There are many reasons people pursue post-baccalaureate research. They may want to increase their competitiveness for applying to a MD-PhD program, gain research experience they didn’t get in undergrad, or simply prefer an intellectually stimulating job between graduation and matriculation into medical school. The search for these positions can be difficult, so here are some things to consider when looking for post-bac research. I wish I knew these things before my research gap years!
Local Research Opportunities
If you are looking for research after graduation without any prior experience, your best bet is to volunteer in a lab. Contact your local university or teaching hospital for opportunities. Remember, patience and persistence is vital in this process. You will certainly hear dozens of NOs before you get a YES. Unfortunately, the majority of opportunities require previous research experience in order to be competitive, just like any other postgraduate job.
Many students volunteer in a lab during undergrad to gain experience. Think about continuing your volunteer position after graduation if possible. If you can no longer afford to volunteer, ask your principle investigator (PI) if they have funding for you to stay for a year or two of work. If your PI has NIH grant funding and you are an underrepresented student in science, mention the research supplements to promote diversity in health-related research. These supplemental funds are awarded with parent NIH grants to promote diversity in STEM. Earning this supplement looks great for you and your PI. Numerous faculty members told me that the supplement is usually awarded with a high success rate.
If you are currently not working with a PI or unable to continue working in your current lab after graduation, then you will obviously need to apply to external opportunities. If you are graduating in the spring, try to start looking for positions during the fall semester of your last academic year. The best place to start searching is your home institution. Depending on how large your university is and the amount of research activity occurring there, it might be easy to find a position. Try to talk to research professors and students involved in research for leads into vacant internal positions not yet posted on job sites. This allows you to compete with a small number of individuals for a spot instead of everyone on the internet that applied for the research position.
If you cannot find any leads through networking, start using your university’s internal job listings site. For example, my school uses Handshake to post job openings for graduates of my alma mater. If your search is not fruitful, try to broaden your search using public job listings through LinkedIn, Monster, Indeed, or Google for Jobs. In your search, look for “research assistant” or “research associate”. The terms “clinical research coordinator,” “clinical research assistant,” or “clinical research associate” help with a search for clinical positions. One thing I found helpful during my search was setting job posting alerts. Then I was first in line when applying for newly posted positions.
Post-Bac Research Fellowships
If you are competitive enough and having trouble finding local research opportunities, the next step I suggest is applying for post-baccalaureate research fellowships. There are numerous post-baccalaureate research programs available. The best place to search for post-bac programs in your region is to use the Pathways to Science database PathwaysToScience.org: Increasing Diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). You can also search “post-bac research programs” in Google and find an abundance of options. I will focus on the most popular and well-known post-bac research programs: NIH-IRTA/CRTA and NIH-PREP.
NIH-IRTA (Intramural Research Training Award) and NIH-CRTA (Cancer Research Training Award) are post-bac research programs for recent college graduates. You work on salary for a year or two in an NIH lab. The required documents are what you would expect for a research fellowship: a resume/CV, list of coursework with grades, cover letter describing research interests, and three reference letters. You submit this information into a portal. The unique aspect about the NIH-IRTA/CRTA selection process is that there is no selection committee. Anyone can apply through this program and conduct research in NIH as along as you contact a PI and establish an agreement.
You are responsible for finding a PI. This requires you to contact multiple PIs. It is imperative that you craft a well-thought-out email displaying your interests along with contacting multiple PIs on a consistent basis until you receive a “Yes!”.
This process is tedious and is best to start early. Start filling out your IRTA/CRTA application around September/October. By November you should have your application completed and start emailing PIs immediately because research positions fill quickly.
The other post-bac research program funded by NIH is PREP (Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program). The mechanism of funding and operation is different from IRTA/CRTA. Universities apply for a specific NIH PREP grant. That grant pays for the research fellows’ stipend and other activities. The NIH-PREP application process is different than IRTA. Each university has different deadlines, requirements and documents that need to be submitted. The documents required are generally like IRTA (CV, transcript, cover letter or/and research statement and letter of recommendations).
The intent of PREP is different as well. PREP is geared towards underrepresented or disadvantaged students in biomedical sciences. IRTA does not favor this population; if you have a PI that wants to work with you, you will be funded. PREP is looking for students interested in pursuing Ph.Ds. Some programs are willing to take in students interested in MD-PhDs but that is less common. In contrast, IRTA does not require that you pursue a PhD, MD, MD-PhD or any other degree. If you find a PI to work with, you are fine. PREP is usually guaranteed for a year; a second year is not required but can be granted based on multiple factors. For IRTA, although you can do a year in a lab, many IRTA participants have noted that PIs want and expect a second year.
Other Research Fellowships
Besides the NIH post-bac programs and other bigger programs (i.e., ORISE, CDC), you can find through your Google and Pathways to Science searches that your local teaching hospital or nearby universities might have obscure post graduate research fellowships. The research program I am in right now was not in the Pathways to Science database or easily searchable through Google. I had to browse around my local hospital’s website to find the application.
Finding a post bacc research position can be difficult. I understand, since I participated in two of them for my gap years. The post-grad job search is challenging but hopefully these tips and tricks makes your search a little more bearable.
Check out SDN’s series “Research for the Rest of Us” for more information on how to succeed in research.