By Trevor C. Hunt
This article originally appeared on Student Doctor Network on October 3, 2018.
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, but rather 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.
The Match, an algorithm that pairs medical school graduates with their future residency programs, is shrouded in mystery for most of us. Many attempt to craft a broad and lengthy CV in preparation, risking burnout by signing up for every extracurricular that crosses their path. This is hardly the best strategy, however, and with time being in such short supply students must be smart about where they invest it. Luckily, there is a single place where the average student can focus their effort and reap huge benefits when it comes time to match: research.
In the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, the concept of using a data-driven approach to maximize one’s competitive advantage is explored through the 2002 season of the Oakland Athletics, who held their own with the high-rolling Yankees despite having the third-lowest payroll in the MLB.1 Medicine is already an evidence-based field, so it would be a drastic oversight to not incorporate this same Moneyball-esque approach into preparing for The Match.
This article aims to crunch the numbers behind research and residency match success so that you, the average, middle-of-the-bell-curve medical student can maximize your time spent in the lab and gain a significant advantage when the time comes to apply.
Charting Outcomes, and Improving Your Own
The most well-known source of official data is Charting Outcomes in the Match, a yearly set of publications authored by the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP).2 The NRMP administers The Match each year, so this data is straight from the horse’s mouth and is definitely worth looking at. We will examine data from US allopathic seniors only, as they comprise the vast majority of the report. It may be helpful to open the report and follow along with the charts mentioned below, as we are unable to reproduce them here.
Data covered in my recent Research Basics article show that involvement in research is highly correlated with a successful outcome in The Match for nearly all specialties (Charts 8-9).2 While the hyper-competitive ones such as plastic surgery or radiation oncology practically necessitate heavy research involvement, it seems that research gives a competitive advantage no matter what field you are applying into.
Chart 9 best exposes the sharply-contrasting role of research in applying to different specialties. For the most competitive fields, a wide gap exists in the number of research items listed by those who did and did not match. In more general fields, the gap is much narrower if present at all.2 Armed with this information, students able to set their sights on a particular specialty early on can anticipate if research will ultimately be a pillar of their application or just icing on the cake.
Try not to be discouraged by the daunting numbers in these charts. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’ll never be able to match them; after all who has time to publish 18 papers during medical school, let alone just one or two? Fear not though and inspect Chart 9 closer. These numbers apply to abstracts, presentations, and publications combined, a fact that is commonly overlooked. Thus, a single research experience from Chart 8 can easily yield up to 10 of these items tracked in Chart 9 by the time it’s all wrapped up and published.
Of course, all this rests on the shoulders of you and your mentor. Assuming you are both proactive in submitting work to conferences year-round, even the most basic project can help tick your metrics up to lofty heights. With a bit of planning and unique titles for each abstract submission, the enterprising student researcher can stack their CV and proudly match up to the intimidating averages reported in these charts.
For those interested in getting their hands dirty and crunching the numbers further, the NRMP recently released an interactive Charting Outcomes tool where students can input their own data and see how they stack up.3 Check it out to find out where you stand and where research can take you!
Program Directors Know Best
Another powerful source of annual data to delve into is the Results of the 2018 NRMP Program Director Survey.4 While it should be taken with a grain of salt due to the disappointing 29.3% overall response rate, this report offers a rare glimpse into precisely what goes through the minds of those deciding which applicants are the most desirable.
These findings are crucial, as they often contradict the false beliefs held by medical students. For example, many think going to a big-name medical school is the Holy Grail, and yet these data show that only 50% of program directors consider it when selecting students to interview. Even fewer, just 36%, factor school prestige into how they eventually rank applicants.4
So what does the survey say about research involvement? To start, let’s look at overall data from all specialties (Figures 1 and 2). Only 41% of programs cited “demonstrated involvement and interest in research” as a factor in selecting applicants to interview, and it was assigned an average importance rating of 3.7. Slightly fewer, just 30%, consider research when ultimately ranking their interviewed applicants and cite the same 3.7 importance in this decision.4
These importance scores are towards the lower end of the spectrum but still meet or exceed those of other prominent factors like the personal statement and clerkship awards/honors. Still, at first glance it appears research isn’t all that useful in garnering an interview or getting ranked highly.
To stop at this conclusion, however, ignores the numerous other factors that are enhanced by research involvement. For example, “letters of recommendation in the specialty” is the second most cited factor for interviews at 86% while “perceived commitment to the specialty” is tied for the third highest importance rating at 4.3.4 Research in your specialty of choice and subsequent networking opportunities with doctors and mentors have the potential to skyrocket both, even if the research itself doesn’t directly add as much value.
