Roadmap to a Rewarding Research Year

Last Updated on June 23, 2022 by Laura Turner

Welcome to “Research for the Rest of Us”, a column about navigating the complex intricacies of life in the lab. These articles aren’t for the superhuman Nature-publishing, Nobel Prize-winning MD/PhDs out there. They are for the rest of us: the Average Joes simply trying to get our feet wet in research. Join us as we journey through this complex world of academic adventures, from picking a project to matching into your dream residency and everything in between. 

Research years are slowly entering the mainstream for medical students. What was once a rarity is now a viable and exciting way to enrich your journey towards an illustrious career. For the casual student scientist, however, the mere mention of a research year is enough to strike fear deep into the heart. Research can be grueling enough in small bites. So why on earth would you willingly subject yourself to a whole year of it? Hear me out. A successful research year has the potential to be one of the most rewarding and enlightening experiences of your medical training. 

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Whether you’re seeking personal or professional growth—or most likely, a bit of both—a research year is the perfect way to jumpstart your momentum in realizing these important goals. This article will introduce you to the basics of research years and who they are best for, how to go about finding one, and ways to make the most of the experience.

Is a Research Year Right for Me?

The first step to determining whether a research year is right for you is to understand what they are and who is most likely to benefit. Before we dive in, I strongly recommend checking out this article by my fellow SDN author Tyler Montgomery, who is currently completing a year of orthopedics research. 

So what is a research year and who ultimately takes one? In general, they are twelve-month positions taken voluntarily between two years of your schooling while on a leave of absence. Rarely, such as at Duke, they may be required and built into the curriculum. Most students will choose to take one between 3rd and 4th year. A minority will complete them a year earlier or later (in the latter case, possibly after a failed match attempt). While previously a defensive strategy, the modern research year is a solidly offensive tactic to bolster your application and enrich your education by exploring an academic passion prior to moving forward towards residency. 

Many students choose to take a year “off”, most often for an MPH or MBA degree. The fraction taking research years are often already involved in clinical or basic science and looking to dive in deeper than what their rigorous clinical schedules allow. These students tend to be pursuing more competitive specialties where research is highly valued; examples include radiation oncology, interventional radiology, and the surgical subspecialties like orthopedics, urology, neurosurgery, ENT, and so on. Outside of this archetype, students might decide to take a research year for all sorts of reasons. Common motivations include strengthening the residency application, preparing for a career in academic medicine, delving into a topic of interest, and simply working on physical or mental health.

The advantages of taking a research year are numerous and largely align with those I’ve discussed previously for research in general. Namely, productive research will nearly always make you a more competitive applicant for your specialty of choice. Extracurriculars on your CV don’t matter nearly as much for residency applications as they did for medical school, but research is often the exception here. Additionally, any amount of research (and especially a full year of it) provides tangible evidence of your passion and drive to enter that particular field. 

Finally, a research year can conveniently fill unique gaps in your application. Don’t have a home urology program? Spend a year networking and doing research at a school that does. Need more time to prepare for Step 2 CK? Take a year and study for as long as you like. Want to get your mental or physical health back in order? You guessed it, research year! Whatever your priorities are, a research year can be a real panacea if you plan it well and stay productive while there.

Hunting for the Perfect Position

After careful consideration, you’ve decided to take a research year. Fantastic! But how do you find an opportunity that meets your needs, and then how do you land the position? The process is not easy. You’re hunting for a job after all. Be sure to start early and bring your A game. Looking for a research year is in many ways similar to looking for any other research position; check out my previous articles on finding a great mentor and project before you get started. 

Begin scouring the internet and your professional network for opportunities at least six months before you’d plan to begin the research year. While opportunities will arise at the last minute in late spring, the most desirable funded research programs will be snatched up well before then. Make it known on social media that you’re looking. Those in research may connect you with openings their colleagues need to fill. You’ll need to decide on many details as you search, such as when you’ll start the year, what type of research you want to do, and if you’ll stay at your home institution or go elsewhere. While leaving is more challenging to pull off logistically, it comes with the tradeoff of maximizing the year’s potential benefits. 

When it comes to finding specific positions to apply for, funding will be your main barrier. Nearly any productive scientist at your school or elsewhere will take you into their lab for a year of free labor. However, most students are unable to make such an arrangement work financially. You’ll be on a leave of absence from your school, meaning no more convenient government loans. Thus, the most sought-after research year positions are those established and named programs with funding already built in.

The best-known program is the NIH’s Medical Research Scholars Program. However, most specialties will have a couple unique named research year positions as well (e.g. UC Irvine’s LIFT Program for urology). You’ll want to compile a list of as many of these as you can find and apply to them all. Positions tend to be highly competitive. Google is your best friend here, as an exhaustive database doesn’t yet exist. Search the obvious buzzwords such as “research year”, “fellowship”, “gap year”, and your field of interest. Be ready to comb through mountains of irrelevant results. Keep an eye on email newsletters and discussion forums as well (such as SDN or specialty-specific sites like Urology Match), where positions are often first advertised. Alternatively, you can apply for NIH grant funding and then take this money with you to a lab willing to bring you on board. 

