By: Ryan Kelly
Quit your research?! What pre-med in their right mind would question their coveted research position, let alone actually quit? The word ‘quit’ is not typically part of a pre-med’s vocabulary, and the last thing you want is to be viewed as weak or non-committal.
But, believe it or not, quitting is sometimes the best option. You have many important things to be spending your time doing, so use the following signs to determine whether you should indeed pull the plug:
You’re not furthering the field in a way that matters to you
All research has a purpose in mind. In most cases, it’s meant as a way to build the collective body of scientific knowledge, and it often leads to new technologies or methods of treatment. It might explore a certain problem or strive for potential solutions to mysterious diseases.
But it’s unlikely that you’ll feel that close to the action, that close to a breakthrough. More likely, you’ll be somewhat removed from the final objective, toiling with its foundations, hoping to open doors for people with more resources and knowledge than you.
This can lead to feelings of detachment. Rather than just “paying your dues,” you might feel as if you’ve entered some kind of forced labor. You might start dreading your shifts in the lab and viewing the work as obligatory. As you repeatedly input data, you might see yourself like the cells of a spreadsheet, the cogs of a larger machine - basically, a research robot. But if you feel this way, it’s just because you haven’t found a project that resonates with your experiences and interests. Even if you’re far removed from the end goal, you can maintain your focus and passion if the goal carries personal relevance (beyond just “I love science” or “science is good”).
You should find the research projects that make you the most enthusiastic. You should feel compelled to perform the research on your own, even if it would never appear on your resume. If you take any project you can get, you’ll end up going through the motions like every other pre-med who seeks out research for the sake of it. Plus, it will be challenging to sound excited when writing or talking about your work in the future. In short, it’s your curiosity--not your sense of competition--that should be driving you.
Your findings aren’t being communicated
“How many publications do you have?” Students hear this question all the time, usually as a way to gauge their standing in the application field. But it’s not just about keeping pace with the lab rat race (pun intended). It’s about producing results that are worth writing about, presenting, and sharing with the public.
Besides giving a publishing credit to your name, it demonstrates to the scientific community that you know how to carry out a hypothesis, implement an investigation, analyze the results, and communicate those findings in the context of what’s currently known in that field of study.
Your ideal research position will be one that grants you autonomy and opportunities for more responsibility. That way, you can build skills, earn respect, and actually get somewhere by “paying your dues.” Take a moment to think -- if you can’t imagine someone asking you to contribute to a scientific paper on your project, then you’ve probably become detached from the work. If there’s no mobility in the lab’s ranks or no chance for greater contribution, it might be in your best interest to seek out something different.
You’re not proving your worth
In some sense, research is a form of academic currency that demonstrates one’s capacity to conduct science. It says, “Yes, I’m legit. Here’s what I can do.” With this in mind, your role in the lab should be challenging on a everyday basis, with new tasks that push your limits and elevate your level of understanding. If your protocol feels rote, or your job feels one-dimensional, then you’re probably not reaching your potential or gaining traction as a medical school candidate. Every physician is expected to be a scientist as well. Every patient you see, you’re collecting data about what works and doesn’t work, and continuously relaying that to the scientific community.
Feeling confident in your work is nice, but it’s not a good sign if you feel TOO comfortable. If the lab is a cakewalk, or business as usual, then it’s difficult to achieve the growth and development you seek through experimentation. It might sound crazy, but you actually want a steep learning curve; without it, your role will be easily replaceable. If your setbacks and roadblocks seem like mere frustrations, as opposed to chances for a breakthrough, then you end up being a mere troubleshooter as opposed to a bona fide scientist.
The more novel the project, the better off your chances of “proving your worth.” Exploring new ground is far more impressive than filling a spot in the research assembly line. An ideal situation would allow you to establish protocol, rather than just following it. Think of how much more invested you’ll be in the project if you have some say in its creation. The work will be more gratifying when you have a personal stake, and hopefully you can set a precedent and leave a legacy behind.
Should you ever give up on a research position?
Yes -- consider moving to a different research group if…
- You’re not experiencing active mentorship
- You’re not building skills
- You’re not applying what you learn outside of the lab
- You’re not being respected
- You’re working out of obligation
If these points don’t seem convincing, you might be doing research for the wrong reasons. Ask yourself -- are you performing research just to get into medical school, or because you believe in the personal value it provides?
I’m not telling you to drop everything the minute you’re unhappy. Keep in mind that research moves slowly, especially in relation to our instant gratification age. It’s important to be patient, especially in the beginning. Sure, your job titrating is probably a bore, but have you explored other ways to get involved? While paying your dues, keep an open ear for opportunities. Once some time has passed, you can respectfully approach your supervisors and discuss how you might expand your role in the future. You’d be surprised at what a mild degree of curiosity can do for you.
But don’t stick around if your heart and mind feel uncommitted to the work. There’s a chance that someone else could thrive in your spot, and you owe it to yourself to find something that ignites your passion. Personal relevance and fulfillment are key -- they’re what keep you motivated through the long, arduous research process.