Research vs. Clinical Medical Schools

Courtesy of
by Faizan Malik

Many premed students are so focused on getting into a medical school that they overlook which

medical school is right for them.

“I know it’s important to learn about the character and personality of different medical schools

before you apply” said Alex Ung, a junior at USC. “But it’s hard to do that when you’re

busy studying for the MCAT, writing a personal statement, or getting all of your letters of

recommendation in.”

The constant pressure to earn good grades, score well on the MCAT, and maintain

extracurriculars leaves little time to contemplate some of the more subtle differences between

medical schools. While prestige, cost of attendance, and location are some of the more obvious

characteristics to look out for, there may be other factors worth considering.

Dr. Rahul Jandial, a neurosurgeon and professor at USC, believes different medical schools have

different characters that might mesh better with certain applicants.

“Though the curriculum is basically same since medical students take standardized national tests,

medical schools do have different personalities” he said.

One example would be whether a schools has a research or clinical emphasis.

Research experience at the undergraduate level is usually considered important when applying

for medical school, but not every applicant considers whether they will pursue research

opportunities after getting in. However, deciding whether a school is good for research or clinical

experience is not necessarily simple.

“I know the US News Rankings are split into two lists, one for research and one for primary

care” said Danny Lee, a junior at USC. “ I’m interested in forensic pathology possibly with a

research focus because I’m not sure I want to be dealing with patients constantly.”

Indeed, the US News ranking is split into a research and primary care list, both of which contain

several California schools near the top of the list including UCSD and UCLA.

Another way to measure a research versus clinical focus is by looking to see if any offer an MD/

PHD program or require research rotations. For example, medical students at UCSF can receive

a PHD in the social sciences including medical anthropology. Medical students in USC’s MD/

PHD program partnered with the California Institute of Technology can work towards a PHD in

the basic sciences or engineering.

On the other hand, some students applying for medical school may feel they have had enough of

the research world. In this case clinical exposure and hands on experience are key. While nearly

all medical schools require clinical rotations or clerkships during the third and fourth years, some

believe in putting a greater emphasis on early clinical exposure.

Schools like Loma Linda University and Drexel University provide clinical experience within

the first year. Stanford University has a program that links every incoming medical student with

a faculty member to work with throughout their four years.

The Keck School of Medicine has a unique program tied to the Emergency Medicine Student

Interest Group (EMSIG) which allows medical students access to the emergency department

at the LA County Hospital during their first and second years. Here, medical students can

experience medicine at a level one trauma center, the largest on the West coast, and learn

techniques like suturing and airway management early on.

While some medical schools do place an emphasis on research or early clinical exposure, the two

characteristics on not mutually exclusive. Indeed, such descriptions are often so broad that they

are not even very meaningful. Instead, applicants should take some time to think about the kinds

of opportunities and experience he or she is looking for in medical school and look into specific

schools to see if they match with his or her interests.

“Most American schools offer a reasonable balance of both. I think the goal should be to get into

an American medical school” said Dr. Jandial. “After that, one should try to get into the best

school that fits them. Once you’re in medical school you will be exposed to all types of clinical

practice. After this exposure, you’ll be positioned to best decide what to pursue in residency.”

David Mittelstein is a junior at USC majoring biomedical engineering who will be applying to

medical schools this Summer.

“I know certain schools have reputations for research. For example UCSD has a very

competitive MD/PHD program in biomedical engineering that I’m really interested in” said


The point is to take some time to seriously consider your interests and tailor the search and

application process to match your needs and pursue your goals.

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