If you know me in the real world in any context, you know I love research. I was the kid who was excited when he got a chemistry set for his 5th birthday. It was only much later that I realized my passion for serving and caring for people directly. Even then, I’m hoping for an 80/20 career split between lab and clinic.
Heck, I’ve gone on record saying I should’ve pursued a PhD in physics before med school. And given the now horrified look on your face, dear reader, you’d probably expect me to answer the question posed in the title of this essay with a resounding yes, of course. Well, not to disappoint or to break with dogma (scratch that, I hate dogma, unless it’s the fact that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell), but you don’t have to do research to be a successful medical school applicant. You hear that? Research isn’t required to get into medical school.
Got that? Good, now we can go home, right? Wrong. Please don’t misunderstand-research is my heart and passion-something I encourage everyone student to at least dip their toes into before and possibly during medical school. It is the lifeblood of the most meaningful advances in medicine-thank God for penicillin. My problem is that we students have conflated research experience with a thirst for knowledge and innovation. Make no mistake, these two things are not the same. The former is something to put on a CV (and can at times demonstrate our hunger for information). The latter is an inherent quality: it cannot be taught, and it must define in part or in whole, the life of any physician.
While every good physician should at their heart be a scientist- hungry to ask questions, push boundaries maybe scientific research is not for you (bench or otherwise). AdComs use research experience as shorthand for our intellection, to see if we can ask deep, probing questions and work through to answer these questions methodically and with perseverance.
Often, it’s decent shorthand. But honestly ask yourself, are you doing research to check a box, or is it because you have a genuine passion for asking hard, often unsolvable questions? That’s what you’re career as a physician will inevitably be-to ask questions of yourself, your patients, systems of people and processes, diseases- and move forward towards finding answers. I ask you, if you don’t have this passion, is a career as a physician the one for you?
But here’s the thing: research is not the only way to demonstrate the hunger, the longing for knowledge that plays as magnificent countermelody to a physician’s passion for people. If working at the bench or in the dank-basement doing chart review isn’t for you, demonstrate your love for questions in another way.
Perhaps that’s starting a club or program on campus to address a problem, or working on a service project of your own design where you ask the question, or perhaps it’s starting an innovative business. I don’t really know what else is out there. But show that you can ask questions. Demonstrate to the AdComs that you’re more than grades, more than a love of people (though that’s also key)-show them that at your heart, you are a challenger, a question-asker, a problem-solver; someone who dives headlong into the unknown and is unafraid to keep moving forward.
So no, you don’t have to do scientific research to become an awesome candidate for medical school. What you must have, I think, can best be described as an explorer’s mind. Research just happens to be a convenient way to prove it. If you love research, great. Even so I encourage you to think more deeply, to ask yourself in what other ways you can express your inquisitive spirit, and how that spirit will make you a scientist, doctor, and human. No matter what, never lose your fire for discovery, future physician.