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My Experience in Research

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In this post, I will talk about my research experience in the US as a medical student from Puerto Rico. I am excited to share with research enthusiasts and future applicants my research experience which included both desktop work and basic science studies.



As a medical student, when you start thinking about the “Match®,” many factors come to mind: type of specialty, geography, grades, USMLE exams, letters of recommendation, away rotations, and research. The latter – yes, research – has become a key component by many residency programs when evaluating residency applicants. For this reason, dedicated research time is becoming more and more popular among US residency applicants, especially those interested in competitive specialties.

What is a research year?


A research year is a dedicated one year (but could be less or more) to do research. This could be done during or after medical school. In this post, I will focus on research during medical school. For those in medical school, a research year is usually done between the third and fourth year (in a four-year system), where a student works with a specific researcher, physician, or department to produce abstracts, publications, or presentations. A student’s research is typically dependent on the principal investigator’s focus. It can vary from doing laboratory work, sitting at a desk with a computer, or being in the operating room.

Why did I decide to take a research year?


For most students, research years can help increase their chances of matching into their desired specialties and help overcome weaknesses in their applications (low USMLE scores, low school grades, no research experience in their area of interest). In my case, being a medical student without a plastic surgery program in my medical school, a research year served two purposes:

  1. It helped me strengthen my research experience and, at the same time, taught me aspects of plastic surgery I was unfamiliar with (thus fostering a greater interest in the specialty).
  2. Most importantly, it helped me create connections at the department I was working in, which even gave me opportunities to collaborate with other institutions.

The second point is of utmost importance as these connections will be of tremendous help when asking for recommendation letters. Having someone vouch for you can make a big difference when matching into a program.

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How has my experience been so far?


With the Covid-19 pandemic, my research year got delayed for two months. However, this did not stop me from working as my mentors assigned me with projects that I could complete from afar (systematic reviews, book chapters, etc.) After stepping foot at my institution, I introduced myself to the faculty and tried to collaborate with the other research fellows in their respective projects.

A research year is a challenging yet rewarding experience – you learn a lot of theory by working on different research projects. To have a productive research year, you have to be proactive, collaborative, and show interest in the subject.

How to find research positions in the US

This live and interactive session + recorded lessons will go over the details of finding research positions in the US.

What were the best parts of this year?


The personal relationships I built, my exposure to clinical experience, my mentors’ direct advice, and being in a city with an up-and-coming-food scene (New Haven is excellent for that!) were my favorite parts of the research year.



What were the most challenging parts of this research year?


The hardest part of the research year was writing. I was born in Peru and raised in Puerto Rico. Traditionally, Puerto Ricans are considered to be “fluent” in English and Spanish, but the latter is the more dominant spoken language. Writing in a foreign language can be a challenge since the semantics, vocabulary, and written expressions are different if one is a non-native speaker. Practice makes perfect, but I still have lots to learn. I was also lucky enough to work with people who are talented in writing and who were patient with me when it came to helping me improve my writing skills.

Also, being alone in a pandemic sometimes made me feel a little lonely. However, the support system from my peers here and family at home was crucial in overcoming this difficulty.

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The advice I would give to someone embarking on a research year?

  1. Ask for advice early on to make sure that a research year is suitable for you and will help you achieve your goal.
  2. Always have more than one option when applying to research positions and then choose the one that best fits your goals.
  3. Reach out to well-known individuals in the field.
  4. Aim for funded positions first, but be open to unfunded positions. Funded positions might be difficult for someone without prior research experience.
  5. I was able to go to the operating room as part of my research (to take videos, for graft acquisition)– make sure to ask your mentor about these types of opportunities
  6. Ask your mentor if you can shadow them clinically during your research year. This will expose you to the clinical aspect of the specialty, help you create social awareness on how to behave in the clinical setting, and can allow you to get yourself known among the other faculty and residents.
  7. Learn statistics (crucial to have projects done faster!).
  8. Prioritize your health – you may or may not have tons of free time. Depending on this try to work out 15-20 minutes a day and eat healthy. If working out is not a possibility, commute to work by either walking or biking. This will lower your stress levels and make you feel good about yourself!
  9. Do not get discouraged! Not all papers are created equal and you may face rejections from multiple journals. That does not mean you should give up. There are tons of steps before a manuscript is published. The process can entail dozens of revisions, rejections, and rewriting. When we see papers being published that is just the tip of the iceberg. Do not give up!


How did I get the position, and how should people approach it?


I obtained my position at Yale through one of my mentors I met during my summer research year at Johns Hopkins. For this reason, I highly encourage you to keep in touch with the people you meet because you never know when they can provide you with opportunities and advice when you need them.

Research Course

The research course will teach you how to take a research project from idea to publication and in which I will share my 3-year experience of clinical research in which I had over 100 publications and 80 presentations.

Funded vs. unfunded positions


I was unfunded, but I highly recommend that you start by looking for funded positions early (some positions have application deadlines around September/October for the position that starts in September). Also keep in mind that for funded positions, applicants with research experience are preferred. Therefore, some medical students might start with unfunded positions then transition to a funded position.

To learn more on how to find research positions, check out this video:

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Before you start a research year, make sure it is the right option for you. Talk to mentors and experienced people to guide you throughout the process.

A research year is what you make of it. Be proactive and a “yes” person. I am confident that it will significantly increase your chances of matching especially in competitive specialties or competitive programs.

Lastly, a research year can help you grow as a person, confirm that your chosen specialty is the right one for you, and teach you about your priorities in life.

By Alvaro Reategui

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