PhD. 

There is a wide range of research possibilities out there, from epidemiology and public health, to quality improvement and clinical research. Not everything is in the typical wet-lab research style. Having some research experience is very good, even if it is not something that you are interested in pursuing in the future. It can assist with your own career exploration, and it shows the schools that you have a basic understanding of the scientific method. The scientific method is what produces all the knowledge we use as physicians to understand, treat and prevent disease as well as to improve how we do our jobs. This is why it is so important to have a basic understanding of it. For these reasons, and many others, I always recommend that individuals get some research experience during their undergraduate education. 

Having publications is definitely not necessary, just having the experience is more important. A publication will not hurt your application and definitely is an aspect to make you stand out, but it is not a prerequisite. I personally did not have any publications at the time of applying or getting into medical school, and I know many of my colleagues that did not either.

When is the best time to start doing research? 

The best time is whenever you can get a position. Those who are lucky enough to have been planning to research early can find themselves in a research lab straight out of high school. For others, their first research experience might come during their honour’s thesis in their fourth year. 

The earlier you start, the more time you have to understand the process, and it also provides you with more time to take on other projects in order to discover what you prefer. Starting too early, however, can be detrimental in some ways: taking on a research project before you have learned the basic concepts and fundamentals that are being used can take away from the experience, since you will not truly understand what you are doing. The professor or doctor in charge might teach you some of the basics, but they’ll likely be too busy to teach you the fundamentals. Most of the fundamentals for wet lab work are learned within the first two years of basic undergraduate science courses. So, there are pros and cons to starting earlier, but I’d say that, overall, the earlier you start, the better.

So, you want to do research—how do you get started? 

If you are in an undergraduate program, you should accept that you’re probably not going to get paid for your work. Unless you can secure your own funding by applying for a grant (or whoever you’re working with has a lot of grant money to spare) your research work will most likely be volunteer-based. 

One of the best undergraduate research grants you can apply for in Canada (at the time of me writing this, that is) is an NSERC USRA. How you apply for this grant depends on what school you’re attending, and how your school selects their desired applicants, which is also variable. Typically, though, it is dependent on grades. For more information on scholarships and grants, you should contact your school’s research department and ask about funding. An alternative is to ask your professor or supervisor about funding opportunities

The next thing you need to do is find a field you are interested in. This can be the most difficult step. If you have no initial ideas, and no research experience, then I suggest you explore many different fields. Cancer research, heart health research, diabetes research, cellular biology research—explore them all. Then go to the affiliated hospital’s website, your own University’s website, or another research institute’s website, and find a list of their researchers. There you should be able to find a brief summary of the type of work they do as well as their contact information. (Hot Tip: the description about their work might be outdated; if you want more recent information, look up the researcher’s name on Google scholar or PubMed and find their most recent publications; you can also see if they have their own research website). 

If the research seems interesting to you, then send that professor or doctor an email saying you are interested. This email should include which stage of your career you’re currently in, what you are interested in exploring and why the research they do is of particular interest you. Mention that you’d like to meet with them to discuss potential opportunities to be involved. Attach your resume so they have an idea of your past experiences. Furthermore, grades carry weight in research, especially if you have taken relevant courses, so it’s important to present them right off the bat—so I suggest attaching a transcript to the email, too. Once you’ve pressed send, cross your fingers that they respond, then rinse and repeat with all other groups you are interested in. You can copy and paste the basic structure of the email, but ensure that each email is personalized for the researcher you’re sending it to.

Sometimes, you won’t get a response.

There is a chance that they will not respond. And if they do, it might be to say they are not looking for new people. Do not take it personally either way. Volume is the name of the game, so send out many emails to a variety of professors and physicians, and keep searching until you find a position that sparks your interest. This will increase your chances of finding a position, and, more importantly, the one that suits you best. If you are lucky and get one or more responses from researchers interested in meeting with you, congratulations!

Always be prepared.

Go into the meeting prepared. Think of some questions about their research, get them to explain it to you and what your potential role would be, and ask any other questions you might have about the project. You can also ask about funding and pay—but that can be a tricky situation. Unfortunately, in the sciences, there is a stigma about asking money questions. Some will misinterpret that you are only interested in the money, while others might be more than happy to openly discuss remuneration options. Just keep in mind that if you’re going to ask, wait until the end of the meeting, or at least until you’re certain they have the space and are interested in having you. If they say they do not have enough funding to support you, you can ask them about scholarships and grants you can apply for which may require some input and effort on their end. 

Finally, do not accept an offer during the meeting itself. Go home and sleep on it. Meet with other researchers, think about which position will be the best for you, and once you’ve made your choice, send an email expressing your interest to join them.

When should you email people about summer research? 

If you want to do summer research, you should start emailing early. Most people will start to email around January or February. If you want to play it safe, start even earlier. I personally started emailing professors around mid-October. Remember, once a professor promises a spot to someone, they might not be able to accommodate anyone else. There are many advantages to emailing early: having time to meet with more labs, and having more time to think about positions, just to name a few. This is why, if you are considering research, I highly recommend you start to send emails about your interest as early as possible.

