The Ultimate Guide to Medical School Extracurriculars: Research

FIND OUT WHAT’S IMPORTANT FOR MEDICAL SCHOOL APPLICATIONS, HOW TO STAND OUT TO ADMISSIONS COMMITTEES, AND WHAT YOU ACTUALLY NEED TO DO TO BE COMPETITIVE

In this post of our medical school extracurricular guide we’re going to turn our attention to research activities.  If you haven’t already, check out the initial post for a broad overview of extracurricular activities and general advice for how to make any experience standout.

Research, for purposes of medical schools, is defined as involvement in a scholarly project that tests a hypothesis.  

WHY IS RESEARCH IMPORTANT TO MEDICAL SCHOOLS?

The diagnostic tools, treatments, and care-algorithms used in Western medicine are all a result of research. The connection between research and medicine is clear: research advances the field forward.  Medical schools are tasked with developing future physicians that will serve as leaders in the field. They want to know if an applicant is truly dedicated to the field and one way to assess that is by looking for participation in the mechanism that leads to the advancement of the field.

Research also allows the development of essential skills to a physician: critical thinking, problem-solving, and intellectual curiosity. These experiences often may challenge students more than shadowing a physician or helping in administrative duties at a clinic.

Now, research is not a requirement for medical schools.  Certain schools are much more research focused in their mission (typically the top 30-40 schools) than others.  These schools may weigh research experiences more heavily in their admissions process.  

HOW MUCH RESEARCH DO I NEED?

The University of Utah School of Medicine has long provided recommendations for prospective applicants to better understand what medical schools are looking for in extracurriculars.  They recommend at least participation in a hypothesis-based research project either through a class or outside the classroom.  This may include independent research, a scholarly senior project, or working on a larger project with a principle investigator.  We recommend to applicants who are interested in research or are aiming for top tiered schools to work with the same investigator (in a lab or in clinical research) for at least a full year.  The hourly commitment will vary, but the goal is to move beyond the superficial involvement and become an integral part in the project.  Longitudinal involvement is more likely to result in a meaningful impact than dispersed research experiences.  We recommend getting involved as early on as possible, preferably during freshman or sophomore year so an applicant has the time to cultivate meaningful relationships and participate in the full scope of a project or projects.

EXAMPLES OF RESEARCH OPTIONS

The major distinctions between research types for medical school is basic science research versus clinical research.  

Basic science, or “bench” research can be thought of as anything prior to human involvement. Basic science attempts to understand the fundamental concepts of science.  This research is often not directly related to medicine and is often extremely focused, from understanding abnormal folding of a particular protein to elucidating the regulation of a particular transcription factor.  Basic research is often more demanding than clinical research and progresses more slowly.  As a result, many physicians do not do basic science research (though many MD/PhDs do).  

Clinical research is a broad term that can be used to encompass clinical trials for medications, retrospective studies of human populations, or comparing efficacy of novel treatments.  Clinical research can also include quality improvement initiatives, cost-based analysis, or public health research.

In between clinical and basic science research is a hot field currently: translational research.  The aim of translational research is to bridging the understanding from basic science research to the bedside. Basic research may have led to a structural understanding of a particular receptor that may help regulate a biological pathway relevant to any number of diseases.  Translational research aims to take this structural and perhaps synthesize a molecule or protein structure that can be used to potentially benefit patients.  

From understanding molecular pathways in c. elegans to attempting to reduce emergency service response times, research opportunities are endless in nature and likely will be driven by who you decide to work with.  Applicants should pursue what truly interests them rather than what “may look good” on an application.  This will always make it more interesting, enjoyable, and easier to commit to.

Now, if you’re feeling inspired, check out the remainder of our extracurricular guide posts about service, leadership, clinical experience, and shadowing.