MD/PhD Admissions: An FAQ

Posted by Jose Orozco on 11/14/14 9:30 AM

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As I reflect on my first year of medical school I find myself thinking of decisions that I’ve made in the last few years and the direction that I’m going. As I reflect on my choices, I thought it would be a good opportunity to share some of my thoughts, since many undergraduates have expressed to me their desire to complete an MD/PhD.

The basics: what is an MD/PhD program?

There are over 100 medical schools that have MD/PhD programs in the United States. The purpose of these programs is to efficiently train men and women to become physician-scientist that will have careers in science and medicine. Most MD/PhD graduates go on to have careers that involve mostly research but also see patients. The average length of an MD/PhD program is between 7-8 years and is shorter than completing an MD and PhD independently. The training is typically split such that students complete 2 years of medical school, followed by 3-5 years of PhD training, and finally the last 2 years of medical school. Each program has unique features that may include a different progression from this traditional model.

Why MD/PhD?

Many of my friends and family have asked me why I have gone the route that I have. Many of my friends in medical school, for example, don’t understand the necessity of a dual degree, they argue that one degree or the other is sufficient, in particular they argue that a career as a physician-scientist requires only a medical degree and my friends in graduate school argue that a career in science only requires a PhD. The latter argument, of course, doesn’t hold up if you also wish to see patients. The former does, however—in fact, many Nobel prize winners have only MDs and have had distinguished careers in research and have solved fundamental problems in basic biology.

That said, some changes in medicine in the last decades have changed the ways that medical careers permit the exploration of research.

First, the basic science rigor in medical schools has declined of late, depriving many students of the rich fundamental knowledge that can spark an interest in research. While medical schools have expanded instruction in the ethical, behavioral, and managerial skills required to practice medicine, medical students are exposed to less basic science than they used to.

Second, medical school debt deters many physicians from taking on a lower paying positions to conduct research as a fellow or post-doc instead of a clinical position.

And third, increasing clinical demands challenge the availability of protected research time. Therefore, for students who have a true passion for pursuing careers in research and medicine, entering an MD/PhD program from the outset has many advantages.

1)    The PhD training offers rigorous training in the basic sciences and focuses on how to do science.
2)    Most MD/PhD programs support their students by paying for medical school tuition and paying a stipend during their training as a way to ease the length of training.
3)    MD/PhD graduates have strong research track records that helps them secure fellowships or ‘K awards’ that can help support research activities.

What do career tracks look like after an MD/PhD?

After an MD/PhD program, most students complete residency training in a clinical specialty. Ultimately, most end up in academic position where research takes up most of their time, 75% of MD/PhDs end up as faculty in medical schools. MD/PhD graduates are uniquely positioned to ask big questions in science and medicine and to make important contributions in both disciplines, which intersect in very meaningful ways.

How do I apply to MD/PhD programs?

For those students interesting in applying I advise that you reach out to potential mentors that have gone through the process or who are familiar with it. The first step in exploring this career is to get research experience, faculty members in your university departments are good potential research advisors that may be willing to allow you into their research group. These faculty members will be able to give a very comprehensive letter of recommendation that will likely be a critical part of a successful application. The admission committees will give a lot of weight to the comments in your letters of recommendation, therefore one of the most important steps will be to make strong connections with your faculty advisors. For many, working with an expert in MD/PhD application consulting can also be very helpful--and Cambridge Coaching has very experienced medical school admissions consultants available.

Deciding to apply to MD/PhD programs can be very daunting but can be a very exciting time. I found it useful to know in the years leading up to my application what programs want to see in applicants. Essentially they are looking for two things: academic excellence and passion for research. Or in other words they want to see applicants that will succeed through the rigor of the training and that will stick with it. Good grades and MCAT scores are important factors but MD/PhD admissions committee also look for significant research experiences because it demonstrates a commitment to the career. The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) has put together good resources for prospective applicants on application statistics and guides for those interesting in exploring this career track.

As daunting as it may seem, applying successfully to MD/PhD programs is not at all an impossible task. According to the AAMC, a third of MD/PhD applicants eventually matriculate in a program and an even greater fraction receives an offer for admission. Therefore, for those students who are interested in this career track, it is most definitely within reach.

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