Reprinted with permission from Getting In: The Essential Guide to Finding a STEMM Undergrad Research Experience, Second Edition, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2015, 2023 by Paris Grey and David Oppenheimer. All rights reserved.
Sometimes students disqualify themselves from participating in undergrad research because they believe (or someone has told them) that their grade point average (GPA) isn’t high enough, they aren’t smart enough, they don’t have enough prior research experience, or some other reason. But here’s the truth: You’re in college, so you’re qualified to do undergrad research. You didn’t trick an admissions committee to let you in, nor were you accepted to college because someone felt sorry for you. You earned your place in college and you belong in a STEMM research experience if that’s what you want to do with your time. And you don’t need to have a scientist in your family or be friends with one to be successful in undergrad research. We want to underscore this point for those readers who haven’t received strong mentorship in this area and those from communities that are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine.
For any student, you might not have the eligibility requirements (such as academic year) to be eligible for certain undergrad research positions, but you’re qualified to conduct research and make a contribution to science in the process.
In the next section, we address the most common concerns on this topic we’ve encountered as mentors in interviews with undergrads, through social media, and in discussions with colleagues. Our goal with this section is to prevent self-doubting students from preemptively disqualifying themselves from a research position before they’ve even started their search.
And if you’re having doubts about something we didn’t cover here, find us on Twitter @YouInTheLab or Instagram @UndergradInTheLab and send us a direct message detailing your concern. If we don’t have the answer, we can send your inquiry anonymously out to the Hive to ask for suggestions.
I’m premed and I’ve been advised to pretend to be pregrad or undecided because a lot of professors and grad students won’t mentor premeds in research. Any advice?
We don’t deny that some researchers prefer to mentor pregrad students or flat out don’t accept premed ones. Sometimes the reason is that the mentor believes that their expertise and mentoring energy are best used to train those who plan to pursue a career in research. (However, we believe that the world needs good doctors, too, and if the training a student receives in our research group helps them get there, well, then we’re proud to be a small part of it.) For other researchers, the hesitation might arise after working with a premed student who approached research as a checkmark to enhance their med school applications instead of as a genuine experiential learning opportunity. Some potential mentors have been advised by a colleague to avoid training a premed student because of the dreaded “premed reputation.” The interpretation of the premed reputation varies but is sometimes translated as a student who doesn’t value nonclinical research, or someone who will quit research if an A is in limbo in any class or withdraw immediately after their mentor submits a recommendation letter for med school. We understand not wanting to mentor a student who takes this approach to research, but in our experience these issues could arise from a student in any career path.
But the question is: Should you claim to be on the pregrad or the PhD–MD track to increase your chances of securing an undergrad research position? After all, research groups that don’t train premed students rarely state so on their website or in an advertisement for an undergrad researcher. The answer is simple: No. It’s not worth it, or even necessary, to misrepresent your career path to find a research experience, and doing so could possibly cost you a research position or land you in one that you don’t really want.
First, understand that it’s easy for an experienced research mentor to spot a premed student simply by reviewing a resume and transcript. For example, if in high school you volunteered at a hospital and participated in charity events to raise money for human disease research, and then in college joined the American Medical Student Association, shadowed in a clinic, and took a premed health professions class, you’re obviously premed. However, if you balanced those activities with participating in high school science fairs and community education outreach, and then in college continued with science outreach and classes to prepare for grad school or similar activities, it’s plausible that you could be premed, pregrad, or undecided. We do recognize that either pattern can be true for someone who isn’t 100 percent clear about their career path.
Second, misrepresenting your career path can make your search more difficult because it could raise a character issue. Chances are, when you apply for a research position, the competition will be tough, so you don’t want to raise any “red flags” at the application step—and misrepresenting your career path definitely raises one. Plus, the potential mentor who reviews your application will be less likely to forward it to a colleague who does mentor premeds if it seems as though you’re misrepresenting something.
Third, misrepresenting your career path might land you in the wrong research position. In a research experience, both your happiness and your success are highly dependent on achieving your goals. We don’t mean your research goals—although those are important. We mean the personal and professional development goals you want to achieve through an undergrad research experience.
Those goals should be achievable through the experience you join. As a premed student, you want your research mentor on your side—advising you throughout your experience on opportunities that will ultimately strengthen your med school applications. If you pretend to be on a career path that you aren’t, the guidance from your mentor won’t be customized to help you, and certain suggestions will be a waste of your time. Essentially, if your mentor doesn’t know your true professional path and goals, they can’t help you achieve them.
There are plenty of research groups that welcome premeds or don’t care what an undergrad’s career path is. Your goal is to find one with a research program that you’re genuinely interested in joining and have enough available time in your schedule to uphold their required commitment.
Paris H. Grey is a writer, molecular biologist, and lab mentor. David G. Oppenheimer is an associate professor of biology. They are authors of Getting In: The Essential Guide to Finding a STEMM Undergrad Research Experience.