How Many Hours of Research for Medical School Is Best? (Explained)

Research. Sounds both intimidating and boring right?

Read around various student forums etc. and you’ll see it’s a fundamental part of med school applications. A necessary evil you’ll need to rack up hours doing…

Or is it?

How many hours of research for medical school do you actually need?

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually need any. Research is not a prerequisite for med school admissions.

But although it isn’t a requirement, having it can definitely make you more competitive.

In this article, we’ll dive more into that.

We’ll answer:

  • How many hours of research are the norm
  • If research is important
  • What actually counts as research
  • What admissions boards really think about it

Ready to learn more? Let’s go.

Do all med school applicants do research?

According to Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR), roughly 85%-95% of accepted candidates have research experience.

As for the average number of research hours, the American Medical College Application Service (AMCA) estimates it to be around 1,251 (source). This number is a little controversial however. Many students suggest this figure includes lab classes associated with pre-med courses like chemistry, biology and other life sciences.

Many candidates have gone on to become doctors with zero research hours. Others have logged thousands.

The amount of research hours you have can be easily overlooked. Especially if other parts of your application are stellar!

Do med students exaggerate their research hours?

Another thing worth mentioning here, especially if the numbers above are a big discouraging, is the question of accuracy.

Some applicants may exaggerate their figures. Others may count things as “research” that really shouldn’t be (more on this later).

It’s hard for schools to verify every hour you report.

The bottom line is this….

The amount of research hours you really need for med school are whatever the admissions committee (adcoms) finds reasonable!

And the best way to actually gauge this is to get specific. Hunt down successful students for the schools you’re hoping to apply to and ask them how much research they logged on their application.

You’ll probably be surprised by the varying numbers.

Related: Do Medical Schools Actually Verify Activities? (7 Important Answers)

Is this rule universal?

Pre-meds in other countries (UK and Europe for example), aren’t usually expected to have many research hours when they apply for med.

This is because they start med school earlier than the U.S. (usually directly after finishing high school).

Why is research important for med school?

Research is generally important for several reasons:

  • It demonstrates you have explored the sciences and extended your knowledge
  • It shows you have organizational skills (beyond exams)
  • It highlights your experiences in the lab or reading scientific papers

But the main reason research is important is rankings. Generally, the more quality research a school does, the higher their ranking. High ranking brings greater opportunities for funding.

Knowing they can recruit students who can help with that is a huge advantage.

Why can research help my application?

Other reasons why research can help your application can be more personal ones.

Factors like:

  • Improving your critical thinking skills
  • Sharpening your writing and communication abilities
  • Increasing your confidence

Benefits that can make it worth doing anyway – despite the pitfalls described above!

What counts as research experience?

What actually counts as “research” on med school applications is something of debate. Generally, it can be broad, but more traditionally it’s anything from study-based (experimental), clinical or epidemiological work.

Research is a systematic investigation designed to generate new knowledge.

As a pre-med that can be formal or informal. The idea is that you reflect on those experiences, and what they taught you, in other sections of your application. Especially the essay sections.

Here’s what else could be considered research:

  • “Wet lab” (life sciences) laboratory research
  • Research into academic interests (dissertations, studies, presentations etc.)
  • Modelling, planning or hypothesizing
  • Problem-solving, critical thinking etc.
  • Teaching

While these can come from any field of study, making it relevant to med could bring advantages later.

And no, it doesn’t have to be published (but obviously those that are could bring benefits).

Related: What’s The Easiest Pre Med Major? (Read This First!)

What kind of research do med schools prefer?

According to several of the Adcom’s representatives surveyed in this U.S. News article, most med schools like the following type of research:

  • Sincere, committed research down for its own sake (and not for “competitive status”)
  • On-going research projects (where there is a plan to carry it forward into med school)
  • Anything that shows persistence, resilience or critical thinking skills (doesn’t need to be science based!)
  • Understood well enough to be explained (even if you played a small role)
  • Research that “fits” into the rest of an applicant’s application

Interestingly, the article also states that prestigious research (depending on its circumstances) could even count against a prospective student.

A student who is a fifth author on a paper in a prestigious research journal may actually garner a less positive reception than a student “who conceived, designed and implemented the totality of their own project, but only presented it at a research meeting because it wasn’t as glamorous and impressive,” Guluma says

What is highlighted though (several times!) is that research really isn’t that important and that “it’s still possible to get accepted into med school without a research background.”

Which is great news for students with minimal hours!

How to find pre med research opportunities

The best way is probably to contact your professors and ask them for potential opportunities. Many times, they’ll be able to put you in contact with someone that can help or even help guide you personally. Showing iniative is key.

Of course there are other ways to find research opportunities too, common ones include:

  • Contacting institutions or labs, explaining your desire to help and volunteering your services
  • Coming up with a unique idea yourself and asking to present it
  • Setting up “teaching clinics” for other students to highlight the results of research or to teach a new skill
  • Investigate summer programs, internships and study abroad programs (AAMC has a useful list here)
  • Consider consulting a pre-med advisor (or your college advisor) and see what guidance they can give

If all avenues are blocked then don’t stop there!

Just start with something that fits the criteria or ask around your colleagues, peers etc. for ideas on projects you could take on.

Hospital volunteer opportunities are some other good places to check for possible research gigs.

Pre med research ideas

If you want to go into healthcare, chances are you’re interested in medicine, pathology or several aspects of the life sciences.

All of those are great places to start coming up with ideas.

This article from aresearchguide.com has a lot of cool medicine-based ideas. Here are five of my favorites:

  • Drugs, homeopathic medicines, and placebo effect
  • The ethical aspects of medical research on humans and animals
  • Biomechanics in medicine (I actually wrote a research paper very similar to this – click here to see it)
  • Aging and changing in physical and mental health
  • Sleep disorders

Just pick something you’re interested in and unlikely to get bored researching!

Are there any med schools that don’t require research?

No med schools “require” research. It’s not a prerequisite and you can apply for any school no matter the amount of hours you may or may not have.

Of course there are many med schools that are considered to be research-heavy. These include:

  • Albert Einstein College of Medicine
  • Case Western Reserve School of Medicine 
  • University of Washington School of Medicine
  • Washington University School of Medicine

And of course all the “top” med schools too.

As for the benefit of avoiding these schools if you don’t have much research to your name?

I don’t think it’s necessary.

If you’re focused on other aspects of your application, especially your GPA, MCAT scores and other extracurriculars, you really shouldn’t be put off.

What’s more important; research vs clinical experience?

Clinical experience is, hands down, more important than research on a med school application. Things like shadowing, volunteering etc. are all required parts of the process. Without them your application will be dismissed outright.

If there’s anything to learn from this article; focus on clinical experience first!

Final Thoughts

The thought of needing 1000’s hours worth of research to stand a chance of getting into med school is a myth.

Although it can help, there are much more important factors to help make your application competitive.

Hopefully this article is helped to show that!


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Image Credit: @Daria Nepriakhina at Unsplash