MD-PhD credentials: what do I need?

MD/PhD admissions strategy

You’re interested in MD-PhD programs, but you want some more information about how to prepare and what the process looks like. Since the annual applicant pool is relatively small, this information can be hard to find, especially if you don’t attend a large research-oriented institution.

In this post, I will provide a framework for what types of experiences often make a strong MD-PhD applicant.

Please note, everyone will have a different application, and these are not definitive rules. However, they do provide a good general idea of the criteria that MD-PhD programs are seeking. 


The most important quality of a successful MD-PhD applicant is a strong researcher This means that you should be working in a research lab (or 2 or 3) for a couple of years and build a strong relationship with your mentor, who will often be a postdoc or a PI. Your mentor and/or PI will be writing your letter of recommendation, so it is incredibly important that you build a strong relationship here.

Important to note: a publication is NOT required to be a successful applicant. What is more important is that you demonstrate expertise in your research project and can relate it to broader research in the field. Ideally, you should attend and present your research in the form of a poster or oral presentation at a large conference.

You can also try to apply for summer research programs at other institutions. These programs will often boost your application and give you an additional letter of recommendation for your application.


As an MD-PhD applicant, you are also applying to the medical school, therefore, you also need to have strong medical school credentials:

  1. Clinical Experience
    1. Volunteering at a hospital is the most common way to gain clinical experience.
    2. Volunteering at nursing homes or hospice care is also another way to gain valuable clinical volunteering.
    3. Working as a medical scribe or EMT is another great way to both earn money and gain clinical experience.

  2. Shadowing
    1. This is kept separate from clinical experience because shadowing is generally perceived as a passive experience where you follow (or shadow) a healthcare worker (ideally a physician) to learn more about what the career is like.
    2. It is important to have some shadowing experience in addition to clinical experience as it will allow you to make connections with your own work and your goals of pursuing an MD-PhD.
    3. Important note: As MD-PhD applicants, the clinical experience is not quite as important as it is for traditional MD-only applicants. Do NOT compare your hours and experiences to your MD-only peers because you will most likely have fewer hours in this area because you have dedicated so much more to research
    4. The most important part of the clinical experience portion is to gain enough experience that you can talk about your experiences (on paper and in your interviews) in a meaningful, convincing way that expresses your desire to pursue medicine (and potentially a physician-scientist).


MD-PhD applicants generally have a strong academic background, but they also often have lower GPAs and MCAT scores than their MD counterparts. This can happen because MD-PhD applicants spend much more time doing research than class work, so studying for classes is often not the main priority. Don’t worry about not having a perfect 4.0 or having a 3.9 GPA.


This is the final part of this framework, but often the most distinguishing. This is where you showcase your interests and your other activities! This is incredibly flexible, and no one does everything. Do things outside of school, research, and clinical work that you want to do, and that make you unique.