What to do in an Undergraduate Summer and all about Research

Summer time is amazing. Not having class, being able to enjoy the weather, being at home, sleeping in, and most of all is having no obligations. For those looking to practice medicine, is there anything you should do in the summer to put yourself in a favorable position and help yourself achieve your goal? Summer time is relaxing but it is also the best time to take on something new. Should you be doing research? This post is going to answer cover how to maximize your summer and focus on common questions regarding research.

Do you need research to get into medicine? If so, how much? Are publications necessary? I’ll start by saying research is not necessary to get into medical school. You do not need to do research to get into medical school and be a doctor, and 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 can 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 that is a summer research project, an honour’s thesis, Master’s degree or a PhD. This experience does not need to be basic science research. There is a wide range of research possibilities and realms including epidemiology, public health, 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 apart, 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 do not either.

When is the best time to start doing research? The best time is whenever you can first get a position. For some that are lucky enough to think about research early, straight out of high school before they start university they are in a research lab, while for others their first research experience is 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 in your future to take on other projects in varied topics to discover what you prefer. Starting too early, however, can also 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. Your professor or doctor in charge might teach you some of the basics, for the most part they will most likely be too busy to teach you the necessary fundamentals. Most of these fundamentals are learned within the first two years of basic undergraduate science courses for most wet lab work. So there are pros and cons to starting earlier, but for the most part the earlier you start the better.

Ok so you want to do research, how do you get started? If you are in an undergraduate program, then what you should do is realize that unless you can secure funding by applying for a grant, or whoever you end up working for has a lot of grant money, you probably are not getting paid for your work and it will be volunteer-based. One of the best research grants you can get as an undergraduate student in Canada at the time of me writing this is an NSERC USRA. How you apply for this scholarship depends on your school since the process is school-dependent, and how schools select their desired applicants is also variable, but typically it is very grades dependent. 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 first thing you need to do is find a field you are interested in. This can be the most difficult step in most cases. If you have no idea and no research experience, then I suggest you have a broad horizon and explore many different fields. Cancer research, heart health research, diabetes research, cellular biology research, explore them all. You then go to the research-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 and their contact information. Note that 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 recent publications. You can also see if they have their own research website. If it seems interesting to you then send that professor or doctor an email saying you are interested. Compose up a formal email saying what stage of your career you are, that you are interested in exploring research and the research they do specifically seems to interest you. Mention a possibility to meet with them to discuss some 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 this is important to present them right off the bat thus also attach a transcript to the email and send it. Cross your fingers that they respond and 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 unique and it is not obvious that you mass emailed professors.

There is a chance that they will not respond, or they will, but with news that 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. It will increase your chances of finding a position, and more importantly one that suits you best. If you are lucky and get one or more responses from researchers interested in meeting with you, congratulations and go in to 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. Now you can also ask about funding and pay, but it can be a tricky situation. Unfortunately, in science there is a stigma against asking about money and some will take it as you doing it for the money if you ask about money and be offended, while others will be more than happy to discuss funding and pay with you openly. There is no “right time” to ask, but keep in mind if you are 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/grants you can apply for which may require some 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 are certain about a position, 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 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 any more students. There are many pros of emailing early. Having more time to meet with more labs, not having to cram many meetings in a shorter period of time, having more time to think about positions, and the greater your chance of getting a position you like to name a few. This is why if you are considering research, I highly recommend you start to email about your interest early.

Should I join a big research group or small group? There is no right answer to this question. A big lab has the benefit of having tons of resources and tends to be more productive. The odds of getting a paper or something tangible that you can throw on a resume out of the experience is higher. You also have more minds and are able to take on many different roles and potentially learn 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. For the most part you will be reporting to another member of the lab who will be supervising you, and if the lab is very big you might never get much direct or individualized contact with the 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 the learning I get from directly reporting to a PhD or the doctor in charge has been amazing and the relationship you build in the process is insurmountable. I am still in contact with my previous professors and meet with them occasionally to catch-up, so for me it is an easy choice. If I had to provide advice on this I would say when you are first trying out research or starting it you should aim to find a small lab and then later, once you are more comfortable or 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 provide you with the necessary exposure to the project and immersion so that you are very comfortable in the lab. If you are doing good work, your project is making good pace, and you feel like you can manage a part-time research project while juggling school, then ask your research supervisor near the end of your project about the possibility to continue part-time during the year. This can be very beneficial to expand on your project and increase the probability of getting a research paper out of it. This will also provide you with a more long-term and meaningful connection, and stronger potential reference letter. You might also be able to get paid for some part-time work as well.

Outside of research what else should you do in the summer? Summer is the time to strengthen your extracurricular activities and explore something new. Read a new book, watch a new TV show, or start a new activity completely. It is a great time to build yourself in unique ways when you have time and no academic obligations. Also make sure to take some time for yourself. Also 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 consume yourself too much with medicine and work and treat your happiness as an afterthought, you will never be satisfied. Remember, this is a marathon not a sprint. While I highly recommend you work hard, you also need to maintain some time for yourself, so you do not burn out and you enjoy the process.

Note that if you are planning on doing the MCAT then you need to decide for yourself how much else you can juggle along with the MCAT itself. For me, I managed to do full-time research and studied while also having my community obligations such as volunteering at my local shelter and wrestling club regularly and was able to do well enough. For others this is not doable. Getting a score that is high enough to get you into medical school is the most important aspect, and everything else is great, but should not override this. You should know yourself and should be aware of the amount of attention the test will need. The benefit of doing other activities while studying for the test is that it allows you to come out of the summer with more than just one accomplishment, thus a more efficient summer. This is, however, only true if you got a good score and will not need to rewrite the test. It is a difficult decision, but something that you should definitely do some reflection on.

What is my opinion on summer courses? It depends on your situation. Some people take summer courses for the pre-requisites necessary for medical school that they are not as good at. This is because courses tend be easier in the summer, 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 good at it so it is easier in the summer and they can focus all their attention to physics to ensure they pass it. I appreciate doing this as it can be strategic, and if it is the only way you will get a course under your belt without failing it or it drastically impacting your GPA, then doing this might be your best bet. In general, however, my opinion is against taking classes in the summer. Enough of your time in university is taking structured courses, going to classes, taking notes, studying for a test and then forgetting everything after the test. Take the limited time you have off to do something else. Build on other experiences and be more well-rounded and rested. This is so that you are both motivated and energized in the following year and not burnt-out from studying. Just work your butt off during the year, get the grades you need, but enjoy your summer as it is a rare commodity. Summer experiences are important for building your character, and such planning will pay dividends should you end up pursuing medicine.

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 just made money and saved up to pay for my expenses. The summer following second year I studied for my MCAT and held my first full-time research position. The following year I took on another research position, traveled a bit and watched the entirety of Naruto (including Shippuden but excluding the fillers) in the span of a month. Throughout all of 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, rested and also productive. Medical school summers are quite different as you have much more flexibility in terms of what you can or need to do. They can be much less focused and extremely variable based upon the specialty you wish to pursue. Ranging from people who travel the entire summer, to those who juggle 5 research projects at a time. A future post of mine will cover medical school summers for those who are going into their first year of medical school and interested to learn more about it.

No matter what you do, take full advantage of your summer whether that is through being very productive, or being very well-rested. There is only a limited portion of your life with a summer vacation void of any obligations, so take advantage but do not waste them. If you are interested in medicine, there are certain “boxes” you need to check, and fortunately your summers are some of the best ways to do just that.

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