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undergrad research: realistic expectations

crazymedgirl

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    Hey guys,

    I'm interested in hearing what some of your experiences have been with doing research as an undergraduate student.

    I'm a Biology major, and spent a few hours a week during spring semester working on some small projects in a toxicology lab at school (nothing remotely publishable...this was my very first lab experience ever.) This summer, I have been working as an assistant in a lab, and been growing increasingly frustrated with my experience.

    The lab is studying the effects of a certain disease in transgenic rats, and a (very) large part of my daily activities involves just taking care of the rats and performing various tissue assays for DNA typing of the rats. Although these are obviously necessary activities, and I certainly don't have enough prior experience to request a more advanced project (although I did start a very small project last week involving setting up some PCR reactions), I'm wondering just how valuable this experience would be as something to include on my resume/talk about at an interview.

    I'd love anyone's input on the following questions.
    How much research experience does the average undergrad have when applying to medical school?
    Is it at all common to have had something published?
    Specifically, what have been people's individual experiences in labs--have you felt that it was productive, fulfilling, interesting, etc. or more like mindless assistant work? If the former, was there anything special you did to go about finding positions like this?
    In general, did your research experiences involve independent projects?

    I hope to apply to medical school next summer (after maybe doing one more semester of 2 hrs/week research at school and perhaps starting something else next summer before applying) and am worried that what I have accomplished will seem insignificant beside other applicants' experiences.

    Would love any response...thanks!
     

    DrYoda

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      Working in a smaller lab lets me be involved in all the diffrent things our lab does, which makes it more interesting. There are pluses and minuses to both large and small labs, but the plus to smaller labs is getting to do more.

      I'm assuming by 2hrs/wk you mean 2 credit hours for the semester? If not, you may want to up your time if possible. I put in between 15 and 20 hrs/wk, I know different projects require different time commitments, but that doesn't seem like enough time to get you alot of responsibilities.
       

      lander20

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        According to the University of Utah Medical School on their applicants, ".The average [research] experience is 4 hours per week for 3 months or the equivalent of 48 hours.". I imagine the averages differ by school, but hopefully this gives you a general idea.
         
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        phillySASer08

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          The expectations for all undergrads doing research is to learn some valuable laboratory techniques, gain some understanding of how experiments are designed/carried out, get a solid letter of recommendation from their PI and/or postdoc, and learn enough science to talk in depth about your research in an interview.

          Publications for undergrads are pretty rare and largely based on chance, despite what it may seem like on SDN, and many students admitted to even the most selective schools do not have publications. If you get one, great, but generally these things are totally beyond your control; the PI determines what gets published when, and by whom.

          Beyond the largely luck-driven realm of publications (and I say this as someone who has one pub out, is on another that's been submitted, and on two more that are being written up currently in my 3yrs in one lab), what you get out of research is largely what you put into it. You said yourself that you are inexperienced, and from what it sounds like you are already getting some significant responsibility (working with the mice as opposed to cleaning glassware and transforming bacteria), so you should count yourself lucky in that regard.

          However, if you're planning on barely working in the lab at all (and if that 2 hrs/wk you mentioned was not a typo), you're not going to get much out of it. I think it's generally necessary to work at least 15hrs/wk during the acadmic year and full time during the summer to really develop your research credentials. If you lucky, less time and a good situation may land you a pub, but if you don't know enough about it to discuss it because you haven't been around, it doesn't do you much good. If you are afraid that you're going to be the 'mouse person' the entire time you're there, you may want to talk to your PI about expanding your role once you have some more experience, but understand there does tend to be a very real apprenticeship period in laboratories before the other researchers trust you enough to want you to contribute to important projects.
           