This is true for numerous other factors cited as important in the interview and ranking process. In no particular order, some that may be bolstered by research experience include: grades and class rank, personal statement, leadership qualities, awards or special honors, interpersonal skills, and prior knowledge of an applicant (such as having met previously at a research conference). The list grows even longer if you consider the many other opportunities that may arise from the valuable networking connections made at conferences and in the lab.
Finally, we cannot neglect the data collected for each individual specialty. As you might expect, the value of research in the eyes of program directors is greatest in those fields where academic medicine is most prevalent. The extreme example is radiation oncology, where the metrics were 96% / 4.4 and 69% / 4.3 for interviews and ranking, respectively (Figures RO-1 and RO-2).4 You may recall that this was also the specialty with the greatest mean number of research experiences in the Charting Outcomes data presented earlier, so this finding should come as no surprise.2
At face value, research may appear to be a trivial factor. However, when looking a bit closer it is evident that it can significantly improve your chances of matching successfully by enhancing a variety of other important aspects of the application. This is especially true in the most competitive and traditionally research-heavy specialties, where extensive experience and long CVs are rapidly become the norm.
The Proof is in the P-Values
As in research itself, we must also briefly delve into the journal articles surrounding this subject. A 2015 review of 20 published studies noted some very powerful findings, corroborating what we saw in the data above. Namely, the overall conclusion that research experience certainly does increase the likelihood of matching into your residency of choice, regardless of what it may be.5
This is accomplished via the smaller component advantages inherent to research, such as its ability to help you develop useful clinical and interpersonal skills while closely interacting with your specialty of choice.5 Those who do research are more likely to attend conferences, which serve as key networking venues and can spawn connections that open doors on the interview trail. Additionally, research pairs you with a dedicated mentor. This alone can be instrumental in a student’s professional development and growth during medical school.
Indeed, these intangible perks of participating in research may be where its true value lies. Through projects and presentations, students build confidence while honing essential communication skills and learning to incorporate published studies into patient care. These are just two of many possible examples, but each clearly contributes to the development of a future physician who is an effective team leader, has excellent bedside manner, and uses evidence-based practices to expertly diagnose and treat patients. All of these are highly desirable attributes, and all can be gained through involvement in research.
Research endeavors necessitate immersion in a desired specialty and can help students to define their career paths,5 allowing them to be more confident and efficient while pursuing success in The Match. Add to this the diverse advantages accrued while performing research, plus the favorable view of program directors, and research is clearly one of the highest-yield avenues for a student to invest their time.
The “Medical Moneyball” approach is not limited to just medical students, either. Most of the advantages that come with doing research are generalizable across fields, so students in all medical and health sciences should attempt to dive into an exciting project in the clinic or lab. With all these fields becoming increasingly more competitive each year, students need every leg up they can muster. Research, as it turns out, might just be the strongest leg to stand on.
About the Author
Trevor C. Hunt is a rising fourth-year medical student and a member of his school’s Research Distinction Track, currently completing a one-year research fellowship. He authors the SDN column “Research for the Rest of Us”, using his experience to help others navigate the precarious pitfalls of life in the lab. He enjoys reading and art, and when not in the hospital or conducting experiments can often be found on a golf course or a ski slope. Find him on Twitter: @TrevorHunt_ECU
1. Wikipedia contributors. Moneyball. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Moneyball – Wikipedia. Revised April 10, 2018. Accessed August 6, 2018.
2. National Resident Matching Program. Charting Outcomes in the Match: U.S. Allopathic Seniors, 2nd Ed. NRMP.org. http://www.nrmp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Charting-Outcomes-in-the-Match-2018-Seniors.pdf. Published July 1, 2018. Accessed July 11, 2018.
3. National Resident Matching Program. Interactive Charting Outcomes in the Match. NRMP.org. Interactive Charting Outcomes in the Match – The Match, National Resident Matching Program. Accessed August 6, 2018.
4. National Resident Matching Program. Results of the 2018 NRMP Program Director Survey. NRMP.org. http://www.nrmp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/NRMP-2018-Program-Director-Survey-for-WWW.pdf. Published June 2018. Accessed August 6, 2018.
5. Chang Y, Ramnanan CJ. A review of literature on medical students and scholarly research: Experiences, attitudes, and outcomes. Acad Med2015;90(8):1162-73. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000000702