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Not Every Med Student Goes Straight to Residency. I Did a Research Fellowship Instead

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

Before completing medical school, I began my search for research fellowships during the post-SOAP period in March 2021. And after accepting a position in June, I began my fellowship in July. What I remember most about that process was the little amount of information available on finding high quality research fellowships, and not knowing what specific program qualities were important to consider.

Having now completed my research fellowship, I believe there are four points to focus on when determining if a program is right for you: scholarly productivity, professional development, life skills development, and personal growth. 

The purpose of this article is to supplement what I discussed in my previously published article with an emphasis on these four focus points. My hope is that future applicants will have a better sense of what a quality research fellowship program looks like, and how to make the most out of the additional year of training.

First, scholarly productivity. Your productivity level can be measured by the number of peer-reviewed journal publications you have — your new gold standard. Based on my discussions with researchers over the course of the year, your aim should be to produce a minimum of five to 10 publications in a single year. Abstracts, oral presentations, and poster presentations are great supplements; however, publishing peer-reviewed journal articles is the main goal.   

Second, professional development for those who will be applying to residency can be measured in several ways. For those striving to become a general surgeon, I recommend taking the American Board of Surgery in Training Examination, completing the USMLE Step 3, attending your department’s morbidity and mortality conference, and participating in your program’s weekly didactic schedule. If your soon-to-be hospital system has GME research lectures, holds a department-wide monthly research meeting, or provides training with statistical software and database building, I would highly recommend taking advantage of those resources. Unlike your fellow colleagues completing a preliminary surgery year, you will have more time to study and learn about the essential practices in your future line of work. Use every second wisely, whether that means learning about research methodology and various operative techniques, or simply applying the extra time toward additional studying for board exams. Your research year can be a huge step forward in your medical education, or a giant leap backward. Time is of the essence, and it is up to you to take advantage of the opportunity to become more adept with your field of interest.

The third component is life skills development. Being capable of maintaining a positive work-life balance is essential to prevent burnout. Given that your upcoming year will be more flexible than it would be during a preliminary surgery year, take the time to work on yourself as well as your career. One aspect of my research fellowship I found most enlightening was the time I spent working with the network’s leadership coach. I learned about emotional intelligence, the differences between positional versus principal negotiation, the various Myers-Briggs personality types, and how to apply these important aspects of communication and emotional restraint into the clinical realm. Knowing the various human elements of medicine is just as important as the time you spend learning about the science of medicine. Being mindful of your teammate’s personal qualities, understanding the functionality of your team, practicing the leadership traits needed to adequately manage a team, and learning to swiftly resolve conflicts are all critical components to becoming a competent physician. 

The fourth focus point is personal growth. Now is a great time to assess your financial situation, along with your family situation. All the necessary financial evils such as life insurance, disability insurance, loan repayment plans, and retirement accounts can be up and running before you start your first day of residency. Just as you make the time at night to prepare for the next day’s cases, make time for your spouse, and consider if and when you might like to start a family. If you land a research spot with a program you see as your future home for residency, learn about the financial resources available, and get the ball rolling before you become an intern. 

As an aside, I believe it is worth mentioning that you should establish your plan for the next five to 10 years, if you have not already done so. After SOAP, I remember sitting down at the kitchen table and making my list of goals for the foreseeable future. As always, your plan may change as you reassess your situation using newly acquired information. However, having a well-thought-out plan is the first step to success. Include in that plan all of the aspects previously discussed, such as your target number of publications over the next year and the percentile you’ll strive for on your board exams. Make a list of places you want to visit with your spouse before you start residency. The point is, listing your goals and making your plan is the first step to your desire becoming a reality.

Each research fellowship has its benefits and pitfalls. And unfortunately, there is no single assessment tool to rank the currently available research fellowship programs. Along with your personal goals, I recommend you consider scholarly productivity, professional development, life skills development, and personal growth as the four main areas to assess before making your final decision. To those who ultimately embark on a research year, I believe most who have done so would say that the journey is extremely rewarding, but only if you do your homework before you start.

What questions do you have about research fellowships? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section.

Wayne is an alumnus of Clemson University and the Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine. He recently completed a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at St. Luke’s University Health Network, and he will begin general surgery residency in July. Wayne is an aspiring golfer, fitness nut, and avid outdoorsman. He is a husband, older brother to two siblings, and a proud cat owner.

Illustration by April Brust

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