Research FAQ

The Big Picture

HPA claims we don’t have to do research, but I've heard that many medical schools prefer students to do research in undergrad. Will I be at a disadvantage at some schools if I haven’t worked in a MOL or other science lab setting?

There are few absolutes in the preparation for med school—certain courses (depending on the school), the MCAT, some work with sick people, are the only “must do” activities before application. We have had students accepted at top schools having never set foot in an independent, scientific research endeavor. But, these top schools do value intellectual curiosity, deep engagement, and dedication to whatever you’re passionate about. Ideally, your thesis will be one avenue through which you’ll demonstrate this commitment, regardless of your concentration, but it can also be threaded through other activities.

For example, one of our recent alums is drawn to the power of stories in the healing process and the importance of depth of engagement with individuals and communities in order to provide care. He's passionate about shaping humanitarian medical efforts in sustainable, meaningful ways. He was an Anthropology major, which helped him better understand others’ narratives, wrote a JP on depression among US medical students, served as an EMT and a McGraw Center Learning Consultant to provide direct care (medical and academic, respectively), shadowed in the Congo then traveled abroad to work with a community health organization in Sierra Leone, then studied Economic and Social History at Oxford to better understand the context of non-profit and international aid efforts. In short, he identified an area of academic and personal passion, chose activities intentionally that supported his passion, and was able to meaningfully and authentically tell his story through his application and his interviews.

That said, if your intellectual passion is a science/biomedical science, then trying out a lab via summer research (or your thesis, if you’re a science major) certainly can’t hurt! And if you’re more eager to learn more about patient outcomes, then maybe a clinical research position will be better suited. And whatever your intellectual area of interest, you’ll be engaging in some kind of inquiry/investigation process for your senior thesis that will add to the body of knowledge in your field, which is the heart of the definition of ’research’ to begin with. So, you’ll end up doing research of some sort along the way as a Princeton student, no matter what.

What counts as research?

The Princeton Office of Undergraduate Research adopts the definition of research as "creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of man, culture, and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications." It includes investigations across all four divisions.

Any research experience will be of interest to medical schools.  Your depth of knowledge in any subject, demonstration of intellectual curiosity, and interest in pursuing questions of interest via research for your JP and thesis, will be weighed favorably by schools.  So in a general sense, it all "counts."  

If you're interested in pursuing biomedical science research in med school and beyond, it doesn't hurt to have some experience in a science laboratory beyond your prerequisite course lab experiences. This would not have to be molecular in nature - chemical, physical, biochemical, etc. would all be fine. Again, this applies only to certain programs, and certain career goals you may have. And of course, if you're interested in the MD/PhD (or MSTP's), then in-depth research in a lab in your field of interest is critical. 

If you're more interested in other types of research--quality improvement; ethnographic; medical education--then seek opportunities that will give you exposure in these areas. 

Types of Research

I tried out research in a lab on campus last summer but I didn’t love it. But I’ve also heard that medical schools value research and I don’t want to give up on it after one summer. Are there kinds of research I can do that are more human-oriented?

Medical schools value research experience in part for what participation reveals about the researcher. Pursuing research provides evidence of your intellectual curiosity, commitment to learning and discovery, ability to work in a team, and ability to read and critique scientific literature – but these are all traits that you can also demonstrate through means other than research.

There’s a wide range of types of research that our students pursue before and during medical school. To over-simplify it, you can think of a continuum from basic science (sometimes called “bench” research, which evokes the image of sitting at a laboratory bench) to clinical research, which commonly refers to research that directly affects patients, including drug trials. In between, there’s translational research, which encompasses research that helps move a treatment from the bench to the bedside. There are numerous kinds of research that have implications for patients – epidemiological and other public health research, quality improvement studies that investigate the efficacy of procedures in a medical setting, ethnographic studies that reveal the attitudes and opinions of a specific population, psychology studies that help us understand how to create effective interventions that promote health: any question out there might be attacked from numerous angles and methodologies.

As you look for other research opportunities to try out, you might focus more on clinical or translational, but you also might not see the name of a specific type of research attached to a project – instead, look at the duties that you’d be assigned or the question being addressed by the research. If the internship description sounds like it’s all test tubes and gels, you might look elsewhere!

It’s also worthwhile to look at settings that will broaden your understanding of health care. We encourage prehealth students to try to immerse themselves in academic medical centers where it’s possible to interact with medical students, residents, and physicians, to see how education, clinical care, and research interact, and to gain insight into their potential next educational setting. Working in this setting also makes it much easier to add a few hours of volunteering to summer plans. Many research internships won’t include direct patient interaction, so we recommend applying for an evening or weekend volunteer shift alongside the research opportunity. For example, a student might do a CRISSP internship, volunteer at Penn Med, and shadow a few alums along the way.

