Which lab should I choose?

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May 16, 2023
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I am a rising sophomore trying to choose the lab I will stay in hopefully for the rest of undergrad. I have been given two choices, so any guidance would be appreciated.

The first lab is with a relatively well-known PI that works in engineering. The research that I will be working on is a product that filters wastewater, so it's not exactly medically related but still interesting nonetheless. I would have the opportunity to switch to other more medically related projects in this lab down the line. This PI also publishes quite a bit for a basic science lab, but the last time an undergraduate was published in this lab was six years ago (and I'm not sure whether or not that will be a possibility for me). I believe I am the first undergraduate in the lab during the school-year since then (there have been others in the summer REUs). From what I've seen, the maximum publications (if any) I'd get out of this lab without a gap year would be 2 before I apply, and that is if I'm lucky. The primary thing that makes me lean towards this lab is that I am in a program that will give me full funding for this lab for every summer (~$8000), and I would be free to continue in this lab as long as I wanted. My school offers a couple of grants that the project I'd be joining would be competitive for, so I could show signs of productivity that way if not publications. Also, I have read that basic science labs are much more respected than clinical.

My other choice is with a very well known PI, and it is a clinical lab that is known to publish undergraduates quite a bit (I'm talking I saw an undergrad in this lab who had 30+ publications, but usually the undergrads have more like 10 publications). I would have the opportunity to submit first-author publications in a journal of IF ~10, but again, this is a clinical lab, so I am a bit weary. I am worried that that number of publications makes it seems like I am collecting publications rather than actually learning something (which, for the most part, may be true in this lab). I also worry that it seems like I would get publications without the work put in, compared to colleagues in basic science lab. This work is mainly in radiology and is mostly prospective/retrospective chart reviews and statistical analyses. I have already spent a little bit of time talking with the people in this lab about projects, and although the work is interesting, because of funding reasons, I'd have to either leave the research program I'm in (that provides me with funding for projects like the above and some other very nice perks) or leave the lab during my last summer as an undergraduate. I do not believe I would be paid at any point during my work in this lab, except possibly a fellowship next summer if I am productive (~$5000).

Which lab would be best to join for an application to a T20 school in the near future?

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Go for the first lab.

You're more interested in the work there
You'll get paid

As long as you learn about the scientific principle, that's fine. It's rare for UG students to get pubs, and they aren't requred for med school admission.

In addition, you should be trying to get into A med school, not merely one of the 30ish that make up the "T20".
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I would personally go into the 2nd lab to collect as many pubs as you can, especially so if you want to apply to research-focused school and a competitive specialty later. I went into a basic science lab that I was into and only have 1 or 2 posters to show for it after years, unfortunately.