How to Find a Medical School That Leads to a Research Career

US News & World Report

By Ilana Kowarski
March 29, 2019

The existence of a formal research program for medical students is a positive sign, experts say.

Aspiring doctors who dream of discovering vaccines, cures and treatments for fatal diseases like cancer or who hope to invent medical devices that will enhance the lives of people with serious disabilities like cerebral palsy should consider a career as a physician-scientist. The primary mission of someone with this job is to increase medical knowledge through research by leading clinical trials, observational studies and laboratory experiments.

In addition to determining whether potential new medicines and therapies are safe and effective, a physician-scientist may also compare the efficacy of existing treatments to determine which ones are best. They also occasionally conduct demographic surveys to determine the environmental conditions and individual behaviors that have the biggest impact on health outcomes.

However, because medical schools tend to focus on teaching students how to heal individual sick people by using evidence-based treatments, these schools don’t necessarily offer lessons about how to advance medical science through scientific breakthroughs. Nevertheless, there are some medical schools that emphasize research, and experts say those are the schools a future physician-scientist should target.

“Medical schools should emphasize the underlying skills necessary to research – problem-solving, time management, collaboration, communication skills – as opposed to strictly teaching toward standardized examinations,” Dr. Marc Succi, a radiologist and alumnus of Harvard Medical School in Boston, wrote in an email.

Succi, the founder and executive director of the Medically Engineered Solutions in Healthcare Incubator – a joint initiative between Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital that facilitates medical innovations using 3-D printers, artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies – says it is a bad sign if a medical school’s curriculum only covers content tested on the United States Medical Licensing Examination. He says the right type of med school for a would-be clinical researcher is an institution that emphasizes critical thinking skills.

“Problem-solving and creativity skills are what will allow disruptive researchers to adapt, find creative solutions, and make new connections where others haven’t,” Succi says. “Many medical schools employ elements of problem-based learning, design-thinking, team-based learning or a combination of these to help develop and nature these skills – ask if and how these concepts are integrated into the curriculum.”

Succi adds that premeds interested in research should seek out medical programs with such opportunities embedded into the curriculum. “Look for a medical school with a strong research track, and preferably one that allows students to take dedicated time to work in a research lab during their medical school tenure,” he says.

“Many medical schools now offer dedicated research time built into the curriculum, or the option for a fifth-year tuition free while you hone your research skills. This dedicated time can be highly influential on your future trajectory. For me personally, I was able to conduct research at MIT during my Harvard Medical School training, which opened a multitude of doors for me.”

Dr. McGreggor Crowley, a clinical research fellow at Harvard and an admissions consultant at IvyWise, says that the traditional medical school curriculum is so demanding that it is difficult for students to conduct research projects on their own without significant institutional support. However, some medical schools offer students significant flexibility to incorporate research into their medical school experience, he says.

“These medical schools have found that having established research programs or research theses as part of the medical school academic experience is a truly wonderful thing for highly talented students interested in research focused careers, because it can help burnish their applications to residencies,” Crowley says. “So I would ask a prospective student to thoroughly investigate what opportunities are available for current medical students at that school.”

Dr. Heather Finlay-Morreale, an assistant professor of pediatrics with the University of Massachusetts–Worcester, encourages premeds who intend to become researchers to consider a dual-degree program that combines a medical degree with a Ph.D.

Finlay-Morreale says an M.D.-Ph.D. program is typically the most cost-effective path to a career as a clinician-researcher. “The debt of most medical students is well into (six) figures,” she wrote in an email. “It is hard to pay that back on a researcher salary. An M.D.-Ph.D program is a great way to have zero debt, a great research resume and launch a clinician-researcher career.”

However, experts acknowledge that some people who hope to become a physician-scientist do not want to invest the seven or more years necessary to complete both a medical degree and a Ph.D. For aspiring researchers who only want to get either an allopathic or osteopathic medical degree, experts say school research programs are especially important to ensure they have adequate time and support to complete a meaningful research project.

“A medical school should have structured programs for medical students to learn research skills and excellent outcomes for students in those programs,” Dr. Richard Steinman, an associate professor of medicine and pharmacology with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the director of its Physician Scientist Incubator, wrote in an email. “These outcomes include publications, national talks and presentations by the students, and the opportunity for students to submit grants and success in receiving them.”

Dr. Daniel Clinchot, the vice dean of education at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, says two key metrics to inquire about are the percentage of medical students who conduct research and the number of students who coauthor published papers.

“That’s a good indicator of the emphasis or the importance the school places on research,” he says.

Clinchot adds that it’s also important for prospective students to inquire about whether a school does the kind of medical research they are most interested in, whether that is lab research or clinical research.

Dr. F. Gerard Moeller, the division chair for addiction psychiatry with Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and the director of the university’s Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, says research grants and awards are also crucial factors for premeds to consider.

“The overall support of medical research can be seen in the level of funding the institution has from the National Institutes of Health,” Moeller wrote in an email. “For those interested in clinical and translational research, having a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Center on Clinical and Translational Science is a strong indicator of clinical research taking place at the institution. There are only 58 Clinical and Translational Science Awards nationally.”

John D. Schriner, the associate dean of admissions and student affairs at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine suggests that research-oriented premeds tour laboratory facilities at their dream schools and speak with current medical students who are conducting research at those schools.

He says conversations with med student researchers can be illuminating. “They’re the best ones to give the scoop,” Schriner says. He adds that one strong indication that a school values research is if research is mentioned in the school’s mission statement.