Preparing for Residency

What I wish I knew about residency program research in medical school

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

AMA News Wire

What I wish I knew about residency program research in medical school

Jun 10, 2024

In 2023, residency applicants from U.S. MD-granting medical schools applied to about 70 programs on average. The figure was higher than 90 for medical students from DO schools.

While those numbers may seem large—and it is worth noting that they do vary widely by specialty, doing the right research on residency programs can help narrow down your choices. Half a decade removed from his application process, David Lee, MD, reflected on how he went about his approach to finding the programs that best fit his professional ambitions and personal needs.

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“When you’re thinking about going this process and deciding where to apply there is no perfect method,” said Dr. Lee, a female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery fellow at Northwestern Medicine. “You are going to bring your own goals to the table and those are going to shape where you apply. If you have ideas about your long-term career plans and are honest about where you stand as an applicant, those should help you make informed decisions about where you are applying.”

As applicants embark on the residency-selection process, no online resource contains as much information as FREIDA™, the AMA Residency and Fellowship Database®, which includes more than 13,000 Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education-accredited residency programs, and offers a streamlined user experience.

“When I began looking at residency programs, I started with looking at where I applied for medical school,” said Dr. Lee who did ob-gyn residency training at Beaumont Health System in Royal Oak, Michigan which is affiliated with Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine in Auburn Hills, Michigan. “A lot of that process was asking: Can I see myself being here? And when I say that, I’m thinking about what the environment is like physically, socially and academically. Are their values compatible with mine?”

“In addition, I tasked myself with envisioning whether I could settle down in a particular area if it was just me, versus if a family came into the picture or if my professional goals evolved beyond interests in clinical medicine.”

When pondering where to apply to medical school, “certain state schools had such low out-of-state acceptance rates that it didn't make sense to put additional money toward those when we're spending so much on AMCAS [American Medical College Application Service] applications already,” Dr. Lee said. “When I started filling out residency applications, there were similar levels of consideration of those factors.”

“I felt like I was going to ultimately be either in academics or in privademics,” Dr. Lee said. “As a result, programs that were listed as community hospitals on FREIDA were lower on my list because my faculty mentors were unsure whether they would have a structure for ensuring their trainees were especially competitive for a fellowship or a traditional academic role if that's what was desired.”

“Ultimately, I limited my selections to the academic institutions and the university-affiliated community institutions.” 

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“I was in the second graduating class from Western Michigan University [Homer Stryker MD School of Medicine],” said Dr. Lee, an AMA member. “Because of that, there was less information on how graduates from our school fared in the Match and we were encouraged to cast a wider net; I ultimately applied to 68 programs.”

When deciding the number of programs to apply to, “it’s really an individual decision,” Dr. Lee said. “You want to do what makes you feel comfortable which likely is influenced by factors such as your test scores, course evaluations, and metrics for personal accomplishment and how those jibe with your goals and the values of each individual program. Ultimately, submitting more applications does not necessarily equate to a better application.

“I do also want to acknowledge though that my circumstances were a bit different compared to what applicants are going through now,” Dr. Lee said. “I didn’t have to navigate the intricacies of signaling while applying, my residency interviews were in-person, and COVID was not yet in existence.”

“My first stops when starting this process were the AMA’s FREIDA and the AAMC’s program finder,” Dr. Lee said. “From there, I reached out to my network of colleagues I met through working with the [AMA Medical Student Section] and the Michigan State Medical Society’s Medical Student Section. These are people who I had written resolutions with or had been on committees with—anybody who had been at one of these institutions I applied to or potentially was going to be applying to.

“I’d ask them: ‘What are your thoughts? How do you feel about the training and faulty there are? How cohesive of an environment do you feel it is or lack thereof?’”

“These are people whom I trust. If they tell me that this would be a great program for me that weighed into decision-making of where I ultimately applied.”

“I strongly encourage our medical students to take the initiative with building bridges with other medical students, residents and fellows in organizations like the AMA or organizations related to the specialty that they’re going to be applying to,” Dr. Lee said. “In the end, you are trying to maximize how informed your decision-making can be on that initial application submission.”

“After you’ve done the research, you do have to go with your instincts to some degree,” Dr. Lee said. “There may be some programs you simply don’t feel comfortable with. That’s a real sign you should consider striking them from your list of programs to apply to, regardless of prestige or location.

“Both in selecting applications sites and where you rank them, should you get an interview, if they're not sitting well with something in us internally, we shouldn't fool ourselves. We should be honest in considering during the application cycle, if this is not a place that I feel is a good fit for me, consider not applying. Or if it's after an interview and you feel that way, consider ranking that program lower or not at all.”

All opinions expressed by Dr. Lee in this story do not reflect those of his residency or fellowship programs or training institutions.