          DrBrizzle

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            The fact that you have any research at all is more than most applicants. The important thing is that you can tell an adcom what your role was, and that you can explain what you did and what the lab was doing in any capacity. As long as you can discuss your role in detail and sound like you know whats going on with the general focus of the lab, youll be fine. It is nice, but not necessary to have publications. You can still have posters, presentations, or other venues to talk about. i have been in 2 labs for 3 years (1 1/2 each), and have no PubMed publications, but research is a HUGE part of my AMCAS. I did an independent project in my current lab, which is ongoing. I talked about my involvement in both labs, both presentations i did (just an undergrad forum), and an award. I can talk in detail about what i did, which is critical because the adcoms (if i get interviews :) ) will ask me about it. Also, you may be foot noted in other members papers for assitance. Also, get to know your PI, as they can provide an invaluable LOR. Dont worry about your "accomplishments", do your best and focus on what you have accomplished, dont worry about anyone else. Again, the fact that you have done research and were motivated enough to work in a lab (for free im assuming) on your own time. Hope this helps! Let me know if I can do anything else.
             

            lacrossefiend73

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              How much research experience does the average undergrad have when applying to medical school?

              This really ranges. Some have none, some have almost 4 years. To get anything out of the experience, I would say you would need at least a year. Granted, that depends on what type of research you do. I worked w/ stem cells and I would have gotten nothing out of just a semester. I ended up doing 3 semesters plus a summer and thought this was plenty- got a ton out of it, did 2 poster presentations, and have a pending publication. Granted, I did work 15 hours/week during school and 30 hours/week during the summer... my PI was demanding.

              Is it at all common to have had something published?

              On SDN, maybe. Elsewhere, nope.

              Specifically, what have been people's individual experiences in labs--have you felt that it was productive, fulfilling, interesting, etc. or more like mindless assistant work?

              I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. Freshman year, research was the furthest thing from my mind. But I'm really glad I tried it because it showed me that I do enjoy research, just not enough to get a PhD. How much you will enjoy it really depends on what you are doing. If you are just washing dishes, obviously that's not fun. I had a project that I worked on w/ a graduate student in my lab. It was nice because I had ownership on my part of the project, yet he was there to guide me. If it weren't for the people in my lab, I definitely wouldn't have liked it as much. They taught me a ton-- I walked into the lab knowing the bare minimum about stem cells and really left w/ a good grasp. We had lab meetings every week to discuss lab matters and other papers similar to what we do... its surprising to see how quickly you can catch on. And, if you really enjoy what you do, it's super easy to talk about at interviews and interviewers seem to appreciate it.

              If the former, was there anything special you did to go about finding positions like this?

              I had my PI as a professor. I went to his office hours a few times and then asked him if I could work in his lab. I think it helped that he was very receptive of students in his lab, though, as he already had 3 others working there.

              In general, did your research experiences involve independent projects?

              Kinda explained this above, but mine did. But, like I said, I had someone to guide me when I had questions, too. Depending on the lab, your PI may make you start off cleaning dishes and then work your way up to a project. Mine kind of just combined it all... I took research for credit so I had my own project and then he had me and the other undergrads share lab chores.

              Hope this helped!
               

              sully677

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                Hopefully I will start writing a paper in the next month or so if my results tomorrow go well...but, publications are not common. Like one person said, it's what you make out of it. Some people come into the labs to pad their resumes and such, but people can tell if you really enjoy it or not. Thankfully, my PI is awesome and keeps pushing me towards a publication. Most people who get into medical school do not do research. Only do it if you want to and you will enjoy it. Don't do it to boost your resume.
                 

                amph119

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                  I think undergraduate research is kind of a luck of the draw type thing. I joined a research group at the beginning of my junior year. I originally started out doing some grunt work for a graduate student on his project for about 20 hours a week. A year later, I have found myself in a 50 hour per week commitment, running my own part of the project (under the guidance of the Ph.D. candidate I started with of course), presenting data once a week, and playing ultimate frisbee on a weekly basis with my PI and half of the other students in my lab. I should also have a publication out pretty soon.

                  I've also heard of pre-meds who go into a psychology lab for three hours a week (not to take anything away from psychology, of course), record some data, and try to pass it off as research.

