Approaching the question “Why MD-PhD”

MD/PhD admissions
By Maya T.

The “Why MD-PhD?” question should be approached thoughtfully and well in advance in order to best explain your career aspirations and unique journey. Let’s dive into some dos and don’ts about approaching this classic interview question!

DON’T say you couldn’t choose between science and medicine

If you’re applying for an MD-PhD program, it’s clear that you are passionate about both the lab and the clinic. With that said, an MD-PhD program is not only about pursuing both science and medicine, but also about actively finding ways to integrate them through your education and the years beyond. Interviewers want to make sure that you will take advantage of an interdisciplinary MD-PhD training by finding ways in which your research can influence your interactions with patients, and vice versa. 

DO focus on describing what you think the benefits are of an integrated physician-scientist training program

For example, you might discuss your excitement about being able to draw off your clinical experiences to inform how you prioritize designing new therapies for heart disease, as you will be able to directly learn which symptoms patients' find most debilitating. Alternatively, perhaps you will talk about how you wish to utilize artificial intelligence to enhance clinical decision-making, both for other physicians and for yourself. Regardless of your exact interests, make sure you convey how passionate you are about obtaining an MD-PhD, and not just a MD and PhD, individually. 

DON’T say you want to pursue an MD-PhD to pursue a career of 50% research and 50% clinical responsibilities

As mentioned above, an MD-PhD program provides amazing opportunities to grow as a physician, scientist, and, most importantly, physician-scientist. Applicants to MD-PhD programs should be genuinely passionate about pursuing a career that combines both science and medicine. With that said, it is also important that applicants recognize that the traditional MD-PhD research/clinical split is 80-20, respectively. After all, it takes time to dive into the science, apply for grants, and manage a lab! Now, that’s not to say that every MD-PhD follows this split, or that you have to. However, you should make sure that you are able to cogently express that you are aware of what an MD-PhD career path looks like and the demands both research and science will place on your time. An MD-PhD program is a long commitment, and interviewers want to ensure that you have a good understanding of the career trajectories most MD-PhDs take before offering you a spot in their program. 

DO discuss how you plan to integrate research and medicine in your career

This is an excellent opportunity to not only discuss your long-term professional aspirations, but also to show you have a firm grasp of what an MD-PhD program is for. Talk specifically about how you envision balancing science and medicine in the future. For example, perhaps you hope to see patients once a week in the psychiatry clinic while primarily running a lab that researches neuropsychiatric disorders. You might envision your time split 80% research and 20% clinical, as you follow the traditional physician-scientist path. On the other hand, maybe you see a slightly different vision for your MD-PhD. Some students, for example, are extremely passionate about surgery and hope to unite both surgery and science, while also recognizing that this means they will spend more time in the clinic than a non-surgical physician-scientist. It is totally okay, and even encouraged, to discuss these interests. The point here is not to force yourself to fit into some mold of what you think a physician-scientist should be, but rather to show that you clearly understand the demands and training path of an MD-PhD program and have also given serious thought to how you see balancing science and medicine in your future career. 

DON’T just discuss abstract reasons for wanting to pursue an MD-PhD

All people applying for an MD-PhD program have many shared reasons for doing so, especially in regards to the general theme of uniting science and medicine in order to further human health. This is great, and a key reason why MD-PhD programs are so unique in terms of the education they offer. However, remember that your interviewer is probably interviewing many of these other students as well. If your answer to why MD-PhD only hits on the broad training goals of their program, it will likely blend together with that of many other students, costing you a valuable opportunity to stand out.

DO focus on unique and specific experiences you’ve had that have motivated your decision to pursue an MD-PhD

Rather than saying that you think MD-PhDs are able to translate research from the bench to the bedside, discuss how you have personally united your research and clinical interests. How have you personally seen the power of bridging medicine and clinical work, and how would you like to continue this journey? This is also a great time to briefly mention why you are excited about interviewing at a particular program. For example, you might begin by discussing your experience both volunteering with patients on dialysis and doing research on the kidneys, ending with a segue to your excitement about the opportunities to further explore renal pathophysiology with Lab X at the institution you are interviewing at. This is also a great time to reflect on how your personal traits and philosophy might fit in well with an MD-PhD program. If you’re drawn to science because you love problem-solving or want to pursue medical school because you believe in the power of personal interaction to advance human health, say so! This is a great chance to show how your interest in an MD-PhD is motivated by both professional and personal desires.

The “Why MD-PhD?” question is a great chance to display your knowledge of the physician-scientist training path, your motivations for pursuing an MD-PhD in the present and future, and why you are excited about the opportunity to train at a specific program. By taking the time to craft an authentic and polished response to this classic interview question, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a MD-PhD trainee!

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