Your final hurdle is the big one: applying for and landing one of these coveted positions. To prepare, get your CV updated, gather scientific writing samples, and have at least one letter of recommendation ready to go. Programs may ask for a personal statement as well, so plan accordingly and have an outline of ideas ready just in case. As always, be prompt and professional with your communications and have a mentor proofread anything you submit. When preparing for phone or Skype interviews, do your homework and read about the research team and their institution before the big day. This small show of interest might ultimately be what makes you stand out from the crowd. 

Above all else, remember that you are simultaneously interviewing them as well. Don’t be afraid to ask reasonable questions about the position. Also try to get in touch with a previous student who occupied the role. This information is often listed on the website or can be provided by the program’s coordinator. Not all research years are created equal. A veteran’s opinion and hindsight will prove invaluable as you assess whether this program is the right fit.  

Making the Most of the Opportunity

You’ve landed the research year position of your dreams, well done! Now that the hard work is over you can kick back and relax, right? Well… not quite. Go celebrate in whichever way you prefer—this position is a serious achievement—but keep in mind that the work has only just begun. To invoke the trite words of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” 

You’re about to embark upon one of the best years of your life, but it’s also essentially a year-long interview. Play your cards right and you’ll reap the rewards. Let your guard down and you could tank your chances at that particular program while putting a blemish on your entire application. A year dedicated to research is a great opportunity to improve your skills and put out a ton of work. However, everyone reading your application will also be expecting that. To meet those expectations, you’ll need to work harder than ever to ensure you make a good impression and have something to show for it when the year wraps up. 

The best way to make sure your year is a roaring success is to set goals early and revisit them with your new mentor at regular intervals. Five realms that you can use to frame these goals are study design (analysis plans and IRB submissions), data (statistics and creating figures), writing (abstracts and publications), grants, and clinical exposure. Not all research years will address each of the five. Some programs may instruct you in these and even more. Whatever the case may be, set detailed goals on day one and revisit them with your mentor to assess progress at least every two months. 

In tackling these goals, don’t be afraid to throw yourself at a diverse range of opportunities. You should always prioritize projects with your primary mentor, but introduce yourself to as many of your colleagues as possible and offer to help with their work as your time allows. Be careful not to overcommit, lest you get involved with a million things that never actually get finished. However, don’t let a fear of being too busy bar you from seizing excellent opportunities. Remember, you’re here to work and you never know where your most meaningful involvements will come from. 

Making the most of your research year doesn’t mean you’re confined to only doing research. If you can meet your mentor’s deadlines and have some free time left over, consider utilizing this unique opportunity to study more thoroughly for Step 2 exams. While they pale in comparison to Step 1’s importance, these tests are still no joke. A little extra effort can go a long way. Likewise, take your newfound freedom and pursue personal projects you’ve been putting off while in school. A research year is a great time to dive into a new leadership opportunity or work on a passion project. Just don’t let it interfere with your research!

Lastly, beware the potential risk of clinical skill rot. You know that feeling the first day back after winter break where everything feels a bit rusty and tight? Well, imagine coming back after a full year away from patients, rounding, and writing notes. Most likely you’ll be returning from your research year and jumping right into sub-internships and other important rotations as the ERAS application deadline approaches, so this is a real concern. Keep this risk in mind as you decide whether to embark upon a year away. 

Of course, the risk is only there if you do nothing to combat it. While away, stay sharp by participating in clinical activities like resident lectures, departmental conferences, and tumor boards. Shadow your mentors regularly and ensure your home institution’s malpractice insurance is still active so that you can fully participate. If needed, many companies provide temporary coverage. Discounts are available via professional societies such as the American Medical Student Association. Try to schedule a sub-internship month towards the end of your research year as well. It’s an opportunity to squeeze one more rotation into your schedule before submitting ERAS. You’ll be making an impression while getting your skills back up to par.

Research years are not for everybody, but they can be an incredibly impactful opportunity for those inclined to seek them out. Committing to one can seriously bolster your chances of matching into a competitive specialty. But slacking off can equally harm your application. Make the most of the year by strategically selecting a program that fits your needs and working hard to impress your mentors. Be sure to take a break from the data to attend resident lectures and do clinical work while you’re out there. This will keep you sharp for Step 2 CS and your sub-internship rotations upon returning to school. 

Most importantly, don’t forget to have a little fun! Medical school and residency are grueling. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to try new things and embrace life in a way that clinic and operating room schedules rarely allow. Sure, most students seek out research years to buff up their CVs. Few remember that the literal translation of curriculum vitae is “course of life.” A rewarding research year, taken for the right reasons and taken full advantage of, has the unique power to substantially enhance not only your CV but the course of your life as well.