By: Mugdha Joshi
Being the high achievers and go-do-ers that most pre-med students are, many start their undergraduate experience with a checklist of what MUST be accomplished before their medical school application day. For most pre-meds, undergraduate research is a term that has come to top that list. In the past when grades and MCAT scores were the predominant determining factors for medical school admissions, undergraduate research really set people apart. Fast forwarding to our era, with the abundance of opportunities on campuses even in the summer to conduct research, it has started to feel like a requirement. It feels like every successful applicant has committed at least a few semesters of their lives to bench research of some sort. All this hype from pipetting to publications has created a sense that you cannot get into medical school without working in a lab. This, however is simply not true.
Medical school admissions officers have repeatedly said that they look for genuine interest in activities that students are involved with. Inevitably, in our climate where doing research in a lab feels like a requirement, there are many a pre-meds slogging away in labs across the county hating every second of what they are doing, justifying their misery with their aspirations for medical school. The fact of the matter is that the accomplishments that set successful pre-meds apart are difficult to come by if students despise what they are doing. Lab research is most rewarding to those that find their work exciting and look forward to the time they spend in lab.
It is true that lab research can be very fulfilling and exciting, bringing you to the forefront of scientific discovery. However, undergraduate research has a glorified image of students working with state of the art equipment, stumbling upon something groundbreaking, and being able to publish and present their discoveries. In reality, lab research can be very mundane. Students have to do the same techniques repeatedly. Often times experiments don’t work or results don’t come through. Victories are usually small, and rarely groundbreaking. For some, the problem solving aspect and the fascination with the amazing science that goes on behind research is more than enough to make up for the mundaneness. However, lab research isn’t for everyone because some students have difficulty seeing past the pitfalls and lack of victories in the lab work they are doing.
My message to these students is this: give lab research a whirl, but if it isn’t for you, do not despair! There are other things you can do that you may find a thousand times more fulfilling that will by no means remove you from the race to medical school. The reason that lab research is looked upon so fondly by admissions councils is not merely to separate the published from the unpublished or the adept at pipetting from the unskilled. Lab research “looks good” because of the intangible skills that it demonstrates. Students engaged in lab research must demonstrate creative thinking ability, problem solving skills, intellectual curiosity and a drive for learning along with a strong work ethic and high levels of analytical ability and intelligence. It is no surprise that these students jump out in a pile of applications. However, just because a student finds lab research unfulfilling does not mean that they do not demonstrate these revered qualities.
If you like being creative, solving problems and pushing the limits of what you know, but the thought of working in a lab fills you with dread, you are not alone. Many successful pre-meds have walked through the Arch on graduation day with acceptances to medical school without committing to lab research. They have, however done some other pretty incredible things that demonstrate that they are the intelligent, innovative pioneering leaders that the future of medicine needs.
One opportunity UGA students have available to them is involvement in the Roosevelt Institute, a student-run think tank that identifies problems plaguing our society and develops policy solutions to combat them. Anyone reading the news in our generation knows when it comes to health, there are a plethora of systemic issues keeping our healthcare system from being everything that it can be. These issues are every bit as important to resolve as the search for the cure for cancer. Roosevelt students learn about these issues from the inside and out, find creative solutions and are given a platform through which they can present these ideas to people who will listen. Policy solutions created by UGA students have gone on to be considered by local governments for implementation. Students looking to devise tangible solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems may find fulfillment in policy research. The research is interesting in a very different way while still developing some very impressing core qualities.
A lot of times students don’t realize that any independent and creative endeavor requires a similar set of skills as research. One successful pre-med student devised a full travel writing course through the help of a professor and spent her summer traversing the Mediterranean while reading books relevant to the region and writing about her experiences. Her project allowed her to build a relationship with a professor, another key component of undergraduate research, and it allowed her to pursue her own interests in a creative and exciting way. A lot of times, anxious pre-med students forget that independent projects that cater to their interests are just as meaningful to pursue as laboratory research. Whether that project is publishing a book, starting an organization from ground up or planning an international escapade, if it allows you to develop vital skills and is meaningful to you, it will propel you towards success.
It is easy to forget in a place where opportunities for lab research are so abundant and often times mandatory for coursework, that other kinds of research do exist. Eyes start to cross reading papers about genetics? Approach an economics professor about the questions they are pursuing. Find cultural diversity more interesting than taxonomic diversity? Read about the work going on in the anthropology department. There are literally thousands of amazing opportunities waiting to be taken advantage of across all departments at this school. Many of the questions being asked are extremely fascinating and still very relevant to be working on.
There are even more options out there to explore for people that are not interested in lab research. You just have to take it upon yourself to find that thing that makes you come alive. If the lab research you are doing is not interesting to you, it isn’t worth it. Branch out. Try new things. Don’t settle. When you find that pursuit that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning and stay up late at night, it will all be worth it.