blank'/> A LITTLE BIT OF LACQUER: How to get research and clinical experience

October 28, 2013

How to get research and clinical experience

Happy Monday! Where has the month of October gone!?!  Crazy! Well, time for another Med School Monday! Most of us all know that some research and clinical experience is great to have when trying to apply to medical school - largely to confirm that it is in fact what you want to do (it is after all what you'll end up doing if you do get to/through medical school), and for the more shallow reason that it looks good on your CV. But what isn't always as clear is how one goes about getting this experience, especially as an undergrad when you (through no fault of your own) have seemingly no experience and nothing to offer.

Me way back in college presenting my research in Chicago and Washington, DC. Yeah Hall Lab!! 

Research experience - This will largely depend on where you are for undergrad, but remember that you're not limited to your institution for research opportunities. If you're still in high school and picking colleges, pick the one with the most student scientific posters lining the halls of their science buildings ;) If you're already in college, browse through your school's science department website and read the faculty pages - most professors will have links to a few of their publications. Some will only have publications from decades ago and have since slowed down, but you'll hopefully find a few publications with students as authors - these are the professors you want to talk to! Shoot them a short and professional email saying you're a student majoring in x, you'd love to get some research experience and find their research fascinating because of x, and would love to talk more about potential opportunities in their lab. If you meet and are still interested then you can discuss your (likely lack of) experience, your time availability throughout the semester, goals, etc. Remember your place though - don't feel like any work is "below you" in the beginning - making sure to keep in mind that if you work well your responsibilities should start to increase. I started working in a neuroscience professors lab my freshman year (after doing just what I outlined above), pretty much as a tissue culture slave (our lab's loving name for that job), but by demonstrating hard work and interest in our projects, worked my way up to helping more with experiments, then developing my own experiments, and eventually presenting work at national conferences, publishing, and teaching new members of the lab our techniques. So remember you have to start with the "scut" work (which is all necessary anyway), just make sure you don't stay with only the scut work. If you don't think you'll have time during the semester to do research or don't have any faculty doing research, there are hundreds of summer research programs for undergraduates. Your career development office is a good place to start looking, you can also just google summer research at whatever university or hospital you'll be near in the summer. Most students start casually looking for these opportunities in January and February and get more serious in March and April as many of these programs have applications with deadlines.

Clinical experience - This is a little bit more difficult to get especially as more and more clinical positions require small degrees and certificates that many of us just don't have time to get. We'll start with the simplest - shadowing physicians. This is another area where your career development office is a good place to start looking - browse through their list of alum who are physicians and contact them, or go to the office of volunteer services at your local hospital and ask if they can put you in touch with a physician of your interest. It's difficult because most physicians don't have their email addresses available to the public - but don't be afraid to google physicians, pick up the old telephone and give their office or department a call! Most are very willing to have a student shadow them - it's flattering! - and if they're not, well it probably wouldn't have been the best experience. These experiences are great and the more you have, the better idea you may get for different fields of medicine. Now, actually doing clinical stuff usually comes down to getting certified in something (medical assisting for example) or pure luck mixed with a good deal of preparation. Take my job as a "medical assistant." I did not get certified as an MA - didn't have the time or money for it. But I did love women's health, had just taken a course on women's health and knew all of the physiology behind our reproductive cycle and all options of birth control, etc., and knew how to take vitals (a really simple thing you don't have to wait until first year of med school to learn). I found an opportunity at a small local women's health clinic for an intern - a position that usually involves lots of filing. And the day a Spanish-speaking patient came in and our usual Spanish MA was out - I stepped in to translate, and then offered to take her blood pressure and weight etc., and then discussed the side effects of her birth control with her as my boss sort of watched quietly. I started being able to see my own patients after I discussed my experience and goals with my boss. I didn't get paid, but I had some amazing experiences in actually being able to care for patients. So, never would've happened if I didn't get the chance to show my skills, never would've happened if I didn't have those skills to show when the chance came. As they say, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." So look for intern positions and again, be ok with scut work, but learn as much as you can and always be ready if an opportunity presents itself. For the summers there are more structured programs that offer built in shadowing or clinical opportunities and you can find these the way I mentioned above in the research experience. I did a summer of clinical research at my local hospital through a program I found online and was able to work in the emergency department enrolling patients in studies - looking through charts, interacting with doctors and nurses, etc. It was a fun summer!

I hope this can help some of you as you try to get more and more experience in science and medicine! As always, leave questions and anything you want to share in the comments section below! And to those of you who have sent me messages I promise I haven't forgotten you! My days just get a little crazy with a one-month old to take care of and one month to study for Step 2!


  1. I do not study medicine but find this very interesting. Thanks for posting all the ins and outs of the medical field.

  2. Absolutely LOVED this post! Very helpful! Can you elaborate more on doing poster presentations and/or oral talks?

  3. THANK YOU for this post! Also, I know this may not be your specific area of interest, but any advice for students that are also interested in public health or going the MD/MPH route?

  4. As I look at just this landing page of your blog, I see a smart career woman, fashionista and mother all in one. The things we women do! I love it when we as women do everything we love to do. Lovely!
    k at

  5. Thank you for Med School Mondays. This post really gave me some insight into seeking research opportunities. You are awesome :)

  6. What you're doing here is fantastic. I wish I'd had someone like you back when I was in college (oh...15 years ago...) & was completely lost as I tried to figure how to break into medicine and science. Way back then, the Internet thing was really just starting (I know...gasp!) & the resources just weren't as accessible. I'm not saying it was impossible but it definitely wasn't as "easy" as it is now. Sadly, I became frustrated and gave up my dreams and ended up in a career that, quite honestly, is all wrong for me. But I'm glad to see people like you who are sharing their experiences and offering advice for young people who are trying to figure it out.

  7. Hi Lacquer =) your smile/happiness is really contagious for some reason. You and your family is beautiful and I learnt a lot from you in approaching life with different perspectives. I wish you happy new year!

  8. Just found your blog and I am so inspired. I am sure I am a little older than you. But I too have little girl and about to start the long journey back to med school. I have 7 years of clinical experience as a speech therapist. I love your med sch posts keep um coming

  9. Hi, thank you for sharing this! This is so useful to me rap since I'm a premed student! Quick question when you said you did clinical research at your local hospital through a program, will you explain what you meant by this ? And also would you mind posting the link to that website please? It would mean a lot! Thank you so much

  10. I absolutely needed this! I am currently in my 1st semester of my 2nd year and started to question if I really wanted to be here. Have a look and get benefit from this site.


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