There are a few good databases to find research opportunities at medical schools. We also send links in our Vitals newsletter and our website for programs that reach out to us to advertise, or where we know students have had positive experiences in the past.

Finding Research Opportunities

I want to join a lab on campus as a first-year. How do I get started?

Be sure that you have your time management and study skills well in place first - it can be a steep adjustment and it's best to feel settled here before taking on the responsibility of being a member of a lab. The Princeton Office of Undergraduate Research provides some suggestions for first-year students on their website

I’m a first-year student hoping to pursue a research career, but I’m not sure if I want to do MD, MD/PhD, or PhD. Are there summer programs you’d recommend that may help me decide between these paths?

One of the most straightforward ways to gain exposure to all three paths is to look for research internships in an academic medical environment where you can see medically-oriented research in action and talk to medical students, residents, physicians, and researchers who are all approaching research from their own type of training and from different points in the career trajectory. U Penn has a nice webpage describing academic medical centers.

Many summer undergraduate research programs exist that are designed to help students understand each track through their own research along with research talks, presentations, shadowing, and other opportunities that are built into the programs. A few that have been popular with our students in recent years include:

Many students opt to stay at Princeton for their first-year summer. This will provide less exposure to the medical world, but supplementing on-campus research with some shadowing and attending research talks can also be meaningful!

I'm debating between MD, PhD, or MD/PhD. I was thinking of staying at Princeton to do research this summer, but a friend told me that you told them to look at other schools. Is it okay to stay on campus?

Every summer opportunity comes with benefits and limitations that you'll weigh to decide what best suits your needs and goals. Staying on campus can lay the groundwork for deep engagement in a lab that can last over multiple academic years, which is certainly a benefit. And of course, we have many top researchers and incredible facilities. What we don't have is an academic medical center, where education, research, and healthcare are prioritized in the same space, and where physicians, researchers, attendings, residents, medical students, and undergraduates are all working and learning alongside each other.

If you're considering MD and MD/PhD, it can be extremely beneficial to see what it's like in an academic medical environment, find mentors at many stages of their professional development, and have easier access to shadowing and patient-facing volunteering. Other potential benefits: many schools with MD/PhD and/or biomedical research graduate programs design their summer experiences to help you make informed decisions between career paths; you gain exposure to a new context (maybe even at a grad/professional school you might like to attend); you may find more diversity in your peer cohort; you may gain new skills or perspectives that you can bring back to inform your research direction here at Princeton.

That said, if you find a great opportunity at Princeton versus one you're less excited about elsewhere, take the one at Princeton! You can find other ways to keep learning about the MD and MD/PhD career paths, find a practicing physician-scientist mentor, etc. If you do stay on campus, it wouldn't hurt to do some shadowing (minimally), or ideally, volunteer at the hospital, return to a clinical volunteer opportunity at home after your summer research has ended, or otherwise find ways to build your bedside manner and gain perspective of human illness and the patient experience through direct interaction with patients.

I want to do research this summer but my family wants me to come home. How do I find local opportunities?

Some students have had luck inquiring about research with faculty at colleges and universities near home. To do this, start by reading faculty members’ research webpages to find faculty of interest. If there are no nearby schools, check research facilities if those are available, or seek remote/virtual opportunities.

Once you've located some possibilities, craft a professional email introducing yourself, describing your interest in their research area and why you’d like to get involved, and asking if they have any openings in their lab for the summer, and if not, whether they know anyone who might. Attach a copy of your resume to the email, which should highlight your past lab experience and familiarity with techniques (even if it’s only from introductory science classes and you have no other prior experience).

The key to this kind of “cold emailing” is to sound enthusiastic, specific, and professional.

You can use a similar method of seeking potential opportunities in your home area by using the Tigernet Alumni Directory, LinkedIn, or your personal network – asking your faculty who they may know, roommates or friends who have family members in health care, your personal physician, campus speakers (including our Doctor Is In presenters), etc, may also provide promising leads. For more advice on networking, refer to the Networking Guides on the Career Development website

Looking for Funding

I am planning on doing summer research outside of my concentration (and thus totally unrelated to my thesis/independent work at Princeton). Do you know of any grants or scholarships that Princeton offers for undergrads?

Use the Student Activities Funding Engine to identify possible sources--that's the clearinghouse for funding opportunities from a variety of sources.  

You may also want to contact the academic department that is most relevant to the research you’re going to do; we wouldn’t assume that nothing would be available to you only because you’re not concentrating in that department, as there might be a faculty member on campus very interested in your ideas.