Post-baccalaureate research for prospective MD PhD and PhD applicants

Jake Khoussine
8 min readDec 6, 2022

You need at least 2 years of research experience to apply competitively for MD/PhD programs. Demonstration of longitudinal commitment to scientific investigation is essential to show the admissions committee that you’re prepared to take on the dual-degree training path. Since most college students are unaware that MD/PhD is an option, they typically start research late in college and don’t have sufficient experience in time to apply. Thus, they go directly to medical school instead, missing out on the high-value MD/PhD program benefits of free medical school tuition, a monthly training stipend, and unparalleled career flexibility.

One reason students don’t continue seeking research experience is because the path to acquiring it after college is complicated. Post-baccalaureate research is the best way to gain the experience needed for MD/PhD and PhD programs after college graduation. In this post, I will discuss the benefits and downsides of the 3 main options for post-bacc research: 1) the NIH Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA), 2) the NIH Post-baccalaureate Research Experience Program (PREP), and 3) direct institutional hire for research jobs.

This post was inspired by a conversation I had recently with a first-generation student. The student is about to graduate college and is realizing that MD/PhD offers an attractive career path. Unfortunately, they don’t yet have enough research experience to apply competitively. They go to college in a city where there are limited opportunities for biomedical research, and their external research opportunities were interrupted by the COVID pandemic. We discussed that students applying for top MD/PhD programs have 3–4 years of research experience, but I believe that 2 years of quality experience can be sufficient to develop the insights necessary to submit a strong application. The best way to gain this experience is to do 2 years of post-bacc research. Which post-bacc path should she choose?

  1. NIH IRTA post-bacc program

The NIH IRTA program is coordinated through the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE). It is designed for students to pursue 1–2 years of research after college graduation at one of the NIH-affiliated institutions. The main campus is located in Washington D.C., and there are other campuses in North Carolina, Arizona, Montana, and more. Students fit for this program are typically planning to apply for medical school or graduate school, and the program is competitive because it looks great on applications and provides an additional letter of recommendation. Prospective medical students, in particular, like to apply for this program as a gap year during the application cycle.

To apply for IRTA, students use a common application on the NIH OITE website. You provide information including GPA, personal statement, CV, previous research experiences, and letters of recommendation as well as your preferences for the research campuses at which you are interested in working. This information is funneled to the principal investigators (PIs) searching for post-bacc researchers. The downside to this approach is that the common application does not allow students to select the mentors and labs of interest. You have to get lucky to be placed in the right lab with a good mentor for your needs. If you want to improve your chances, you are encouraged to send cold emails directly to the PIs at the different campuses who do research that interests you. The problem is that students will send 50 cold emails only to get a handful of responses, many of which will tell you that “no, I’m not looking for a post-bacc student”. If you are lucky to get a response of interest, it might not be your top choice. You will be asked to interview, either virtually or in person, to determine if the lab will accept you. This process takes time and limits students’ research opportunities. Don’t leave this to fate. If you wait for the PIs to contact you, you risk wasting your time.

In addition, the timeline for the application is challenging. For example, if you are graduating college in May 2023, and you want to do post-bacc research directly after graduation, you should apply around February, have your application processed a few weeks later, and then spend March-April sending numerous emails to PIs to assess their interest in your employment. If a PI tells you that you must start in May, but you still have not graduated college, this scheduling conflict could cause you to lose your spot to someone with more scheduling flexibility. Students are typically accepted into labs from May-July, but it can vary. Therefore, students who have already graduated college by December 2022 have a greater chance of securing a position. You must be proactive in sending emails to mentors of interest and be flexible to meet the PIs’ needs.

Furthermore, while the resources provided by OITE can be helpful, accessing them can be complicated. If you are interested in MD/PhD, only the Washington D.C. NIH campus will provide the resources you need. These include MCAT prep, graduate-level courses, and clinical opportunities. This is because most of these resources are delivered in person at the D.C. campus, meaning that if you’re in North Carolina or Montana, you will only receive the virtual resources, which can be found online regardless of your participation in the program. Most important, if you are seeking clinical experiences, you should be connected with a hospital system. The D.C. campus is the best location for finding physicians to shadow.

Unfortunately, since these programs are competitive, they are partial to students who have previous research experience. If you are pursuing post-bacc research because you did not have sufficient research experience in college, you will be at a disadvantage.

