Objective To identify what motivates medical students to join a pandemic emergency healthcare workforce. Design Cross-sectional study. Setting Aalborg University, Denmark. Participants All medical students. Main outcome measures Motivational points as perceived by the students to be important. Demographic characteristics and 11 motivational domains scored on a Visual Analog Scale from 0 (low) to 100 (high) responding to the question: ‘To what degree are the following statements important for you to join a national emergency preparedness workforce?’ The questionnaire was developed by an expert panel in a process of four iterations. Results A total of 486 students of 688 (70.6%) completed the survey within 7 days in March 2020. 80% had decided to join the pandemic emergency healthcare workforce. Ranked median scores for motivational statements in each domain were: care, 100; learn, 90; pride, 83; team, 77; needed, 75; safety, 75; supervision, 75; job, 73; duty, 66; salary, 62; historic, 50. Supervision (p<0.001), salary (p<0.001) and duty (p=0.001) were given increasing priority with advancing study years. Interestingly, students added that support by the university and clarification of study plans were priorities. Conclusions Results guide decision-makers and colleagues on how to motivate or reinforce medical students in joining the pandemic emergency healthcare workforce. Importantly, students emphasised protection for themselves.