Oct 19, 2014
I've been in a bench research lab ~6-12 months. All I do is scut work for a grad student. I have no creative control or input on experiments, I just set up rxns and do other associated work.

I've got several upcoming med school interviews. How do I explain my lab scut work at my interviews without being self-deprecating? Is there any way to spin this positively? Essentially, I just don't want to sound like I'm a box-checker.

To clarify, my goal in joining my lab wasn't to be a box-checker. I wanted to actually do research. I still aim to do so, if not during undergrad then absolutely during med school.

Baron Samedi

7+ Year Member
May 30, 2010
Attending Physician
How is setting up reactions scutwork? Are you saying there was literally zero educational value in such an experience?

Did you expect to be a PI as an undergraduate?
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This space for lease
5+ Year Member
Jan 2, 2014
Resident [Any Field]
you learned how to set up reactions - this is incredibly important, we had a post-doc who didn't understand the basics of setting up reactions and it was really dangerous. he left something boiling overnight in oil with a nitrogen balloon, no condenser or even a sign to say what was inside.
you got an idea about what research is like and got a taste of what it is to like to work in a lab

what kind of creative control did you expect to have? you don't know anything, don't know the first thing about having an idea and designing experiments to look at that idea which involves extensive literature research, grant writing, endless meetings with different people, etc.

no one expects you to be winning a noble prize in undergrad


7+ Year Member
Oct 26, 2011
Medical Student
Completely agree, make sure to understand the main goal of the project though, and you can say it has inspired you to do independent research of your own one day (if it has). Very few applicants will have done their "own" research. Your experience is quite normal.


7+ Year Member
Jun 30, 2010
Resident [Any Field]
Do NOT try to glorify or embellish anything on your application. Be honest and genuine about it. From experience, interviewers can see through this VERY easily. This is a perfectly appropriate way to explain your experience:

To clarify, my goal in joining my lab wasn't to be a box-checker. I wanted to actually do research. I still aim to do so, if not during undergrad then absolutely during med school.

It's not self-depricating. Interviewers understand that your first research experience is usually not glamorous so this is really typical for many applicants. Perfectly fine to say "I worked in this lab because I wanted to get some exposure to research, a lot of my time was spent [washing dishes / culturing petri dishes / setting up reactions / whatever] but it was great to be exposed to the whole process of research from the bottom up and I definitely want to get more involved in another project where I can possibly work more independently in the future"....or something of that nature.
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Jun 25, 2013
Medical Student
I'd ask your PI/grad student, whoever you are directly working under, and just sit down and talk to them about the project. Come up with some questions. Usually, I've only had to talk about the "big idea" of my research at the interviews. Regardless of what your interviewer specialized in or does research in, I've found that most of them would rather talk about other things than to be bored with tedious details. Most importantly, try to sound excited about it. Tell them what you have learned. As essentially a lab tech, you do a really important job, and research would not be able to progress if people did not physically run the experiments.

Honestly during the school year, I loved just running experiments and being told what to do. I could pop in some music, or some podcasts, do some work, spend the downtime catching up on some homework/studying, and leave lab with an end point. If you have more and more responsibility, you're basically expected to work/review literature/hypothesize the entire time. It definitely makes it a lot more stressful. But if it's something that you want to do, ask your PI/grad student if you can get more involved. I'm sure usually they're more than happy to help you out. Good luck OP! and have fun at the interviews.


Thank You for Smoking
Lifetime Donor
10+ Year Member
May 22, 2008
Deep in the heart of Texas
Attending Physician
Don't glamorize it. As someone else said, it won't come across well. Be honest about your experience and do some reflecting to think about things that you actually did learn through the process. Surely you learned something. That's all we're looking for when asking about experiences - that you took something away from them and have the insight to recognize and articulate that.


Meep Meep Meep
7+ Year Member
Feb 2, 2011
Tied to a library chair
Resident [Any Field]
Talk about what you are doing in relation to the project. If you're doing this and have no idea why it relates to the overall project, then you need to start asking questions and reading papers. If you're just skating by, you're missing a tremendous learning opportunity.


10+ Year Member
Jun 12, 2009
Medical Student
Even if you are not involved in the creative aspect of the study, make sure you understand the project and its purpose. Ask the grad student to give you reading about what you are doing. At interviews, you can talk about "assisting with a project involving xyz to understand abc."


"Perfect" practice makes you perfect
Oct 9, 2014
Polar Vortex Tundra
Medical Student (Accepted)
You don't have to glamorize your research but be ready to talk about the importance of your involvement. For the first two years I pretty much did animal testing while the creative aspect of project design and data analysis were left to the grad student and PI. However, there was value in my work because I gained insight on animal behavior and various models of testing. I understood the nuances of dosing, feeding, and testing. So if you are setting up rxns, then talk about how you directly assisted the grad student, what skills you needed for doing your job, and how those skills/characteristics of the job can be applied to other things (patience, preciseness, organization, methodogical...etc)