HealthMay 11, 2020

Exploring clinical research fellowships

By: Brian Wu, MD, PhD

While clinical research fellowships may seem intimidating at first because of the investment of time involved, they can bring substantial rewards for your training and your future career.

How do you know if taking a year off for a clinical research fellowship is a good fit for you? Here’s what to keep in mind and how to get started.

The value of clinical research fellowships

A clinical research fellowship usually lasts from three months to a year. During that time, you gain experience in scientific inquiry in the medical field. There are different times during your medical career when you can take advantage of these fellowships in order to build your research skills. Many programs, such as the Chicago Minority Medical Student Emergency Medicine program, will work with you after or during your second year of medical school, while others, such as the Diversity Mentorship Program offered by the American Academy of Dermatology, prefer to work with third- or fourth-year medical students.

It’s also common for programs to take place during summer vacation so you can get more experience without interrupting your education. An example of this is the David and Ethyl Platt Summer Fellowship, which helps first- and second-year medical students learn more about primary care over the summer.

There are a variety of ways taking part in research can enhance your medical career.

1. Gain perspective on your career

Research fellowships can help you make decisions about your medical career and what you want to pursue. The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) notes that the opportunities you gain from fellowships will give you a better hands-on experience than merely taking part in clinical rotations and will also help you decide what specialty to choose.

2. Develop your analytical skills

Taking part in research can also make you a better doctor by improving your critical thinking skills and teaching you how to apply scientific thought and method to your medical practice. A recent article in Medical Education Online discussed how getting clinical research experience during your medical education can help you become organized and give you a healthy sense of skepticism. It will also give you experience with evidence-based practices, which can improve your work.

3. Stay on the cutting edge

Taking part in clinical research also keeps your knowledge and skills as a clinician up to date. According to the Drexel University College of Medicine, “Research is the driving force behind medical advancement. It enables us to remain on the cutting edge of an evolving field while discovering new information and developing new methods for treating disorders.” A strong background in research will keep you on this cutting edge.

4. Enhance your residency application

Fellowships can also enhance your application when it comes time to match with a residency. The New England Journal of Medicine’s Resident360 notes that gaining research experience before applying to residency helps distinguish you from other applicants and will show your level of commitment. If you choose to take time off for a longer period of research, talking about how that experience helped you grow as a clinician can make for a compelling personal statement. This can be particularly important if you’re considering a career in medical research, medical education or the development of health policy.

Good options for research fellowships

If you’re interested in strengthening your medical knowledge through research, it’s wise to start exploring opportunities now. Below are some of the best places to look at to gain an idea of what programs are of interest to you and fit with your professional goals.

The Association of American Medical Colleges

For a comprehensive list of programs in the U.S. and abroad, visit the “Clinical and Research Opportunities” page on the AAMC website. The programs are arranged alphabetically, with a brief description of each program and a link to its website. You may filter your search by specialty, duration and location, among other details.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) offers a one-year research fellowship at the NIEHS campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, for third-year medical students. The fellowship is available for the academic year and begins in late summer or early fall. The NIEHS is one of the 27 institutes comprising the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The National Institute of Health

The NIH Medical Research Scholars Program is a one-year “research immersion program” with a strong emphasis in biomedical research. Students in this program engage in a variety of research projects with the help of mentors. It’s open to students enrolled in the second, third or fourth year at an accredited medical, dental or veterinary school, and you must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident of the U.S. to apply.

The Sarnoff Fellowship Program

If you’re interested in cardiovascular research, consider the Sarnoff Fellowship Program. It offers second- and third-year U.S. medical students a year of paid work under the leadership of a laboratory preceptor. Students in this program are responsible for every step of a project, from the original hypothesis and project design to experiments and data interpretation. The project culminates with the publication of the research in a peer-reviewed journal and a presentation at the foundation’s annual meeting.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Are you interested in learning more about cancer research? The summer fellowship offered by the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center may be a good option for you. During this 10-week program, first- and second-year medical students gain lab and clinical experience while being mentored by Cancer Center staff. Fellows also work with other physicians, researchers and graduate students. At the end of the summer, fellows present their findings to their peers.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Many training and research opportunities can be found through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Options range from short-term internships to one- or two-year fellowships for professionals with graduate degrees. One of the programs the CDC offers is the Elective Epidemiology Program for medical undergraduates interested in learning more about epidemiology and public health. You must be currently enrolled in an accredited U.S. medical or veterinary school and have completed two years of coursework in order to apply. Assignments are offered for six- to eight-week rotation periods, mainly at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia.

Exploring clinical research fellowships

If you’ve decided to take advantage of these opportunities, your next step is to learn more about how to apply. It can be a complicated process because deadlines and requirements vary widely from one program to another; take the time to explore which avenues are open to you.

However, the effort is worth it. Research fellowships can provide once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and have an invaluable positive impact on your career.

Brian Wu, MD, PhD
Lippincott Medicine
Lippincott is a leading international medical publisher of professional health information for practitioners, faculty, residents, students, and healthcare institutions with a full suite of essential medical products, from books and journals to digital solutions.