Working toward the Match

How important is research to match into your specialty?

The NRMP data shows that students who have published articles in peer-reviewed journals have a higher chance of matching into a surgical residency program.


According to National Residency Match Program (NRMP) data, medical students who have published research articles, presented at national conferences or have a research-focused degree are reported to have a much higher chance of matching into competitive specialties such as plastic surgery, ophthalmology and orthopedic surgery. Research experience can also be important for specialties that are considered “less competitive,” such as family medicine, internal medicine and pediatrics.

The NRMP data from the past few years also shows that students who have published articles in peer-reviewed journals have a higher chance of matching into a surgical residency program. Overall, research experience has been positively correlated with a specialty’s competitiveness. Those such as surgery, neurology and ophthalmology are placing a higher emphasis on research experience than specialties such as family medicine and psychiatry.

Research is a beneficial move

Let’s break it down by specialty, looking at the average number of publications, abstracts and presentations. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has published reports showing the experiences of first-year residents by specialty, and how research was related to their success.

Below, I’ve broken down the specialty, the number of matched first-year residents and the average number of publications, abstracts and presentations, as well as the 50th and 90th percentile for each specialty (Table 1). The actual report provides more detailed statistics and more categories such as research, volunteer and work experiences. I highly recommend spending some time with this table to set goals.

Table 1. Average, 50th and 90th percentile abstracts, publications and presentations by specialty

ACGME-Accredited SpecialtiesNumber of First-YearsMeanMedian90th Percentile
Child Neurology1647.35.017.0
Emergency Medicine2,8104.63.011.0
Family Medicine4,5853.22.08.0
Internal Medicine8,9875.83.013.0
Internal Medicine (preliminary)1,91710.57.025.0
Internal Medicine/Pediatrics3786.55.014.0
Neurological Surgery22830.020.058.9
Obstetrics and Gynecology1,4606.85.014.0
Orthopedic Surgery86216.711.035.0
Osteopathic Neuromusculoskeletal Medicine372.51.08.0
Pathology: Anatomic and Clinical5778.45.020.0
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation4725.84.013.0
Plastic Surgery: Integrated18726.718.054.4
Radiology, Interventional: Independent14012.18.026.2
Surgery: General1,4229.06.019.0
Surgery: General (preliminary)1,04711.46.026.0
Thoracic Surgery: Integrated5420.313.051.8
Transitional Year1,5249.06.021.0
Vascular Surgery: Integrated8014.210.027.1

Breaking it down

There are several numbers that stick out. First, 50th percentile for orthopedic surgery is 11, but the average is 16.7, indicating that the average is heavily weighted towards the upper end. We see the same trend in all of the surgical specialties. For example, I am interested in general surgery, so my goal is to be in or beyond the 90th percentile.

Primary care specialties tend to have lower numbers in terms of abstracts, publications and presentations, with the median numbers for family medicine, pediatrics and internal medicine being 2.0, 4.0 and 3.0, respectively. If you are diligent, aiming for the 90th percentile in these specialties can set you up to be very competitive and therefore more likely to match into your desired program.

Taking research opportunities under consideration

There are many reasons why research is important in some specialties. Notably, completing research demonstrates a student’s longitudinal commitment to their field and potential to make meaningful contributions. Participating in research also shows a program that you are resourceful, skilled, can work in a team and can finish something you start.

One of the added benefits of participating in research is networking and mentorship. Presenting at a national conference, for example, can expand your network greatly and help secure letters of recommendation within your specialty or area of research interest.

Limitations of these data include the fact that they do not break down these numbers in terms of osteopathic or allopathic applicants. However, those data can be found here.

If your dream is to match into a highly competitive or research-focused specialty, let these numbers guide your goal setting. You can also check out my previous article on how to conduct research as a medical student to help you work towards your goals.

In conclusion, examining statistics of past successful applicants and data trends can provide valuable insights for medical students who are trying to decide which specialty to pursue, as well as for residency program directors trying to attract the best candidates.

Research experience can be an important factor in matching into competitive specialties, but it’s important to note the importance may vary depending on the program and specialty. Medical students should seek advice from trusted mentors and research-specific programs and tailor their application materials accordingly.

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.

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