What Counts As Research Experience For Medical School? (Explained)

Understanding what counts as research experience for a medical school application is something that confuses a lot of pre-meds.

With many different programs and types of experiences available, it’s also tough to know which to prioritize.

What counts as research experience for medical school?

Science and non-science projects, lab-based or not, can count as research experience. Anything where you analyze data (and do so in a way that develops your critical thinking and communication skills), counts. It doesn’t have to be specific to medicine.

And if that still sounds a little unclear, that’s because it is. What counts as research experience is broad!

We’ll get into this further in this article.

Here’s what else we’ll cover:

  • If undergraduate research or published research counts
  • Why non-science research is fine
  • If you have to work with a professor/research expert

As a med student with an interest in research myself, I’ve had a lot of these same questions. Hopefully, I can help clarify what you really need to think about.

Ready to get started? Let’s go.

What does research experience need in order to “count”?

As mentioned before, research experience can be clinical or non-clinical. For it to really count it needs to be well considered. That means something that requires your active involvement.

Next to your involvement, here’s what else I feel research experience has to have in order to really count on a med school app:

  1. Relevance to your interests or undergrad studies
  2. A clear display of invested time and effort
  3. Something professional looking that’s structured and/or has an outcome

That last point can be a little unclear so let me expand.

The research project should have a dedicated focus. It shouldn’t just be a thin exploration of multiple disciplines and topics. It should be purposeful in some way.

Any research experience that meets those criteria, regardless of how you (or other people) feel about it – it being objectively “good” or “bad” etc. – would definitely count.

Of course, the more passionate or interested in it you are, often the “better quality” the research.

But you’ll also be better placed to talk about it in any interviews too.

Does non-science research count?

Yes. Non-science research can definitely count.

Take, for example, an economics or math major who does research into the macroeconomics of marginal or underrepresented communities in certain areas of their state. That’s not technically science, but it still would definitely count.

The same is true for an English major interested in the use of language among inner-city teens. If they did research in that field and helped uncover or explore some meaningful social statistics, then that would be a good example too.

But the research doesn’t always have to have an outcome. It can still count if you show it’s something relevant to you and your academic or career goals.

The same goes for non-science letters of recommendation. These are just applicable too.

The important thing is they show the dedication of your character and the intent to explore and think critically.

Does undergraduate research count?

Undergraduate research can count but oftentimes fails to match the criteria above due to all the other pressures of college.

Independent research experience can border on the loose and undefined. That’s why it’s a good idea to attempt to attach yourself to faculty-based research if you can or a structured summer program (I cover the types of things available here).

Either way, starting to gain research experience at the undergrad level is a good idea. You may start off minimally involved but your responsibilities can grow over time.

The best counting research experiences are ones that are extensive and deep.

You get more time to explore those types of things starting out during undergrad.

Does unpublished research count?

Yes. Specifically, if it helps demonstrate the types of things we’ve already talked about.

Not getting publications shouldn’t concern you too much as long as you can show good general involvement in a research project.

Letters of recommendation from research leads or staff are one way of making up for that. But so is a well-written secondary essay that demonstrates the impact of those experiences on your own personal intentions and philosophies for applying for medicine.

But it should be said that publications can definitely count for the top-tier medical schools that are research-heavy.

Getting into Harvard Medical School, at least anecdotally, seems easier with research publications.

Related: How Hard Is It To Get Into Harvard Medical School? (Explained!)

Do you have to work in a professor’s lab?

No, but doing so could mean scoring a more impressive letter of recommendation.

As already discussed; relevant research experience (the type that counts for med school) can be done in a wide range of environments, under a variety of teams or institutions.

Sure, a lab can help you look more “clinically relevant” (that’s why it’s suggested to try to volunteer in one here; No Research Experience For Medical School? (7 Things To Do), but it’s by no means necessary.

What’s important is that the experience shows you have solid written and oral communication skills.

That’s why med schools mainly consider it important.

What counts as research experience for medical school: Reddit’s opinion

The r/premed community is always a good place to go to get a better grip on these types of concerns.

Here are some of the best comments curated from there in terms of what counts as research…

Research papers for class usually don’t count

Research doesn’t have to be published to count, but research papers you did for a class usually don’t usually count. Usually research is about creating new knowledge by doing something like conducting an experiment or reviewing data or something else along those lines. A review paper is a little different, but those are usually meant for the purposes of publication.

– bobsaysblah

Research for credit vs Research for passion

I think research for credit and an actual course might be considered differently, I’m not sure when it gets into such details! I’d count completely independent research as research and anything with a syllabus, even if mostly independent, I would probably consider true coursework but that’s just my take. You can always clarify with AAMC!

– 326gorl

This is always the best advice if in doubt about your research counting: clarify with the AAMC.

Why undergraduate research experiences are questionable

Establish a collaboration with an expert in the field since it is not really valuable for an undergrad to be the sole author of a narrative review in medicine.

– eskimolimon

On questioning the value of your research

Research is totally the long game in terms of impact. It is rare to discover a monumental, paradigm-shifting result. However, take it as an opportunity to train and get better while contributing to someone else’s work. That puts your one step closer to make a great contribution in science/medicine.

– _scrumpy

An important point. Don’t get hung up on thinking your research only counts if it leads to some big breakthrough. Most projects lead to only incremental gains in knowledge.

Final Thoughts

Although you don’t need to have research experience to stand a chance of getting into med school (check out; How Many Hours Of Research For Medical School Is Best? (Explained)), it definitely does help.

But knowing what does and doesn’t count is almost just as important.

What counts is anything that involves data analysis, critical thinking, and a dedicated focus.

What doesn’t count is anything loose, unstructured, and with no proof of you developing written or oral communication skills.

Hopefully, this article has helped establish that.