                  Basically, it depends on the group you are looking to join. Most of those questions are unique to a group and can be answered at the interview with the PI (if one is even needed).
                   

                  mk2009

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                    I've worked in two labs. The first one was a neurology lab and I had to do mindless works of coloring the brain and "trying" to see the difference between the normal person's and an alzheimer patient's brain. I worked about 10 hours per week, but I did not get anything out of it and I still have no clue what the significance of that research is haha.

                    The second lab, I joined it right after my sophomore year ended. I worked 30 hours/week during regular school year and around 50 hours/week during vacation. I worked with a grad student (now a postdoc) and also led my independent research. My lab is pretty big so I did not really get to interact with my PI that much (except those times he asked me about my project and my mind totally blanked out haha) but I still got a great rec from my PI and my mentor as well. I have one publication and two more that are to be submitted soon. I also found a job for my gap year :)

                    I actually ended up enjoying research, but I know most of my friends who do research really hate it and it's just a resume builder. If you're bored of only checking up on mice, I suggest that you look for a molecular bio lab because there is so much to do... you really get to work on basically everything ranging from simple DNA/protein work to in vivo assays...
                    Just my suggestion. :D
                     

                    194342

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                      i doubt volunteering/working less than 10 hours a week would lead to any of the bigger projects you want. I would say most undergraduates would need to work 20 hours a week or more in order to get something nice in terms of projects going on.
                       

                      194342

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                        You get your own project through oing the BS work for a while...Unless you work in a smaller lab, (I was lucky:D)
                        I agree, smaller labs are the way to go. For a couple reasons:

                        1. You are less likely to be volunteer/working and just doing bs prep work because there is less of it.
                        2. waaayyy more PI contact (who you want to write your LOR...)
                        3. PI can gauge your ability and might be willing to actually give you a project.
                        4. Less likely that the PI will have a lab manager that you will have to work through instead of just going to the PI....

                        Any of those 4 reasons would have been enough for me to seek out a small lab...
                         
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                        waterlilly

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                          I've worked in small and big labs and I have to say that I really enjoyed the smaller ones where my pair of hands were considered valuable. I find that in big labs, you are often pawned off to some post-doc or grad student who are afraid to let you handle their experiments.

                          Working for two years in a very small lab, I got to attend several conferances and I have one publication on the way. Working for two summers in a big lab, I got to see/learn a lot but I didn't do much real research.
                           

                          UVAbme2009

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                            I'll keep it short and sweet. It all depends on what type of research you are doing. Clinical seems to be easy to get quick publications.

                            Basic science is harder, although the experiences will vary. I've been in my lab for more than a year now, but don't have my name on any papers. I honestly don't care as I'm working in the top acute kidney injury lab in the country, have worked very hard, and am currently working on my own project. If no publication comes, so be it. I've still learned a lot and really enjoyed it.
                             

                            vicinihil

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                              I think if you have a name of a paper some-where it's good enough. Most you can hope for with the lack of time dedication is a review paper which some PI's will let you do but review papers aren't original publications of-course. A first author paper will be really hard to come by especially if you're doing school full-time. A recommendation from the PI is probably more important than a publication IMHO.
                               

                              FSAP

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                                You do in vivo work for a clinically related project. Ask your PI on how to present the info during the interview and you are golden. What's the disease though? Just curious.
                                 

                                crazymedgirl

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                                  Ok, thanks everyone for the replies...lots to think about.

                                  No, the 2 hours a week was not a typo: I realize that's nowhere near enough time spent in a lab to do anything other than get familiar with the work going on. I was talking about publications, projects, etc. in reference to summer positions.

                                  I honestly don't understand how anyone could possible have 15-20 hours a week during the school year to devote to lab work! I guess I just have a very full course schedule, plus volunteering......it adds up.

