I am currently an undergraduate medical student studying in South Africa. In future I would like to do academic research but I'm not sure in what field. But I would like to get a head start now as an undergraduate. My exposure to research is very limited in the current curriculum. The most we do are research reports but that just entails compiling information from existing literature, we do not come up with our own ideas. As an undergraduate, I don't have a lot of technical or in-depth clinical knowledge so that limits me at this stage in what I can pursue. My university does not have any active undergraduate research programs. How can I start to pursue research and what fields are within my scope? I have heard of research assistants but am unsure of who to approach and what skills they need from me.

2 Answers 2


Although I am not versed in how undergraduate research is viewed in South Africa, I will answer from a U.S. perspective.

Your best bet as an undergraduate is to approach professors who are doing work that interests you. It is okay to not have specific research experience in a field: you have to start someplace, and professors will know this. There may be jobs posted for undergraduate students, or you could ask professors you have taken courses with if they have room in their lab or if they know another professor who is looking for undergraduate help. Tell them what you are able to offer: you want research experience, you are interested in topic X, you can commit Y hours per week, you took a lab course in Z. Be prepared for and not discouraged by rejection, not everyone will have time or space for new undergraduate.

If you are most interested in clinical research, your opportunities may be more limited but the basic approach is the same: approach physician-scientists who do work that interests you.

Sometimes (again, this is in the U.S.) there are credit-based positions available for undergraduates where you will do some work and get credit rather than pay for the time you put in.

In general, as an undergraduate, my opinion is that your experience in a lab should be a hybrid between the work you do for the lab and the knowledge you gain. The work you do might be menial at first: washing dishes, preparing solutions, caring for research animals or cell lines - these tasks take minimal training, so you can be useful immediately. However, you should also be involved in technical conversations, you should be reading new literature in your field (and discussing papers with your colleagues), and over time you should be learning more advanced or specialized techniques.

If you are able to spend more than a year or so in a lab, you should expect to be involved in a real project that could potentially lead to a publication, though it will probably not be your own project - that's okay, you will still be learning skills that apply to your future research endeavors (or, alternatively get you enough experience to learn that you don't enjoy a particular approach).


I am assuming that by "proper" research you mean writing publications. I am not in the field of medicine, but to my knowledge, exposure to current research is generally low in Undergraduate degrees. They tend to teach the basics- which are written in introductory books, not state-of-the-art journal articles. Politics students starting out, wishing to learn about how Trump got elected, will have to start by learning about the US party system, the electoral system, the role of the presidency, election campaigns, and so on.

I think that the best way to start research is to be a good and active undergraduate student. You are learning the things that prepare you for your postgraduate studies and eventually beyond. You say you don't want to summarise literature, but come up with your own ideas. You also say that you don't know what interests you yet. You can't do one without the other. By reading the literature and the standard material, you gain an insight into what some of the ongoing issues and discussions are. By reading up on those issues further, you will eventually end up where current research is going. Literature reviews are necessary- I remember my 60+ established Professor and PhD supervisor groaning about the literature review he had to carry out for a paper he was working on. This does not stop.

That said, I think there are plenty of things you can do to get involved early and develop your interests. A few things come to my mind:

  1. Read journal articles! Your university should be subscribed to many journals in your field- and if not, there are still plenty of open-access journals that you can read. Reading articles can give you an idea of the current research and might give you ideas about what you find interesting to pursue further.
  2. Speak to members of staff and ask for potential research assistantships. They come at different levels- some require near-PhD experience, others involve boring data-collection and lab work that requires little training. RA jobs are a good way of exposure to ongoing research: while the work you do may be boring, you are still involved in an ongoing project and depending on the field and the type of RA job, you may even be listed as an author.
  3. Find student-led journals that publish well-written courswork or projects. Some universities have student journals that you can submit your coursework to- usually it has to be of a high standard. Submissions are reviewed and edits will be suggested- this is a good way of learning the publishing process in a friendly environment.
  4. In the case that you have not begun your dissertation or final year project yet: Come up with some ideas and present them to a member of staff. Ask them what they think about the viability of pursuing the topic beyond your undergraduate. They may point you in the right direction.

Again, I am not working in medicine, so there may be opportunities specific to the field. You may find more relevant answers here.

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