2. NIH PREP for underrepresented students

Alternatively, the NIH PREP offers another path to post-bacc research. This program is designed specifically for underrepresented students in science, which means that if you satisfy the criteria and need research experience, this is likely a better option than IRTA. I prefer the organization of the PREP programs because it uses decentralized applications specific to the participating institutions. There are 50 participating institutions you can choose to apply for, which use similar questions as the IRTA common application. The PIs listed at the previous link are the lead administrators of the corresponding PREP programs, they do not represent the only research lab option. If accepted, you have the option to select among a variety of research labs and mentors, and you often have the chance to rotate in the labs of interest to determine fitness. Because PREP is designed for students interested in MD/PhD and PhD programs, and not as much for MD programs, the typical duration of the research experience is 2 years.

To find an appropriate lab mentor at each institution, you are still encouraged to send cold emails to present yourself and express your interests in a particular lab. For most programs, you have the benefit of greater transparency to see which labs are actually participating. The different PREP institutions vary in the research opportunities they offer. For example, whereas the Mayo Clinic PREP has opportunities across diverse research fields, the program at Northwestern University is specific to Neuroscience. You need to go through each of the 50 programs to see which opportunities apply to your interests.

The application timeline for the NIH PREP is more specific than for the IRTA programs. The deadline is typically in February. Like IRTA, the PREP option provides a stipend, MCAT prep resources, and opportunities for additional graduate-level coursework. However, given that most PREP programs are coordinated at institutions with affiliated hospital systems, the opportunities to gain clinical experience during the program are superior to IRTA outside the NIH campus in D.C.

Further, if you are interested in MD/PhD, the PREP program is a great opportunity for exploring research labs at programs you might apply for and form relationships with mentors who will be integral in the application process. The connections you form will provide you with letters of recommendation as well as access to their research networks. Students who complete the PREP program are competitive applicants for graduate school and report having excellent experiences.

3. Direct institutional hire for post-bacc research

The final option students should consider is applying directly at institutions of interest to secure a research position. This is where your college PI and research networking can provide a major advantage. For example, if you went to college at UCLA, which has clinical and research opportunities, you could either 1) apply for a research job at your current lab or 2) apply for research jobs at other labs at UCLA. The success of this direct outreach approach depends on the lab’s available funding, and if they’re looking to hire a research intern. This job could be as a research technician or lab manager. You tend to make more money through this direct hire option than through either of the NIH programs.

However, if you want to apply for another institution, such as Stanford or UCSF, you will need to leverage your research connections and send cold emails. While the HR department of the institution typically posts available jobs, these postings are general, do not provide specific information on the hiring lab mentors, and are limited in explaining what research projects are available. If you are aiming for a specific lab, you will need to send emails directly to get on their radar. Like IRTA, this can lead to many rejections because it’s hard to know who is looking for a short-term researcher. If you are able to connect with a PI interested in hiring you, then you should apply through the HR system and clarify in the application that you have agreed to join a specific lab. How you proceed with this will be on a case-by-case basis with HR.

While this option affords students with great flexibility in where they pursue post-bacc research, it can be exhausting to send emails nationwide. The key to succeeding in this process is having connections and research experience to demonstrate that you can be an asset to the lab. Unfortunately, you typically need to have previous research experience to secure these positions.

Summary

For students who fit the criteria for being underrepresented in science and who are interested in applying for MD/PhD programs, the NIH PREP is the best option. If you have connections with research labs at an institution offering clinical experiences, I think the direct hire option is superior to IRTA for securing a research job. The IRTA program at Washington D.C. is an excellent choice if you are a prospective medical student who wants a research year while applying for medical school. Otherwise, there is great uncertainty in the IRTA post-bacc process, and you will need to be proactive with outreach to secure a position in a lab of interest.

Overall, the process is complicated and students interested in MD/PhD or PhD programs with little previous research experience are at a disadvantage. If you are applying through multiple channels, which I do recommend to increase your chances of success, you could be sending upwards of 50 cold emails before good leads emerge. How can students navigate this process easier?

If you’re reading this, you are in luck. I recognize the challenges of securing research jobs as a prospective post-bacc student and know that the thought of sending 50+ emails to strangers asking for a chance is daunting. Therefore, I decided to create a research networking platform to improve this process and connect students with research job opportunities at labs that are hiring post-bacc researchers. This platform is called PhD Insiders, and I believe it has the potential to change the way students network for research jobs. The platform is being built currently, and I am networking with institutions nationwide to increase job postings. If you are interested in contributing to the platform’s development and want to be an early adopter, reach out to me at info@phdinsiders.com. More research job opportunities are popping up each week.

Let me know how I can help you reach your goals, and I encourage you to reach out if you have questions or concerns.

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Jake Khoussine

I’m a first generation student in my 5th year of MD/PhD training. This is everything I wish I knew earlier. I hope you find it helpful, feel free to reach out.