                                  I'm not really looking for publications--I understand that that's rare, and I don't expect to publish anything necessarily. Just trying to figure out what the "average" research experience is for someone applying to medical school, as I'm coming to believe that posters on SDN do not necessarily reflect an "average" experience! (the top acute kidney disease lab in the country? i'm impressed...)

                                  I guess basically I'm trying to figure out how the interviewers perceive your research experience, and whether they discount it if you have not done some kind of independent project or whether it is standard to simply have assisted with various things and be able to discuss the lab's work as a whole intelligently.

                                  By the way, the disease we're researching is AS: ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritis of the spine.

                                  Thanks again for all the comments.
                                   

                                  bcat85

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                                    Hey guys,

                                    I'm interested in hearing what some of your experiences have been with doing research as an undergraduate student.

                                    I'm a Biology major, and spent a few hours a week during spring semester working on some small projects in a toxicology lab at school (nothing remotely publishable...this was my very first lab experience ever.) This summer, I have been working as an assistant in a lab, and been growing increasingly frustrated with my experience.

                                    The lab is studying the effects of a certain disease in transgenic rats, and a (very) large part of my daily activities involves just taking care of the rats and performing various tissue assays for DNA typing of the rats. Although these are obviously necessary activities, and I certainly don't have enough prior experience to request a more advanced project (although I did start a very small project last week involving setting up some PCR reactions), I'm wondering just how valuable this experience would be as something to include on my resume/talk about at an interview.

                                    I'd love anyone's input on the following questions.
                                    How much research experience does the average undergrad have when applying to medical school?
                                    Is it at all common to have had something published?
                                    Specifically, what have been people's individual experiences in labs--have you felt that it was productive, fulfilling, interesting, etc. or more like mindless assistant work? If the former, was there anything special you did to go about finding positions like this?
                                    In general, did your research experiences involve independent projects?

                                    I hope to apply to medical school next summer (after maybe doing one more semester of 2 hrs/week research at school and perhaps starting something else next summer before applying) and am worried that what I have accomplished will seem insignificant beside other applicants' experiences.

                                    Would love any response...thanks!

                                    1. I'd say probably ~50 hours is sufficient. I did a lot of research (~1500 hours or so), but it was probably a bit excessive.

                                    2. No (unless you were involved long-term in a project)

                                    3. I actually just wrote a blog entry on this: http://bcat85futuremd.blogspot.com/2008/07/oops-reflections-on-summer-of-research.html

                                    Overall though, it's been one of the best opportunities I've had.

                                    4. I would say they're semi-independent... Guidance on a separate, but related, project.
                                     

                                    Lars011

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                                      I feel stupid for asking this, but what does PI stand for?

                                      I'm going to be doing research along with shadowing some doctors next summer, so I'm planning on looking in to it as soon as school begins.

                                      Thanks
                                       

                                      194342

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                                        I honestly don't understand how anyone could possible have 15-20 hours a week during the school year to devote to lab work! I guess I just have a very full course schedule, plus volunteering......it adds up.

                                        In what I've seen, it's sort of rare for a summer project to lead to anything more than a poster or small conference presentation. It takes a massive amount of time to get "published" in most labs. However, that depends on your PI and how willing they are to just slap your name on an article even if you did a menial amount of work. I've heard of people scoring 3rd or 4th authorship as undergrads even if all they did was clean glass wear...which is probably unethical on some level, but oh well.

                                        Doing a full course load and doing 20 hours or research would probably be hard if you took more than the minimum hours in multiple pre-reqs or upper level sciences. I personally take the minimum amount of hours required to be full time and try to space out my "harder" classes in order to do more research. Also, take advantage of summer classes!

                                        This is a repeat, but medical school admissions commitees will be impressed if you are able to talk about your research and have a decent conversation about what exactly you did.... Otherwise, they probably won't deny your acceptance just because you didn't first author anything....

                                        You're on the right track!
                                         

                                        redbull928

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                                          How much research experience does the average undergrad have when applying to medical school?

