Anne Vinsel, MS, MFA


August 22, 2008


As someone who is preparing to be an MD/PhD, how do I go about looking for a residency with an environment that also sees medical research as a part of my training?

Response from the Expert



Anne Vinsel, MS, MFA
Project Administrator, University of Utah School of Medicine, Salt Lake City, Utah


Why don't you treat finding a residency program as an information-gathering project? You didn't mention what your area of interest was or how close you are to graduating, but I'm assuming that you're already involved in research and that you have some time before you have to fill out your residency match forms.

First, I suggest you visit the Web site of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) and click on the link "search programs/sponsors." This will give you basic information about all accredited programs and sponsoring institutions (a program would be, for example, "general surgery residency," and the sponsoring institution might be "University of Michigan"). Then, browse through the list of accredited programs (links on the left), and look up programs (list details) that you think might be interesting. There isn't a lot of information, but you can find contact details and determine the program's accreditation cycle (the longest cycle is 5 years, which tells you the accrediting organization thinks the program is excellent). You should also note if the program requires a dedicated research year.

If you have the time and money, you might also want to order a copy of ACGME's book, Journey to Authenticity: Voices of Chief Residents . This book is a compilation of meaty interviews with 20 chief residents in a variety of specialties. Although it is somewhat expensive ($75), the book gives a good sense of the programs where these residents trained, and it's interesting, too.

Once you have a long list of potential programs that you might find interesting in places where you might want to live for a few years, look at their Web sites. Clues to research-oriented programs are:

  • An up-to-date site that is easy to navigate;

  • Lists of faculty research interests and opportunities for residents;

  • Links to faculty publications or curriculum vitae; and

  • Positive information about the program's research, labs, combined MD/PhD programs, information technology resources, outside funding, institutes, etc.

Hit the Internet again, and look up authors who are doing interesting work in your area of interest. Where are they? After you do this for a while, you will probably find 5 or 6 program names repeatedly coming up. Add these to your list.

Refine that list. Delete programs that have clear problems, such as a very short (approximate 2 year) accreditation cycle.

Now, approach knowledgeable people in your social system. Ask faculty members in your area of interest, laboratory supervisors, older students, residents, and PhD researchers where they think you would do well. Show them your list and ask for comments. Most people will be honest if you invite them to be, so ask, "Do you think I'd have a good chance of getting into this program?" But you do have to ask, because many people won't offer possibly negative information on their own. And understand that the task isn't finding "the best" program, but a program that will nurture your strengths and improve your weaknesses, at the same time allowing you to be marketable when you graduate. So, a smaller program that does great mentoring might be a better choice than a huge program that more or less ignores people at the graduate medical education level.

Ask people if they know anybody at places on your list. Do they have former students or colleagues there? Do they know any graduates of the programs? Ask for contact information and ask if they would be comfortable if you used their name.

Now, use other factors to reduce your list to a size you feel comfortable with, but make sure to include places you are almost sure you could get into, places that are probably going to want you, and a few that might be a stretch for you. Do you hate humidity and have many dogs? Maybe Emory in Atlanta could fall off your list (very humid, and it's in the flea belt).

Everything I've said so far assumes you have excellent grades, particularly in basic sciences, strong board scores, some publications in the works, and will have great recommendations from research mentors as well as clinical references. If you're missing any of these, try reversing the suggested process and talk to professors who like and respect you, and make up a list that way. You don't necessarily need the most prestigious institutions with the largest research programs to learn to be a good researcher. Sometimes a smaller institution with excited young faculty could be better for your training than a giant institution where you might fall through the cracks.

The important thing is to know yourself and know how you learn well vs how you would get stuck or frustrated. They call it a match for a reason! If you love research, you're probably naturally curious and good at digging up information, so this should get you started. Good luck!


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