Pre-health Research: What, How and When?

Are you a pre-health student at Penn and wondering about what research you should engage in to be a competitive applicant to health profession schools? According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), “research experience (in whatever discipline) is helpful for developing some of the AAMC Core Competencies, such as critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, scientific reasoning, as well as teamwork and oral communication skills.” The AAMC has an excellent resource that talks about how to seek out and navigate research experiences during and after your undergraduate career. Health professions schools in general are looking for transferable skills that you have developed by engaging in thought-provoking research projects. They are less interested in your field or type of research and more interested in the fact that you understand the process of how research works (developing a hypothesis, designing a study to explore an unknown question, collecting and analyzing data, troubleshooting and problem solving, and presenting your findings). So don’t let your dislike for pipetting clear liquids dissuade you from having a meaningful research career during and beyond your undergraduate years.

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Usually referred to as discovery-based research, this type of research can be wet lab/bench research, dry lab/computational research or both. Students working on these types of projects are investigating an unanswered question within the field of science or discovering new tools to do so by using model organisms or systems. Sometimes, these basic science research projects can lead to new tools/methods that need to be validated using patient tissues/samples to see if they can be used in the clinic, aka bedside, in which case the research can also be called translational.

Studies that fall under the realm of clinical research are often conducted within hospital or clinical settings. These projects involve investigating the safety and effectiveness of diagnostic tools, drugs, or medical devices using human subjects, samples, or imaging data.

This type of research includes the study of factors (nutrition, environment, disease prevalence, infant or maternal mortality, etc.) that can contribute to a certain aspect of the overall health of a community or population. Depending on the factor being investigated, public health research can be conducted locally, domestically, or even globally.

These studies seek to understand how laws, policies and regulations influence health care and how changes within the system can improve outcomes. Health policy research can also be conducted locally, domestically, or internationally.

This type of research utilizes interviews with or observations of human subjects to analyze experiences, responses and behaviors in certain contexts. For psychological research projects, descriptive, correlational, and/or experimental research designs are used to collect and analyze data. 

This is a relatively newer branch of medical research that involves listening to patient/caregiver stories to understand their experience in a healthcare setting. The goal of this type of research is to improve patient/caregiver experience by enhancing patient-provider relationships. This article[1] provides some insights into how narrative medicine may be used by physicians from different specialties.

As we already alluded to before, projects outside of science and social science are also considered suitable for research experience, if you are using data or historical information to answer a question. Examples of these include historical/anthropological investigations conducted for a thesis or a book chapter and projects with the City Planning Department to identify exposure to environmental toxins in public school buildings.

The Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowship (CURF) is your one-stop shop at Penn to get all your research questions answered. Please reach out to them to talk to peer and professional research advisors, find faculty advisors, learn about summer research opportunities through the Peer Undergraduate Research Mentoring (PURM) program, explore fellowship options, etc. Remember to sign up for their Canvas site and newsletter.

To identify clinical research opportunities, check out clinical research study finders at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and Penn Medicine. You can reach out to the lead investigators of clinical studies to find out if they are recruiting clinical research assistants/coordinators. These can lead to great opportunities to engage in clinical research both during and after your undergraduate studies.

Check out this excellent resource from CURF to explore various types of pre-health research opportunities and related links.

If you are interested in doing research in a different country, check out out the Global Research and Internship Program (GRIP) through Penn Global. Through GRIP, you can spend 8-12 weeks over the summer to work with international researchers.

The AAMC maintains a list of summer research opportunities at medical schools and affiliated universities across the US. The American Psychological Association also has an curated list of summer research opportunities in diverse fields. Another great place to look for summer research outside of Penn is the US National Science Foundation (NSF)’s database for Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs.

These are just a mere few places to get started. Your faculty members are also great resources for obtaining research experiences. Do not hesitate to reach out to them to ask about their academic interests and find out how to be part of their group/projects.

As with anything, longevity and consistency are important to make the most use of research experiences. Hence, although summer research experiences are great opportunities to explore your interests and develop new skills, it is a good idea to engage in research during the academic year as well, preferably for longer than a year. When you start a research experience largely depends on your readiness as well as the demands and design of the project itself. Some of our pre-health students come in with experience from high school, which they can leverage to start on research projects during their freshmen year. However, it is very common for students to start on their research path during their sophomore or junior years, often with a summer research project through PURM or otherwise. Some pre-health students also supplement or begin their research experience after graduation. As you can see from our Gap Year Experiences List, a significant number of students pursue research opportunities during their gap year(s) before medical school. Talk to a pre-health advisor and/or a CURF research peer advisor to figure out what is the best course of action for you to get started on your research trajectory.

Not at all. It is actually quite difficult to get published as an undergraduate researcher. Peer-reviewed studies can also take a long time to get published. Instead of doing research with the sole purpose of getting published and using that to look impressive to programs, focus more on your contributions to the project. Additionally, you can talk to your research mentor/advisor(s) about opportunities to present your work at conferences and symposia.

There is no reason to stick to an opportunity that is not a good fit for you. If an opportunity is not working out, do not be afraid to talk to your mentors and seek out other opportunities. You will have a much better time and will achieve more from something that you find joy in doing.

There is no clear number of hours of research experience that you need to showcase on your application. Think of engaging in research as a way to build your skills, both hard and soft. That being said, being involved in long-term projects will help you show rather tell that you are passionate about what you did.

[1] Fox DA, Hauser JM. Exploring perception and usage of narrative medicine by physician specialty: a qualitative analysis. Philos Ethics Humanit Med. 2021 Oct 20;16(1):7. doi: 10.1186/s13010-021-00106-w. PMID: 34666802; PMCID: PMC8526278.

By Doris Tabassum
Doris Tabassum Associate Director, Graduate School Advising