A few weeks after I accepted a research position for the summer through my university, I received an email saying that a majority of summer experiences were going to be postponed due to COVID-19. Just a few days after that, I found myself packing my bags and getting ready to finish my sophomore semester at home.
My experience was not unusual; thousands of college students returned to their hometowns, with some fortunate enough to have their summer experiences transition onto a virtual platform. For many others however, the search for an internship or research position began once again; this time with much more competition as uncertainty spread throughout the country. But for pre-med students, how important is research for medical school? How much does a summer experience factor into your application?
It’s easy to get lost in trying to build your resume when it feels like everyone around you is doing something big and groundbreaking. However, it’s important to take a step back to understand what you were hoping to learn from the experience in the first place and see if there exists another way you could attain that knowledge. To do so, we should also understand why medical schools would want an applicant to have research experience!
Before diving in, it is necessary to make distinctions between common summer experiences that pre-med students may seek. One of the most important to have is clinical experience, or a position where you are directly involved with the patient. This could include being an EMT, CNA, or a medical scribe. However, shadowing a physician is not considered clinical experience! Although it can be important for seeing what a certain specialty is like, it does not necessarily put you in direct contact with the patient.
So why is research important if you’re not even in close contact with a patient? Well first, research experience shows admission officers that you are capable of analyzing scientific literature and producing new ideas using the scientific method. This is especially important if you are planning to apply to M.D/P.h.D programs or research institutions. Research also allows you to become familiar with laboratory techniques and proper procedures when conducting certain experiments.
The short answer: no. But like many things pertaining to a medical school application, it depends! It is more important to have clinical experience because it’s what you’ll be doing as a doctor; at the end of the day, you’ll be interacting with sick patients and admission officers need to know that you want to do that and that you are capable.
At the same time, a meaningful research experience can display intellectual curiosity and a genuine interest in your field. It is not a “must-have” but rather a “nice-to-have”. It is also helpful for your own personal growth if it is in a field you are passionate about. This is especially beneficial if you are pursuing a degree in a major that is not “typical” for pre-med students. It shows the people reading your application that you are not only “interested” in a subject but go out of your way to learn about it and dig deep into the literature. Besides that, you also gain experience from working in a team, being responsible for your work, and finding answers to questions through a structured process. These are skills that doctors possess and practice in their everyday lives. As mentioned before, if you are applying to a M.D / P.h.D program, having research experience is extremely important.
With this in mind, it’s not too late to try and search for opportunities! Whether that be shadowing physicians around you, assisting in research, or even finding a part-time job, there will always be something out there for you to do.
Here are some steps you can take to make the most out of your time:
If all else fails, remember that your application does not depend solely on the summer of COVID-19; many schools are cognizant of the fact that countless students were displaced and could not secure a position in time. You may also end up doing research through your program at school in completing a senior thesis.
If that is the case, take this opportunity to reconnect with your passions; you can make this summer your own by creating your own experience! Find something that you care deeply about and fully immerse yourself in it. You may even find out more about yourself in this time.
Sign up to get regular admissions tips, advice, guides, and musings from our admissions experts delivered straight to your inbox. No spam, we promise.