Research: Quantity versus Quality

Participating in research as a medical student is a time intensive undertaking.  Despite the required effort, it can have a significant impact on elevating your CV above your peers and fellow applicants.  No matter where you are in your medical school career, if you are engaging in research activity (and you should be), it is important to consider the question of quantity of research versus quality of research.

“More is better. No one faults the applicant for the quality.”

Dr. Joseph X. Robin, Contributor, Med Student Edge

In answering this question, I like to think about the returns on investment.  Quality is always good, but it comes at a cost: time.  Being part of a prospective randomized control trial that merits publication in the New England Journal of Medicine or the Journal of the American Medical Association as a medical student would be a beyond astonishing accomplishment regardless of where one’s name falls in the authorship list.  Given the time constraints of medical school being only four years (and the fact that you only have three years before applying for residency), it is difficult to produce such a high caliber paper.  Of course there is plenty of other high quality research that gets published across all levels of journal impact factors, and the journal in which an article is published is by no means a metric of the quality of an article.  A large portion of my research has been dedicated to studying the quality of the academic medicine literature.  Generally speaking, there are a lot of low quality studies that get published (a lot more than high quality papers).  While you want to ensure that your research is high enough quality to be published in peer-reviewed journals, that is all you really need.  Wait until residency or until you are an attending to start those large sample size prospective RCTs.

Photo by Chokniti Khongchum on

For your residency application, quantity of research is the key.  I attribute most of my success in securing interviews and matching at one of the best programs in the country to my research output and productivity.  Most residencies for competitive specialties take place at academic institutions where faculty members value scholarly activity and research contributions to the field.  Having products of your research (i.e. abstracts, presentations, publications) signals to programs that you have initiative, determination, execution, and the ability to see a project through to its completion.  More research further solidifies those characteristics and longer CV’s seem more impressive just by their sheer length.  In plastic surgery, there is evidence that medical students with more research do better in the match.  That makes intuitive sense.  Controlling for all other facets of an application (i.e. board scores, grades, letters of recommendation, etc), an applicant with more research has a better application.  A high research volume is also one of the only effective buffers for lower board scores.  Now, that does not mean that you have to take a research year to achieve a significant research volume.  I went straight through undergrad and medical school with no time off and achieved a research productivity in terms of abstracts, presentations, and publications that is likely higher than most applicants in any specialty even if they had taken a research year (or two).  Producing the volume required to be at the top of your applicant class is very achievable given you are willing to put in the effort.

Quantity should be your goal.  Here are basic tips on achieving the volume you desire:

What questions do you have about research? Are you ready to start generating a level of research output to edge you past your peers?  Leave a comment below or contact us directly.

Carter J. Boyd, MD, MBA
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