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On Being a Summer Research Student

Most people who want a competitive edge for getting into medical school will dabble with “research.” . As a summer student the most common feeling I had was being confused and overwhelmed. There are so many things you don’t know, so much jargon, so many techniques, so many people.

For almost all students, in just the short months of summer, you won’t be coming up with any breakthrough discoveries. In fact, you probably won’t even contribute the slightest bit to furthering the collective scientific knowledge. Real science is hard. It requires dedication, persistence and hard work. So keeping all these things in mind, I will give you my top advice for making your summer research experience as enjoyable as possible.

  1. You are there to Learn – Your main job as a research student is to get as much out of the experience as possible. Supervisors and PI (Principle Investigator) know that you aren’t going to come up with deep scientific insights. But they hire you anyways, to teach you and to help dip your feet into research. Learn to see if you like research, do you like the field you’re working in, can you see yourself doing this as a career? Learn about advancements in your subject and what implications they may have. If your position pays you, that’s great, you’re being paid to learn. Though it goes without warning, that you should always do work assigned to you too, but treat each task and responsibility as an opportunity to learn.
  2. Find Good Supervisors – When considering research opportunities, finding the best supervisor possible is the most important priority. Just ask any PhD student. A good supervisor will make your time in the lab (or in front of the computer) enjoyable. They will motivate and encourage you. They can be excellent mentors and can help you with more than just research related things. I was lucky to have a excellent PI last year who not only was brilliant with his science, but who had a lot of things in common with me. He was both an academic scientist and clinician, and good at both too. He taught me about medicine, career-choices, handling personal stress and everything in between. As an added bonus, when it comes time to ask for a reference letter, good PI’s will know you well and will write you a killer letter of recommendation.
  3. Avoid Bad Supervisors – This seems like a repeat point, but I can’t stress the importance of finding a good supervisor. A bad PI will give you grunt work, repetitive tasks that use you as cheap labor. It may include running gels, washing glassware, retrieving literature or data inputting. This is NOT a good experience. This summer the supervisor I am working with defines bad supervisors. I knew that I should not have taken the job during the interview when he said, “Tell me about yourself and what you like to do, though I haven’t looked at your resume, I’m sure it’s impressive”,¬† in a sarcastic tone all the while leaning back on his chair, smirking and sipping on his coffee. Yeah, I made a bad choice. Bad supervisors will be late to meetings, pre-occupied with trivial tasks, lacking publications and most importantly clueless about your project. If you enter a messy office with unfinished work piled up, you’ve been warned.
  4. Ask Questions – Research is all about asking questions. More often enough having a good question is harder to find than a good answer. Whatever question your project is designed around will designate how you will go about looking for the answer. Ask where lab supplies are and ask people to show you how to perform techniques better. If you don’t know what an acronym stands for, just ask. Questioning things keeps your brain active, don’t be a drone in the lab set to follow instructions. The more you ask, the more the project will feel like yours and the more enjoyable it’ll be.
  5. Put things in Perspective – Always remember that you’re just a temporary student. Don’t expect to get the same time and resources graduate students do. At the same time, remember that you are entitled to learn about what goes on at the lab or clinic and that you have contribute too. Take self-initiatives and help out to the best of your abilities but don’t be disappointed if you don’t get much done. A lot of what you will be doing is going to be repetitive work. Do these jobs thoroughly and and responsibly and you will be given more interesting things to do. Above all,¬† don’t take things so seriously. It’s not the end of the world if your work isn’t published. Your experiments will fail from time to time. Take it easy, if you end up liking research you can continue doing it in the future. If you don’t like research, at least it’s only a summer long.

You can find out more about getting into Research at this thread on the premed101 forums.


After first year, I worked in a microbiology lab using genetic techniques (gel, PCR, blast) to study viruses. For the second summer, I worked in a cancer center linked to a hospital. My project involved  radiation therapy and imaging and I worked mainly on the computer. A good reason to work in the lab is that you get to learn techniques that generate real results. Similarly, by working in the hospital, I had the chance to interact with different departments such as medical physics, radiation oncology, orthopedic surgery and biophysics imaging and understand how they work together to provide health care.

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One Comment

  1. dianeca
    dianeca August 8, 2008

    Sounds like great advice for all students doing research. I am now doing research for my Master’s Thesis in Social Work…which is very different from Medical school but still the ground rules apply. Good tips! (and good luck!)

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