Should I join a big research group or small group? 

It depends on your preferences. A big lab has the benefit of having lots of resources and tends to be more productive, and the odds of getting a paper (or something tangible that you can throw on a resume) out of the experience is higher. You also meet with more minds, and are able to take on many different roles, potentially learning more techniques in the process. The issue with a big lab is that there is a lower chance of building a strong relationship with the professor or physician in charge, and the groups tend to be less tight-knit. 

In a big lab, you will likely be reporting to another member who will be supervising you, and if the lab is very big, you might never get much direct contact with your supervising professor or doctor. Whether or not this is a con for you is a personal issue, but I have always worked in smaller groups and found that what I learn from reporting directly to a PhD or doctor in charge has been amazing, and the relationship you build in the process is rock solid. I am still in contact with my previous professors and meet with them occasionally to catch-up. If I had to provide advice on this, I would say when you are first starting out, aim to find a small lab. Later, once you are more comfortable and have built some skills, you can try out a bigger lab. To reiterate, you can’t really go wrong either way, but definitely get a taste of both to see which you prefer.

Should I do research during the year? 

My recommendation is to start with a full-time summer project. This will give you with the kind of immersion that will help you get very comfortable in the lab. If you are doing good work, and if your project is making good pace and you feel like you can manage it part-time while juggling school, then ask your research supervisor about the possibility of continuing part-time during the year. This can be very beneficial to expand on your project, and to increase the probability of getting a research paper out of it. This will also provide you with a long-term and meaningful connection to your supervisor, and stronger potential reference letter. You might also be able to get paid for some part-time work as well.

Besides research, what else should I do during the summer? 

Summer is the time to strengthen your extracurricular activities and explore something new. Read a new book, watch a new show, start that activity you’ve always been meaning to try. When you have the time (and no academic obligations) it’s a great chance to build yourself in unique ways. But also make sure to take time for yourself. Do things that will not necessarily improve your resume, but that make you happy. Your happiness is the most important aspect of your life, and if you become too consumed with medicine and work, you will never be satisfied. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. While I highly recommend that you work hard, you also need to block off some time for yourself so that you don’t burn out.

If you are planning on writing the MCAT, you’ll need to decide for yourself what else you can juggle along with your studying. For me, I managed to do full-time research, study for the MCAT, and was still able to do some volunteer work. For others, this might not be doable. You should know yourself and how much attention the test will require. Getting a good enough score is the most important thing to focus on. The benefit of doing other activities while studying is that it allows you to come out of the summer with more than just one accomplishment—but this is only true if you get a good score and don’t have to rewrite the test.

…and what is my personal opinion on summer courses? 

It depends on your individual situation. Some people take summer courses for med school pre-requisites that they are more worried about, or not as strong in. This is because courses tend be easier in the summer, since you are only focusing on one, and, for the most part, the mark does not count for many medical school GPA calculations. A classic scenario is a student taking physics in the summer: they never took physics in high school or were never well-versed in it, so, by taking it during the summer, they can focus all their attention on it to ensure they pass. This can be a strategic approach, and if it’s the only way to get a course under your belt without failing (or drastically impacting your GPA), then it might be your best bet. However, in general, I’m against taking classes during the summer. Enough of your time in university is spent taking structured courses, going to classes, taking notes, studying for a test and then forgetting everything after the test. So, take the limited time you have off to do something different. Build on your experiences and become a little more well-rounded. This will help you be motivated and energized the following year, rather than burnt-out from studying. Just work your butt off during the year, get the grades you need, and enjoy your summer. It’s a rare commodity. 

What did I do during my summers while in undergrad? 

The summer after first year, I worked a full-time job unrelated to medicine and saved money to pay for my expenses. The summer following second year, I studied for my MCAT and held my first full-time research position. The year after that, I took on another research position, traveled a bit, and watched the entirety of Naruto in the span of a month. Throughout all these summers, I also went to the gym, wrestled often, tutored (because I love it), and made a conscious effort to maintain my social life. This kept me healthy, happy, and rested—but also productive. Medical school summers are quite different, as you have much more flexibility in terms of what you can do. They can be much less focused and extremely variable based upon the specialty you wish to pursue. There are some people who travel the entire summer and some who juggle five research projects at a time. 

So, no matter what you choose to do, take full advantage of your summer. There is only a limited portion of your life that allows for you to have a true summer vacation, so don’t waste them. The truth is, if you are interested in medicine there are certain boxes you need to check, certain things you must accomplish, and, fortunately, your summers are the best time to do that.


Reza Fakhraei

Reza Fakhraei is a medical student currently studying at the University of Toronto. He has been a tutor and coach for many years throughout high school and in University. He started blogging about his med school journey on his blog Med Student Gunner “to provide straightforward and comprehensive advice to anyone looking to get into medical school”. He has since expanded his focus, writing more and more about what medical school is really like from the inside, both for the enjoyment and interest of his audience, and because blogging is a hobby that keeps him balanced.