Research in Plastic Surgery: Demystifying the Classical Conditioning

by Allyson R. Alfonso, BS, BA1 and Ira L. Savetsky, MD2

Medical Student, NYU School of Medicine; Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow, Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery, NYU Langone Health

2Plastic Surgery Resident, Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery, NYU Langone Health 

Medical students are conditioned to associate research with positive residency match outcomes, overall success and appeal of innovation. Imagining an ambitious medical student hear the word “research”, I can envision their immediate excitement to get involved – ears perk up, eyes widen, posture straightens and thoughts of achieving dreams like becoming a plastic surgery resident go through their mind like Pavlov’s dog salivating to the sound of a bell knowing that dinner is on the way. Though this comparison can appear a bit exaggerated and does not apply to everyone, it highlights an important point; research has built a reputation of leading the way to success and stimulating enthusiasm in medical students. Before jumping to these conclusions and committing to research, however, medical students should understand how and why research transitioned from a neutral to conditioned stimulus. The following helped me better comprehend the association: 

  1. Research productivity has been repeatedly associated with successfully matching into a plastic surgery residency.1 Historically, authorship of one or more publications has been associated with receiving a greater number of residency interviews.2 This has continued in trends showing that matched U.S. senior applicants had more research experience and publications than unmatched applicants.3 Most recently, the literature has shown that students who participated in research fellowships were more likely to match into an integrated plastic surgery residency than those without this experience.4
  2. Research experience can be used as a metric to assess productivity and future contribution to an institution. Lopez et al. found in an assessment of academic plastic surgeons that formal research training was associated with higher scientific productivity and likelihood of NIH funding.5
  3. Completion of research projects indirectly portrays several underlying character traits that are important to residency directors and future employers. It can reflect a committed, innovative, intellectual person with time management and managerial acumen to work together with colleagues and get the job done. Therefore, research experience can carry a lot of weight, but the perceived pressure must never compromise your integrity. It is disheartening that “phantom” publications exist among plastic surgery residency applications, and sources of this behavior should be investigated further.3
  4. Mentor-mentee relationships often stimulate research interest and productivity. Research can also play a smaller role in initiating these relationships.6

It is not possible to make a universal statement regarding medical students and research, but the above comments describe potential sources of the conditioned associations and response to positive reinforcement. From here, it is the student’s responsibility to decide their participation in research. If you decide research is for you, the following lists several ways to get involved:

  • Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowships before starting medical school
  • Medical Student Summer Research Fellowships usually between 1st and 2nd years
  • Projects guided by residents and/or attending surgeons at your institution or an outside program
  • Dedicated Research Fellowship Programs usually between 3rd and 4th years
  • Dual degree programs with emphasis on clinical investigation or research
  • Research Project associated with a Medical School Graduation Requirement or additional Honors Program

Bottom line: Research has developed a positive reputation among many medical students, but this does not mean you should jump in and participate blindly. Try to understand your motivation to do research and explore the overabundance of available research opportunities. Essentially, research on the research that can be researched!


1.         Nagarkar P, Pulikkottil B, Patel A, Rohrich RJ. So you want to become a plastic surgeon? What you need to do and know to get into a plastic surgery residency. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2013;131(2):419-22.

2.         Rogers CR, Gutowski KA, Munoz-Del Rio A, Larson DL, Edwards M, Hansen JE, et al. Integrated plastic surgery residency applicant survey: characteristics of successful applicants and feedback about the interview process. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2009;123(5):1607-17.

3.         Tadisina KK, Orra S, Bassiri Gharb B, Kwiecien G, Bernard S, Zins JE. Applying to Integrated Plastic Surgery Residency Programs: Trends in the Past 5 Years of the Match. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2016;137(4):1344-53.

4.         Mehta K, Sinno S, Thanik V, Weichman K, Janis JE, Patel A. Matching into integrated plastic surgery: The value of research fellowships. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2018.

5.         Lopez J, Ameri A, Susarla SM, Reddy S, Soni A, Tong JW, et al. Does Formal Research Training Lead to Academic Success in Plastic Surgery? A Comprehensive Analysis of U.S. Academic Plastic Surgeons. J Surg Educ. 2016;73(3):422-8.

6.         Barker JC, Rendon J, Janis JE. Medical Student Mentorship in Plastic Surgery: The Mentee’s Perspective. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2016;137(6):1934-42.


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