Could you shed light on what kind of scores are required by the top programs like yours? Is the research experience in other fields (say, molecular biology and cancer biology) counted for the application?
I don't think that scores are a big concern for most PM&R programs, even top ones. If you pass the boards on your first attempt and have no major blemishes on your academci record, then you're probably in the middle of the applicant pool. I think that research from outside fields is indeed viewed very favorably.
Even the top programs seem to be very relaxed when it comes to scores. I would think that for the top programs you should at least be in the top %50 of your boards, but honestly board scores never came up in my interviews nor where they discussed much by anybody else.
Of course research is useful for any residency application. It is not essential for PM&R, IMHO. I had no real research to speak of. Like I have said in other posts, my interviewers were more interested in my extracurricular interests than academics. I do think I had a solid all around application, but where I think I really shined was in my exposure to PM&R, my outpatient musculoskeletal rotation experience, and my extracurricular activities (like being a radio DJ, musician, writer, etc.). I was granted an interview at every institution I applied to, including RIC, U. MIch, Spaulding, U. Wash, UC Davis, etc. (except Stanford for some reason), and I was not a straight A student.
That said, PM&R is becoming much more popular and research and top scores may soon be a necessity to land a top spot. The applicant pool was up around 20% this year from last, so people are finding out about it. It used to be even a few years ago that you could virtually walk into a spot like RIC if you wanted it. That has changed a lot. Also, you will notice that the PM&R forum on SDN has the most posts, indicating growing interest.
anyway, sorry to be vague about this...I think I can honestly say that numbers are not everything in the PM&R field at least for now.