Sometimes getting the scoop from someone who has been through it already is just what you need to get your match day anxiety into perspective. A research fellowship is something that I didn’t know much about as a student or even as a resident. I’ve had the great pleasure to talk with one of second year resident at Philadelphia College of Medicine Orthopedic Residency who took a non-traditional route into ortho: research! Jeff Cherian spent two years as a research fellow at The Center for Joint Preservation and Replacement at the Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics in Baltimore before matching. Here are some takeaway points from our conversation where he answered some of your questions and shared why research worked for him and what to look for in a fellowship.
Where do I find research fellowships?
Jeff did a traditional rotating internship when he didn’t match initally and during that year, he religiously checked Orthogate for new open positions in residencies and also found postings for research fellowships there. It’s important to note however, that it is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many programs that don’t actively recruit for these positions so to put together a comprehensive list, you’ll have to get on the phone (or email) and find more information the old fashioned way. You may even consider asking about possible opportunities at academic institutions that don’t advertise research fellowships but offer PhD programs. Basically, you’ll have to look high and low…. use Google… listen to word of mouth… the key is to start searching.
What exactly is a research fellowship?
Research fellowships/programs can range from 1 to 3 years depending on program, with 1 and 2 year programs being the most common, and longer programs usually being PhD or masters programs. Jeff participated in a two-year program. While it was initially tough to sign up for two years away from clinical medicine, looking back it was probably the best choice. It’s really difficult to make a significant change in your resume in one year. Especially if you take the academic schedule into consideration. If you start in July by the time applications are due in September, you’ll have basically just figured out how to log into the computer and find the bathrooms much less had any meaningful contributions to science. In addition, two years gives you more time to interact with your principal investigator/mentor. Getting to know your boss can make or break your application for an ortho program after research. Their letter of recommendation or endorsement can be weighed heavily.
What should I look for in a research program?
Probably the most importantly aspect is whom you’re working for. Many of the people doing orthopaedic research after medical school are looking to match into an orthopaedic residency, but this isn’t always true. This is why it’s important that the program understands and supports your goal of matching. Your PI/boss is head of the program and makes your schedule so their support is paramount. Jeff was clear that no one can guarantee you anything, but it is important to feel like someone has your back during the fellowship and application process. He/she will be the one ultimately in control of your schedule, which means he/she will have the final say in when and how you can rotate/visit/interview at other programs.
Another aspect to consider is the “success rate” of that particular program. For our purposes, that means the volume of publications, posters, presentations, etc. that previous fellows produce during their tenure and where they move on to afterwards (residency, continued research, etc). You may feel awkward asking for these metrics but they are important.
Salary was a moderate consideration for Jeff but this may be a big deal to certain applicants. Some programs offer very little compensation and others pay similarly to a residents salary. This is definitely something to look at carefully but with your own personal financial situation in mind. (This requires you to understand your financial situation, which I definitely did not as a medical student. Maybe a topic for another post.)
Is there a particular type of person that would do better in a research program vs a rotating internship?
Unfortunately, Jeff didn’t have an answer for this question but my personal opinion is that rotating internships would best serve someone who has not given other specialties a fair chance. If there are specialties that you just didn’t get to see as a student that hold some interest for you, a rotating internship will allow you to explore them. Research may be a good option for someone who needs to bolster their CV. Perhaps someone with low board scores. With the advent of the ACGME merger, research seems to be in the spotlight more and more.
We both agree, however, that not all TRI’s and research fellowships are created equal and that getting into the right one will really make a big difference. That’s why it’s important to start searching early. Get on the phone and start asking about your options.
Many well-qualified and deserving students will not match into orthopedics this year. The same will happen the following year and the year after. A research fellowship is one alternate pathway to an orthopedic residency that you may consider if your heart is set on orthopedic surgery.
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