Taking a chance on the premed


This is a repost, from a while ago, and particularly apt at the beginning of the semester as we may be recruiting new students into our labs.

What criteria do you have for bringing in premeds to do research in your lab?

There are so many reasons to keep away from premeds. For starters, premeds are more prone to:

  1. want research “experience” but don’t want to do actual research
  2. drop lab duties at the drop of a hat whenever an A- might happen
  3. walk away as soon as they think their stellar recommendation letter is a lock

Of course it’s unfair to apply these stereotypes to actual human beings. Even if they are premeds.

It’s difficult to filter unmotivated students, because I have known so many premeds that have been quick to feign interest. But you can’t do research for long if you don’t love it. The bottom line is that if I’m going to invest into a student, I want them to stick around. When you take on a premed, you’re taking a bigger chance that the investment won’t pay off in terms of data productivity. There are enough non-premeds in my midst that I can wholly avoid premeds, when properly identified. But I still accept them on occasion.

I can think of only one good reason to take on a premed. But it’s a really good reason. You can convert them. It’s tempting. After all, most premeds don’t go to med school, and their premed experience is a big mistake. You can rescue these students early on. You can show that a becoming a scientist is a real option. It gives you the opportunity to make a genuine difference in someone’s life.

Early on, I got burned plenty of times. But I had some successes, and now I have a better spidey sense when a premed is looking for a route off the path that they (or their families) have created. My main motivation is karmic. In retrospect, I still have no idea why I was a premed environmental biology major. The professor who took the chance on me is still an excellent mentor to me, and I like to think that it’s my duty to pass the favor along to her academic grandkids.

5 thoughts on “Taking a chance on the premed

  1. Don’t think you necessarily need to convert them. Fine for students to go on and do their own thing. Just have to be clear upfront about the expectations. Also, I have found that doing research on something “different” gave the students something to talk about and be distinctive at med school interviews. Certainly the involvement in the publication process didn’t hurt either. And, from my point of view, I would rather my doctor have a real sense of the scientific process and what discovery means, ethics, questioning assumptions, etc… so I find I’ve had pretty good pre-med student experiences.

    • Well, yeah, there’s no need to convert. It is a very rare undergraduate who is passionate about becoming an M.D., who also happens to do a kickass job in the lab. I’ve seen them, but I’d be reluctant to take one on.

      There’s are conflicts between what is good for you and your lab, and what is good for the students, and what is good for the institution (more on this forthcoming). The school wants its future doctors to be trained in research, and the student wants to have the experience for the med school application. If you’re in this game to provide experiences to pre-meds, and have them be better doctors as a result, that’s *great.* It’s Wonderful. I don’t think I have it in me to train future doctors in research in my lab on a regular basis.

  2. Agree with Romi — I have taken on several pre-meds or other undergrads who are clearly not continuing in basic science, and I love the thought that at least some of them are out there treating patients but also knowing a) how hard it is to do research and b) something about the natural world. Besides, hopefully all of the undergrads will go on to become voters, and some of them may be members of the school board. You never know when they will be able to stand up to a creationist or otherwise defend science and reason.

    • Clearly, training future doctors about research is a particularly valuable public service. No argument there. And, I’m glad that there’s someone who enjoys it! Science literacy, including a direct understanding of how research works, could transform our country in a real positive way.

      My small lab doesn’t have the space for many students, and my time is really divided, and I want to make sure that the students that I take on have the greatest benefit. If I had a bunch of grad students, who wanted to mentor pre-meds, then I’d encourage them and provide support. But, there are enough students whose primary motive to work in the lab (or potential primary motive) is to have a career in research, and I want to influence those students first. If I was at an institution where everybody was a premed, then I’d have premeds in my lab. But I frankly enjoy taking into the lab on-the-fence premeds and students who are genuinely enthusiastic about nature, biodiversity and academic ecology.

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