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How to discuss research during interviews?

You have spent a whole summer or maybe even years on a research project. All of those hours in the lab or in front of the computer may have resulted in a poster or paper presentation with voluminous conclusions. But how do you distill all of that hard work into a few minute synopsis during a medical school interview? Here are some aspects to consider and tips to get you started.

Why do medical schools care about research?

Research is generally not required for admission into medical school or even residency. If this is the case, why do some medical schools favor applicants with research experience? Although some schools value academic research due to their mission or ties to an academic medical center, others value the qualities that an applicant can gain from the experience. Research requires an individual to be creative, intellectually curious, persistent, and a critical thinker. It takes a lot of skill and drive to develop a project and see it through to completion. Research is an excellent way to demonstrate to medical schools that you possess these qualities. It also shows that you are willing to go above and beyond to enrich your academic knowledge and experiences.

Should I talk about my research?

Students may conduct research in various topics related to or unrelated to medicine as well as may have varying degrees of involvement in a research project. Sometimes students are unsure whether their projects are noteworthy enough to discuss in interviews or should just be left as a line on their resume or AMCAS. A general rule of thumb is: if you participated in original, scientific research and came up with a hypothesis or question that you subsequently tried to answer, you should consider discussing it in interviews. Even if your project was unrelated to medicine, it may still be worth discussing if you made a significant contribution. In fact, projects unrelated to medicine may help you standout and showcase other interests. However, if your contribution to a lab or project was limited to running PCR samples or entering data, it may be wise to emphasize other aspects of your application. 

How much should I discuss my research?

Depending on a school’s mission, schools will view research experience differently. Some schools are focused on training physicians to work in underserved areas, some value global health, while others train physician-scientists. It is important to determine what your career goals are and if they align with the specific mission of the school. If you have conducted research but do not plan on pursuing it later in your career, you may not discuss your research as in depth compared to your other experiences. However, if you want to pursue the physician-scientist route, you should be prepared to discuss your research process, methodology, and results in depth and how they relate to your future goals or potential future projects.

The elevator speech or pitch and research. Should I have one?

At this point, you have determined that you want to discuss your research or perhaps your interviewer saw it on your resume and decided to ask you about it. How should you begin? First, you should consider the background of your interviewer when determining how to present your research. Medical school interviewers are often lecturers at the school, research PhDs, clinical physicians, or physician scientists. You will find that some interviewers, like research PhDs, may be more interested in hearing about your research or ask more specific questions than someone who is more clinically oriented. In either case, I would recommend giving a short one minute elevator speech or pitch of your project and see where the conversation goes from there. Similar to an elevator speech or pitch introduction, your research pitch should be simple and to the point where anyone can understand it, especially someone of whom is not familiar with the topic or concept. Remember, often patients do not understand scientific or medical concepts the way you or your colleagues may, so the ability to articulate a complex principle in a simple way is essential. You do not want to spend too much time discussing a research topic without truly engaging the interviewer or you may run the risk of losing their attention. Here is a sample framework you can use:

  • Why are you doing your research? What problem are you trying to solve?

  • Where did you do the research and how long did you spend on the project?

  • What was your research question?

  • What methods did you use to answer the question?

  • What are the results/major conclusions? 

  • What are its implications on the world at large?

How to tie your research into “why medical school?”

At the end of the day, you are applying to medical school to become a physician, not a researcher. Thus, it is important to discuss how your research goals fit into the context of your medical career. If you do not plan on pursuing research later in your career, you should focus on the traits and qualities that you gained from your project and how they will help you become a better future medical student and physician. Did you learn any lessons from pursuing this project? However, if you intend to pursue research more seriously and extensively, you should also discuss how you envision allocating your time between medicine and research in your future career and why you are interested in both. You can also focus more on why you decided to pursue your project

Should I mention presentations or publications?

Yes! Even if you just presented at your university’s research day, you should still mention this as it shows your initiative and the level of your work and dedication. Do not make having a publication or the prestige of the PI/institution the centerpiece of your conversation. However, it is definitely important to mention your level of involvement and the outcome of your research.

What else should I do to prepare for the interview in terms of research?

Since discussing research usually will not take up the entire duration of the interview, if you are able to comfortably answer and elaborate on all of the points in the framework above, you should be well-prepared for your interview. However, like when preparing for any interview question, you should know your experiences and work cold. You should definitely review any abstracts, research papers, or material that you wrote to refresh your memory and make sure you have a solid understanding of your project. You may want to schedule a meeting with your PI or mentor so they can help you determine what parts of the project are important to discuss or emphasize and what questions may come up during the interview. You should also be comfortable discussing your thought process and how you contributed to each step of the project from start to finish. Interviewers may also ask what personal or technical problems you encountered in the project and how you plan on resolving these issues in the future or in medicine.