Interested in a career in research or academic medicine? Learn how one novel program helped physicians in training develop successful research projects, earn grants and transition to “high leadership positions” in medical education. These program outcomes can help you better assess your plans for an academic research career.


A unique approach to graduate research

Faculty at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) launched the Specialty Training and Advanced Research (STAR) Program in 1993 to give trainees protected time to pursue graduate coursework beyond their medical degrees while completing specialty or subspecialty clinical training. The program aimed to produce successful physician-scientists by offering trainees guided mentorship from faculty, opportunities for lab research at UCLA’s partnering institutions and specialty training within clinical departments. Trainees were given the options to pursue a PhD in basic science or health services research, a Master of Science degree in clinical research or postdoctoral research.

Now 20 years later, UCLA professors have conducted a retrospective study to determine the career outcomes of 123 graduates from the STAR program. They recently published their findings in the Journal of Graduate Medical Education.

The results: How graduates of the program advanced their research careers

Using curriculum vitae, direct contact and online confirmation, the authors compiled data on graduates' activities as of 2013 and found that graduates not only excelled after completing the STAR program but many of them went on to lead successful careers in academic medicine and research. In fact, among graduates in the study:

  • More than 80 percent were conducting research in academic, institutional or industrial careers
  • 71 percent held academic faculty appointments, while 20 percent were employed in private practice
  • 50 percent received career development awards, including 44 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and six from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
  • 19 percent received investigator-initiated NIH Research Project Grants (R01) or equivalent grants

Several graduates held “high leadership positions,” such as department chair, vice chair, assistant vice chancellor and chief scientific officer at a university-affiliated research institute. Collectively, they’ve also “published at least 1,981 publications, including 1,705 peer-reviewed manuscripts, 142 book chapters and 134 review articles,” according to the study.

“Overall, the outcomes for this 20-year period suggest that incorporating graduate degree research at the level of specialty or subspecialty clinical training is a feasible and successful path to training and retaining physician-scientists,” the authors wrote.

Insights for residents and fellows pursuing careers in academic research

Although the STAR program marks a departure from the common MD-PhD track many trainees pursue, the study authors noted that residents and fellows who typically “receive PhD training after medical school have more published papers, grant funding and protected research time, as well as fewer clinical responsibilities than those who obtained PhDs before or during medical school.” For instance, an earlier study published in Academic Medicine found that physicians who had pursued their PhDs after graduating from medical school “spent more time in research and less time on clinical practice” than physicians who earned their PhDs before or during medical school.

Plus, the authors pointed out, there are unique benefits to pursuing advanced degree research at the clinical fellowship level: “Although a degree is not essential for success, the formal graduate programs have the advantages of rigorous structure, expertise and established curricula,” they wrote. “Having chosen a subspecialty allows the trainee to focus research on a complementary area. Trainees also reach peak research skills, with command of the literature and knowledge of the state-of-the art techniques, at precisely the time they apply for grants and faculty positions.”

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