Residency isn’t the only way we can shape our future careers. Post-dental school plans aren’t limited to AEGD programs, GPRs and specialties; there’s also the potential to work on developing research skills. These skills become necessary if you are interested in becoming a principal investigator of a laboratory, but they are also incredibly valuable to develop for any kind of academic or dental school-based career.
If working in a dental school full-time appeals to you, it may be worth it to explore research training. It’s not too late to pursue an academic or scientific career if you did not enroll in a combined-degree DMD or DDS/Ph.D. program. In fact, it’s still not too late if you haven’t participated in research before, as an undergraduate or even as a dental student.
Multiple research-oriented options exist for postgraduate research development and training, such as short-term research assistant positions, postdoctoral research fellowships, Ph.D. training programs, Ph.D. training combined with a dental specialty program, as well as the research opportunities that are already incorporated into certain clinical residency programs. Pursuing these options have various benefits for future careers, from long-term development of scientific skills for a full-time academic career or earning credentials to make you competitive as a full-time dental school faculty member, to simply improving your residency application for later cycles.
If you are uncertain about your own interest in or passion for research, I first recommend reaching out to your school’s research office or discussing with faculty directly what projects they are pursuing. Getting involved in a small project is a fantastic way to figure out if research excites you.
If you already suspect that research may be important to your career goals, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) supports multiple programs that encourage dental students and dentists to pursue mentored research activities, either within academic institutions across the country or at the NIDCR’s laboratories in Maryland.
As a current dental student, you may be eligible to apply for an NIDCR Summer Dental Student Award, Summer Internship or Medical Research Scholars Program. These are stipend-supported opportunities ranging eight weeks to a year and provide onsite mentored research training and exposure to advances in dental-related research.
If you are near graduation or already have your dental degree, never fear — there are still multiple ways to engage in doctoral-level research after dental school, including (as previously mentioned) the option to pursue a Ph.D. post-dental school, as well as special programs that combine Ph.D. training with a clinical residency. A program like this should be considered if you are set on a full-time academic career, even those that incorporate teaching, clinical practice or upper-level administration.
There is an enormous need for dental school faculty who engage in research and have formal research training, and spending the time after dental school to earn an extra degree will elevate your career potential in ways no residency can. There is always the option to pursue a year or more of research assistant-level work in a laboratory, which doesn’t lead to a degree, but still adds immensely to your skill set and can help you determine if more research training is your preferred path.
If you are set on entering a clinical specialty residency immediately following dental school, there is still room for research, especially in programs such as periodontology, endodontology, oral pathology, etc. A clinical residency can also offer robust research opportunities, but programs vary widely in the amount of time they allow residents for research projects. Being candid at interviews in discussing protected time for research with current residents and faculty will give you the best idea of how much time you can commit to a project over the course of the residency.
All programs will vary in the time allotment and rigor of the research experience and training provided to residents, so doing your due diligence to find a program with strong research well before the application deadline is to your benefit.
Finally, postgraduate research experience can enhance your application for a clinical residency and prepare you for the level of scientific rigor that is expected of residents. Program directors will often value serious research obligations leading to publications in their selection of applicants. Not only does it indicate high-level achievement of the applicant, but it gives confidence that they will be a successful resident beyond clinical responsibilities. If research is of interest to you, it is a great way to improve your residency application and further explore if future research-related work is something you want to include in your career path.
~Laura Doherty, Connecticut ’23