Will a research year boost your residency application? No guarantee

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

AMA News Wire

Will a research year boost your residency application? No guarantee.

Dec 20, 2023

Taking a year off during medical school to pursue one’s scholarly interests by conducting research can shape a career. It also can help bolster a medical student’s residency application when the time comes.

AMA Research Challenge

The AMA Research Challenge is the largest national, multi-specialty medical research conference for medical students and residents to showcase and present research. 

For medical students looking to gain insight on the research process and the work their peers are doing, the finals of the 2023 AMA Research Challenge take place Feb. 6, 2024. Five finalists will present their research to an expert panel of judges, with AMA President Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD, as the host. Watch as the winner of the $10,000 grand prize is announced live.

A recent AMA Research Challenge Symposium featured expert panelists reflecting on the benefits of a research year for residency applicants. Here are some key takeaways. 

As a medical student, Luke Selby, MD, MS, didn’t have interest in doing a research year. It wasn’t until his general surgery residency training that his curiosity compelled him to pursue scholarly work

“If you find a mentor and a project you like, you should do research,” said Dr. Selby, assistant professor of surgical oncology at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “You shouldn’t do it as a check box to get into medical school or a field of residency or specific program. You shouldn’t do it to get a fellowship. You shouldn’t do it to get a job. You should do it if you like it. If you are anything like me, if you do something you don’t like, you’re going to do a bad job at it.”

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If your research year doesn’t yield results, it can do more harm than good to your residency application, according to Krystal Tomei, MD, MPH.

“Taking an actual research project from conception to publication doesn’t just take a year in some cases,” said Dr. Tomei, the neurological surgery residency program director at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center/Case Western Reserve University. “Not having any work product to show for that year and not having growth or development to show can actually be hurtful on applications.”

To ensure your research year is productive, David Savage, MD, PhD, said working with your research mentor to create goals can be helpful.

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Medical student sitting on a stack of textbooks

“It’s important to have some definite end points, where you’d say if I work on this and we have some progress would I be able to go to a national meeting in my field [to present], would I be able to have a first or second author publication on this?” said Dr. Savage, an AMA member and medical oncology and hematology fellow at Scripps Health in San Diego. “That way you have goals to work toward and it’s not ambiguous what you are hoping to get out of the one year.”

In 2022—the most recent data available—the average number of research experiences for seniors who matched from U.S. allopathic medical schools was 7.9, according to the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP). The average number of research experiences for unmatched applicants was 8.7.

The number of research experiences in the NRMP figure includes abstracts, presentations and publications. Because of that, worrying about quantity over quality can often be a misguided pursuit.

“Neurosurgery tends to be a very research-heavy application process,” said Dr. Tomei, an AMA member. “If you look at the information that the NRMP puts out, they lump all research products together, all scholarly activity, oral presentations, poster presentations, and papers into one group. … I’m constantly stepping back and having to say that it’s not really 24 publications it’s 24 [occurrences] of anything in that group.”

A research year can shape your career. It also might reveal that the physician-scientist route is one you might not want to take as your career unfolds.

“It’s totally fine to think you want to do research and to have had some small research experiences and to take a year off and realize it’s not for you,” said Dr. Selby, an AMA member. “That’s just personal growth and development. It’s no different than starting on your general surgery rotation, coming into it knowing surgery is for you, and realizing halfway through your rotation, it’s not.”

“If I’m interviewing you for residency, and I see that you took time off and we talk about it, and you’re honest and you can say why you thought you liked it. And you can say why realized you didn’t. That doesn’t make the year a waste.”

The AMA Succeeding in Medical School series offers tips and other guidance on a wide range of critical topics, including preparing for USMLE exams, navigating clinical rotations, publishing scientific research, and maintaining optimal health and wellness. 

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