How to gain research and clinical experience for med school

October 24, 2018

GPA and MCAT score. These are the two primary things on everyone’s mind when they start thinking about putting together their medical school applications.

And why not? After all, one’s MCAT score and GPA serve as quantifiable metrics that are useful in comparing applicants, and everyone knows that med schools weigh them heavily when ranking pre-med candidates for admission.

Of course, you probably also know that being a physician is not just about having good scores on paper. Doctors are expected to work with patients and members of an entire health care team while contributing to the overall body of medical knowledge.

A big portion of the AAMC application is dedicated to experiences—specifically research and clinical experiences. Whether you’re a freshman just starting your pre-med track or a senior just starting your application, we’ve got some tips on how to get started finding those clinical and research opportunities.

What are clinical experiences and where can I find them?

Having some sort of clinical experience on your application is an unwritten rule. The number of experiences, however—not to mention hours—is a more subjective matter. Luckily, the opportunities that generally qualify as “clinical experiences” are broad and plentiful. As one admissions officer put it, ‘If you can smell patients, it’s a clinical experience.”

Within clinical experience, you can divide them into two main categories: paid and volunteer. Examples of paid positions include emergency room techs, pharmacy techs, phlebotomists, licensed practical nurses, emergency medical technicians, emergency room scribes, and paramedics.

The first four all work inside the hospital itself and require different licenses, but the requirements are generally not time-intensive and are possible to complete while still in school. Many universities also have their own EMT/volunteer ambulance service in which students can participate.

Volunteer clinical positions do not typically involve direct medical care, since volunteers are neither trained nor paid, but they can still interact with patients. Hospital emergency departments, assisted-living centers, hospices, medical centers, or other programs sponsored by your university (internships, externships, medical missions) are great places to look.

Asking to shadow a physician you know personally is also a great way of having a guided patient care experience in a specialty of interest. If this is an opportunity that’s available to you, by all means, take it!

What should I get out of clinical experiences?

Medical schools need to know you understand what it’s like to work in the health care field before you devote yourself to a lifelong career in it.

While it’s difficult to understand what it’s like to be a physician from observation, good clinical experiences will teach you the role of the health care professionals in patient care and demonstrate their interactions with each other and the patient.

So when applying to med school, it’s important to emphasize what you learned about the field in your clinical experience and how it ties in to your desire to become a physician. Anecdotes from your experiences are always great to bring up in your medical school interviews and secondary application questions. Overall, you want to communicate to medical schools that you are experienced in the health care field and aware of what you’re signing on for.

Where should I look for research experiences?

Evidence-based medicine relies heavily on research for new innovations and treatments. While not mandatory, research experience is looked on favorably by admissions committees.

The vast majority of research experiences will be available through your university. Many schools have summer programs that are designed so students can work under a mentor and learn research techniques. These spots are often limited, so a useful strategy is to approach science professors you’ve taken classes with to see if they need assistance in their research. Even if they don’t have open opportunities, they can often put you in touch with colleagues who do.

Medical centers and independent research facilities (e.g. Translational Genomics Research Institute) also offer internships for students during the summer and academic year. Check with your college’s career center for other opportunities or view this list of summer programs by AAMC.

What should I get out of research experiences?

While publishing a paper is an excellent goal to work towards, many research experiences will not end up going that direction. It’s important to set appropriate expectations with your mentor before starting your work.

Most research you will encounter is bench or basic science research—working with tissues, genetic materials, and chemicals in a biochemistry lab. Some opportunities may allow you to do clinical research, which focuses more on testing the effect of different treatments on patients.

Regardless, you will be expected to know background information about what you are researching, your overall research question, and the details of your project. Ideally, you will be able to come to some sort of conclusion and write up a poster or presentation that can be delivered later.

Admissions committees can and will ask questions about your research experiences in your medical school interviews, especially if you are applying to an MD-PhD program or a school where research plays a major role. Being able to tie your research to your application’s overall theme is crucial in making a good impression.


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