Why you should do a NIH POSTBAC IRTA before applying to Medical School
What is the NIH POSTBAC IRTA?
The NIH post-baccalaureate intramural research training award (POSTBAC IRTA) is a one to two years paid research opportunity for recent college graduates interested in applying to graduate or professional health school (medicine, dental, nursing, veterinary). Students interested can apply directly to laboratories in several of the NIH campuses in their field of interest.
As a student interested in medical school, NIH POSTBAC IRTA was a great way to get more research experience, have ample opportunity to network and shadow renowned doctors, learn more about the world of healthcare and biomedical research through conferences, and have more resources to work on my graduate school applications.
My experience in NIH POSTBAC IRTA
1. Picking a lab
One of the benefits of applying to the NIH POSTBAC IRTA was that there is no deadline to apply. You contact professors you are interested in working with through the IRTA database and find a lab that is interested in having you join as a post-baccalaureate. Once I knew I wanted to do the post-baccalaureate, I contacted professors, was interviewed through Skype by a couple professors and finally chose a research mentor I wanted to work with.
The website itself is very helpful and goes into detail of what the application process consists of and it also gives you tips on how to apply. As summer approaches, fewer labs will be available to immediately hire since they will have summer students or incoming staff coming in at that time. Therefore, I advise you that once you email professors and have a chance to talk to some professors, ask to talk to their graduate students or past mentees to get a student perspective on what the environment of working in that lab is like. Although it may feel strange at the time, professors are used to people asking for references and will take it well.
2. Opportunities outside of lab
An advantage of enrolling in the NIH POSTBAC IRTA instead of other kinds of post-baccalaureate programs is that it is less structured and you have the freedom to focus on other interests once you are done with lab work for the day. For example, some of my friends took MCAT classes provided in the NIH after lab, while others took seminar style courses that their labs financially covered. As for me, I volunteered in an assisted living community center and shadowed a doctor from a local free clinic. I was able to set up this shadowing opportunity myself by contacting a doctor directly; the volunteering I heard through other NIH POSTBAC IRTA peers.
For those aspiring to apply to medical school, IRTA also hosted training sessions for students for the interview process. I found this to be very helpful during my school visits!
How IRTA helped me
Medical School applicants are expected to have some form of research experience in the past and be able to talk about their research. NIH POSTBAC IRTA was helpful because I did not have profound research experience, especially in the biomedical sphere. Hence, I was able to get meaningful work done and was able to talk about the research I conducted during my interviews.
NIH POSTBAC IRTA also has poster sessions and a “school fair” throughout the year. This gave me the chance to learn about medical schools and learn more about what the application process entails.
Moreover, I got the chance to attend talks and seminars of the NIH on a wide range of topics. I had the opportunity to hear experts talk about the U.S. healthcare system, studies on health disparities and where the field of medicine is moving towards in the U.S. Understanding concepts behind these topics was not only beneficial for my personal interest in medicine but also brought great talking points during interviews at the medical school itself.
Finally, the NIH POSTBAC IRTA cares that its students make the most out of the program and succeed in their future endeavors. Because of this, the NIH POSTBAC IRTA makes sure to provide opportunities for the students to practice for their interviews, have MCAT courses to make the student a competitive candidate, and have NIH POSTBAC IRTA student research symposiums where students can talk about the impact of their research. By participating in these activities, I feel like I became a much stronger candidate and got a lot more out than just research during my two-year tenure at the NIH.
Useful NIH POST-BAC IRTA Links:
1. General Information on the POSTBACCALAUREATE INTRAMURAL RESEARCH TRAINING AWARD (POSTBAC IRTA/CRTA)
2. Videocast on Applying to the NIH POSTBAC Program
3. Application for the NIH POSTBAC IRTA Program
4. How to Choose a Research Mentor