Medical education

Why med students should consider rotating at an NIH clinical center

Among my away rotations, the most impactful was my experience at the National Institutes of Health, where I did an eight-week elective in consultation-liaison psychiatry.


The fourth year of medical school is often the most enjoyable time for many medical students. For me, like other students who graduated in 2020, our post-match social life was severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite society being “on pause” for the latter half of the year due to the pandemic, fourth year was still by far the best part of my medical education, owing mostly to my wonderful away rotation experiences. Among my away rotations, the most impactful was my experience at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where I did an eight-week elective in consultation-liaison (CL) psychiatry.

Being a DO student comes with unique opportunities as well as challenges. While some DO medical schools are affiliated with teaching hospitals and thus able to provide ample rotation opportunities, other DO medical schools do not.

In the absence of an affiliated teaching hospital, fourth-year DO students are often encouraged to complete several away or audition rotations to gain experience and secure letters of recommendation to be later submitted to residency programs.

While the process of applying to away rotations on Visiting Student Learning Opportunities (VSLO) can be daunting, arduous and stressful, it also provides a unique opportunity to make your medical education what you want it to be.

How away rotations can steer your future

My away rotation at NIH was so impactful to my career that I encourage more DO students who have an interest in academic medicine and research to apply for the programs. The NIH sponsors many fellowships but does not have a four-year psychiatry residency program.

Therefore, my “away rotation” was not technically an “audition rotation” in the sense that I was auditioning for a specific residency program.

Why did I apply to an away rotation at NIH despite this? Simple answer: exposure, experience and networking. Although I enjoyed my clinical rotation during my third year, I knew I wanted my career to include significant research and teaching. It was time for me to spread my wings and gain experience at an institution that funds major research institutions and universities across the nation.

I was also pleasantly surprised to discover a significant amount of DO representation among the clinicians and clinical researchers at NIH.

What I gained from my rotations

There are a number of reasons this rotation was such an impactful experience. First, the truly unique patient population at the NIH Clinical Center was a highlight of this clinical experience.

During my rotation, I had the privilege of meeting clinical research patients, many of whom were in the natural history study protocol of rare diseases. This was particularly fascinating from the perspective of consultation-liaison psychiatry, a subdiscipline of psychiatry where the psychiatrists serve as consultants for medically ill patients with psychiatric comorbidity.

I had the opportunity to perform psychiatric consultation on patients who are living with the kinds of rare diseases you only read about in First Aid during your preclinical years, such as McCune-Albright syndrome, chronic granulomatous disease and neurofibromatosis type 1 and 2, to name a few.

Another major highlight of this rotation was the immersive experience in a robust research environment, including being able to attend and participate in myriad research meetings and case conferences.

I was even able to participate in a research manuscript preparation in a project that one of my attendings was working on, which resulted in a publication in the journal Psycho-Oncology. Finally, this rotation also opened doors for me for residency applications, as NIH was affiliated with the Georgetown Psychiatry residency and CL psychiatry fellowship program, where I am now a resident.

Seeing the “zebras” of medicine or participating in research activities may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for someone like me, who enjoys the “rare disease” patient population and the robust research environment, my experience at NIH was one of the most educational experiences in my medical career.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

How to do an international rotation

Audition rotations: Successful residents share 6+ tips

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