HealthMay 25, 2020

Research opportunities for medical students applying to residency

By: Heidi Moawad, MD

Looking to gain an edge when applying to residency? Start exploring research opportunities for medical students. Involvement in research could help you land a spot in a program in a highly competitive specialty like orthopedic surgery, as a report in Current Orthopaedic Practice suggests.

In addition to upping your chances for matching at your top program, you can also develop insight into the research process and decide whether you might want to pursue research in your career.

What research opportunities for medical students are available?

Medical students often have limited free time for projects like research, typically with only one summer vacation between the first and second years of medical school. This means that you need to carefully consider your research options early on in your training—or even before you start.

For example, you could consider:

  • Doing research the summer after your first year.
  • Taking a rotation in a research lab during your third or fourth clerkship years.
  • Working weekly for a few hours on a research project alongside your classes and/or rotations for a longer experience.

Because of the way medical school is scheduled, you will have to take a whole extra year or apply for a PhD program if you want to do more than a few months of full-time dedicated research while you’re a medical student.

Generally, the most attainable research opportunities will be found at your medical school and its affiliated hospitals. Some students travel to an out-of-town hospital or to a national center, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to participate in research. You can usually find listings for student positions with help from faculty at your medical school education office (they can also give you an idea of how many positions you should apply for). Or you can search for positions on research hospital websites if you’re not a current medical student or if you want to expand your choices.

How do you choose the right research experience for you?

Once you decide to apply, begin by learning about the projects in the labs that have available positions. Create a CV and a cover letter, and send them in for each position that interests you. Most recipients will send an acknowledgment of your application with an estimate of when you should expect to receive a response. Follow up if you don’t hear anything back. And if you’re “ghosted”—which unfortunately can happen—you may have a low likelihood of being offered a position and should apply elsewhere.

As you look at your different research options during your application phase—and if you’re fortunate enough to receive multiple offers—consider the following factors.

Your compensation

Reimbursement may vary between one research opportunity and another. For example, a month-long clerkship rotation might not include financial compensation, while a summer program could offer payment. And you can end up paying substantial rent for an apartment if you decide to conduct a research project in an expensive city. Ultimately, the finances could impact your choice.

The topic

The subject matter of the research might be important to you. But keep in mind that most researchers don’t necessarily stick to the same exact area of investigation through their whole careers, so this detail might not be as important as you think.

Connections you could make

Finally, consider the mentorship you could gain through a research experience. Some research faculty members are more involved in guiding students than others. As noted in Pancreas, research mentorship has a major influence on young researchers’ productivity. This leads to the question of how much you’ll get to do as a student when it comes to obtaining and analyzing data and presenting or writing it up for publication.

How can you make the most of your research experience?

Not only will you gain practical benefits that will help you throughout your career, but your research experience will also be an asset when applying to residency programs. A letter of recommendation from a lead researcher, for example, can bolster your application.

While authoring a paper is often considered an important goal, experimental results can take years to develop, and papers take months to write and even longer to be accepted and published in prestigious journals. So you might not have the opportunity to list your name as a co-author by the time you apply for residency.

Even if you don’t publish a paper, you can discuss valuable research experiences in your personal statement or during your interview. For example, your introduction to the grant process, research design, patient safety and analysis of results are all just as valuable as getting a paper published. These skills will serve you well in your career whether you decide to continue to do research or not. And the people who review your residency application know the value of these experiences.

According to an article in Academic Medicine, the criteria used to evaluate residency applicants will undergo changes due to the USMLE’s recent switch to pass/fail scoring for the Step 1 exam. Factors such as research exposure and how much students learn from their research may play a bigger role than ever before.

Heidi Moawad, MD
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.
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