                                          No clue. In my case, I did research 2 yrs, then design project for 2 yrs. (I was an engineering major) It was perty cool because I established the design project.

                                          Is it at all common to have had something published?

                                          When I first got to SDN, I thought it was, so I thought nothing of my publication. But apparently, it isn't??

                                          Specifically, what have been people's individual experiences in labs?

                                          Um, some good, some bad. It sucks when you do work as an undergrad and the PI doesn't include you. However, some were awesome. Like when you start your own project and get your own funding, that's the best. (of course you need an advisor) Once i did that, I felt empowered and from then on, in every lab, I tried to start my own project (didn't always work out though). Then you have that ownership so you tend to want to spend more than 2 hrs/wk.

                                          In general, did your research experiences involve independent projects?

                                          Yep, but I am independent and observant, and very willing to learn. It really is up to you. Also, you want to get an advisor who is interested in your growth and push you to present at conferences, but at 2 hrs/wk, chances are, you won't have that opportunity...
                                           

                                          hoya09

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                                            Before I start this- I'd venture to say that my research experience is NOT representative of the average premed. I'm not writing this to be a jerk, and I know people on SDN have much more extensive research than me. Nonetheless, I'd like to share what I've learned along the way.

                                            I'm a Biochemistry/Linguistics double major Psych minor @ Georgetown. As such, I have research in two fields...

                                            Chem
                                            I began researching for a small-mid size lab (about 10 students and a PI) inorganic synthesis lab my first week freshman year. I got the position by asking my professor about his research on the first day of gen chem. Since then I've done 10-15 hrs/wk during the yr and had two full-time summer fellowships. I'm not sure about the total hour count, but I'd ballpark it to be about 1,500. I've got one full-length publication on the way (probably 2nd author) and a few minor ones likely before I graduate. I've done quite a few conferences as well.

                                            Linguistics
                                            Sophomore year I became a research assistant for one of a handful of researchers investigating the language of medicine, specifically doctor-patient communication. Several hundreds of transcripts later, I have a co-authored book segment. As one might imagine, the time commitment was significant. While we were writing, mostly during winter break, I literally spent 22 hrs/day drafting, sending, correcting, and repeating the process. On the 23rd, I'm serving on a panel of medical discourse experts at one of the most prestigious international linguistics conferences. I'm working on several follow up publications in the meantime, the first of which will probably be out in Sept.

                                            I also did some linguistic consulting for an aphasia lab, but it was nowhere near the commitment of the other two.

                                            What I've learned:
                                            -Start early. Don't ask how many hours or what project you should be doing. Find something you're genuinely interested in and become obsessed with it. Your passion will yield results and come out in your presentations.
                                            -Find your niche. Kind of as a corollary to the above, don't stress if you're not curing cancer. A lot of people are, and thats great for them, but you may have a unique contribution to make that might be productive in another field (aka, linguistics for me).
                                            -Get as much contact with your PI as possible. Search out opportunities that allow for this. Go to group meetings and lab cookouts. You'll get AWESOME recs.
                                            -Don't get discouraged. I've seen flames, gotten exposed to terrible carcinogens, and burned my hands with liquid N2. if you're doing this for four years, you're gonna have bad days. After the hand thing, I slowed down for awhile and I really wish I hadn't.

                                            Since this is too long already, I'll stop there. Please PM me if there's any way I can help you get involved in research or answer your questions. It's been one of my most formative undergrad experiences and I'd love to help.
                                             
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                                            Protoss

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                                              As long as you can explain your project, your role and sound genuinely interested in what you were doing, then you will have no problems in interviews. A publication is a plus, but if you don't know **** about your project then it looks worse on you. Med schools know most undergrads don't get on papers...its just the way it is...papers just look better with high profile names on them (i.e. phd, md, etc...), but make sure you know your projects just as good as your PI (i.e. background, whats currently known, how your project contributes, what are the limitations, what is the next step, etc). Bottom line: if you know your project, then you will be fine.
                                               
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