Choosing to pursue a research year during or after medical school is a big decision that is driven by personal circumstances as well as short- and long-term career goals. Common reasons why many medical students choose this path include the desire to strengthen their residency application, to obtain additional basic science or clinical research exposure, or to build a more advanced research skill set.

Most students will opt to take a research year between their third and fourth years of medical school. The common reason for this timetable is that the third year of medical school is critical in terms of deciding on a final specialty, and the research year often comes once the decision of specialty is made.  Research should ideally be centered around the specialty a student ultimately plans to pursue, but a perfect coordination of research topic and specialty is not absolutely necessary.

Furthermore, it should be noted that preclinical knowledge is important in terms of doing well on the core clerkships of third year and it's generally accepted that much of this core knowledge is forgotten over an interim year of research. In that sense, it is felt by many students that the second and third years of medical school should be uninterrupted in order to cement the preclinical knowledge in a clinical context during the third year. Less commonly, students may take a research year following the second year of medical school at the end of the preclinical phase, which may be less advantageous for the reasons outlined above. Finally, some students choose to participate in a research year following their fourth year, most commonly following an unsuccessful match.

When choosing a mentor, it is important to consider a couple of factors:

  • Students should focus on choosing projects that are meaningful to them. While some may consider starting research in a field that they plan on pursuing later in their career, this is not necessary.  
  • When considering a mentor, look for those who have an established track record of:       
    • Production in terms of poster presentations, oral presentations, and publications.
    • Previous mentorship of MD students, in particular students taking a research year.
  • If possible, it is also important to have a mentor who is well-known and highly regarded in the field of otolaryngology (provided they have the time).
  • Select research projects that can be accomplished reasonably within the time frame of the research year. Timing can be difficult to evaluate, but experienced researchers should be able to work with you to formulate goals that are achievable within one year.
  • Pick the right location. Do you plan on doing a research year at your home institution or elsewhere? At a home institution, your network of collaborators is generally more developed. It will likely be easier to settle into a research year and also to “plug in” to your home department. That said, going elsewhere may offer more robust opportunities which are not available at your home institution. Furthermore, it will give you the opportunity to network with a department and also observe the research environment and, to a lesser degree, the clinical environment at a different institution. As with much of this process, decisions are context dependent. You should carefully evaluate the pros and cons and consult with others prior to making a final decision.

There are a handful of available funding opportunities on the national level such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Fellowships (HHMI) and Doris Duke Fellowships amongst others. In addition to simply funding your position, these fellowship positions offer valuable additions to your curriculum vitae. Additional funding opportunities can be found by exploring local resources starting with your department research chair and working with your research mentor. However, in reality, your ability to pay for the research year should be a lesser consideration. One financial reality that should be kept in mind is that by “taking a year off”, students essentially lose a year of job salary. More immediately, a year away from medical school courses may have standing implications on any loans/scholarships you may have.

PLANNING FOR 4TH YEAR (Applicable to MS3 Students)
It is important for students participating in a research year to make sure they make the necessary preparations for their return into fourth year clinical rotations. This includes planning the MS4 schedule. You should make your medical school aware of your plans but remain plugged into academic announcements and class registration. “Off-line” medical students can easily be overlooked during class registration or for match-related events. It is important to remain proactive and conscious of what is going on at your home institution during the research year.

Some additional points to consider:

  • During your year away from the clinical arena, it is helpful to keep your clinical skills sharp. While you will most certainly lose a step compared to students going straight through, participating in activities such as volunteering at a student run medical clinic may help stave off some of the rust.
  • STEP II CS/CK. It is generally advisable to get these exams out of the way during the research year and as soon as possible. Going with the above point, it is likely you will see a decline in clinical knowledge during the research year. See other discussions on this website regarding expectations for scores.
  • Consider that some research fellowships are strict on beginning and end dates. The sooner you start thinking about how these will affect you fourth year planning, the better.

For students taking a research year, it is worthwhile to utilize extra time to network within the ENT department. This may entail resident or staff shadowing, going to the OR, or helping on call. Use this opportunity to expose yourself further to the field and maintain some semblance of clinical involvement during the research year. This may also provide new opportunities for involvement in ongoing clinical research projects. It is advisable to prepare and act during these experiences as you would during an actual audition rotation. These impressions will, positively or negatively, influence how the department views you as a candidate. It is also important to recognize that you should defer to clinical students who may be on service or rotation given your own flexibility and ability to pursue other opportunities with shadowing.

Some students may decide to take a research year because they “want to take a break from the pressure and lifestyle of the hospital.” If you are planning on taking a research year, it is important to realize that there is a big difference between a research year and taking a year off. While the pace of a research year is generally more relaxed than the hospital wards or the operating room, it should not be used as a year to simply relax. Students approaching the research year with this mentality will harm themselves due to lack of productivity, leaving residencies asking, “what exactly did you do during this year?” A “research year” implies research productivity. To that end, students should look to the research year as an opportunity for academic growth and should aim to be involved in several projects that result in oral presentation and journal publication. While it is difficult to predict which projects may lead to publication and which will dead-end, students should aim for manuscript submission by the end of the year from their core research project, or at very least have a manuscript in the works.

Stepping into the research world from the hospital can be a bit of a culture shock. Where the needs of the hospital/patients can dictate life on the wards, in the research world one is generally given much more flexibility and autonomy regarding daily routine and deadlines. This lack of rigid structure may be deceptive, appearing as though there is less work to be done. However, in reality, the burden to succeed often rests directly on the student. Therefore it is important to carefully keep track of projects by working closely with mentors and planning the progress of research work in order to ensure productivity.

Production during the research year cannot be stressed enough. The bar for production will be held higher for students taking a research year than those who have not. Further, when on the interview trail your work during the research year will most certainly come up. Anecdotally, it has been reported that there are certain members of departments whose role is to “sniff out” low quality research or exaggerated claims. Be ready to talk about your work intelligently and at length while demonstrating a clear interest in your work.  Not being able to do so would be detrimental to your application.

While a research year is probably the most common option chosen by medical students electing to take a gap year, there are many other opportunities such as completing another advanced degree (MPH, MBA, JD, or MEd) or involvement in global health initiatives. Regardless of your pursuit, it is important to think critically about how the gap year will fit into both your short- and long-term goals. As with the research year, you should be able to clearly and convincingly articulate how the gap year fits into your career path in ENT and what you accomplished during this time. 

You may also find the discussion on Resident Research valuable.

Best of luck in you research year!