Exploring M.D.–Ph.D. degree programs

1/23/2018 2:47:02 PM

Traditional career routes in the biomedical sciences often involve a divergent split in advanced training: You go to graduate school for a Ph.D. to prepare for a lab-based, biomedical-research career, or you go to medical school to train for the hands-on diagnosis and treatment of patients. But what if you’re interested in doing both?  

M.D.–Ph.D. programs (or medical-scientist training programs) offer a combined approach for students interested in researching complex biomedical challenges while staying involved in the patient experience. The comprehensive training received in a dual-degree program prepares medical scientists to identify research questions and develop solutions to improve patients’ lives. Most physician–scientists go on to careers in academic medical centers, splitting their time between research activities and clinical practice.  

If you’re interested in exploring M.D.–Ph.D. degree programs in more detail, this week’s post focuses on resources to do so. Also note that this post has good advice for undergraduate students interested in pursuing biomedical research in general. A future post will follow up on opportunities for recent college graduates (e.g., postbac programs).  

Q&A with Sarah Schrader, M.D.–Ph.D. student 

SarahWhile the benefits of a dual-degree program are many (e.g., tuition may be covered, career flexibility), it is still a big commitment to make and requires careful consideration and preparation in deciding to do such a program. To get inside the head of someone who has recently made this decision, I reached out by email to Sarah Schrader, a fourth-year student in the Weill Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional M.D.–Ph.D. program studying mycobacterial-persistence mechanisms. She shared how she decided to pursue a dual-degree program. Here are her very perceptive responses:  

1. What factors did you consider in choosing to do an M.D.–Ph.D. program vs. one or the other? 

My research experiences as an undergrad sparked my interest in pursuing a career in biomedical research. The most natural fit to advance toward this goal was a Ph.D. program. But after learning about the option to pursue both an M.D. and Ph.D., I was intrigued by the chance to gain a deeper understanding of human physiology and pathology in medical school, as well as by the option I would have to maintain a clinical grounding, ideally complementary to my research interests, throughout my career as both a scientist and a practicing physician. I felt the knowledge base gained through my clinical training would help me identify important areas of research to focus on, while continued clinical exposure throughout my career would help me direct my research projects towards topics that would have the greatest potential to benefit human health and give me the motivation to pursue them. One factor I considered was the increased length of training required for an M.D.–Ph.D. vs. a Ph.D., as the average time to graduation for my program is about eight years. However, I felt the benefits of the added medical training would be well worth it.  

2. Were there any experiences you had that interested you in a dual program?

When interviewing for colleges, I met with an M.D.–Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University who came to the interview straight from seeing a patient, and we talked in the office in his lab. That gave me something of a glimpse into the daily routine of an M.D.–Ph.D., and it seemed both exciting and fulfilling — a mix of shorter-term, smaller-scale satisfaction from helping individual patients heal and longer-term, larger-scale satisfaction from making scientific discoveries that could benefit entire populations of people. During an undergraduate summer-research program at New York University, I worked in the lab of an M.D.–Ph.D. and with an M.D.–Ph.D. student, giving me the chance to see another take on the lifestyle and get the perspective of a student as well. Again, it struck me as a wonderful career choice for someone interested in pursing biomedical research.  

3. What else did you do to ultimately decide on a dual program?

After learning about the possibility of doing a dual-degree program, I talked to my academic advisers for my biology and chemistry majors at my university to get their opinion on whether it would be a good fit for me. They both thought it matched with my goals and abilities well and encouraged me to explore the possibility further. For this, I looked up M.D.–Ph.D.s on faculty lists at nearby universities and emailed them a list of questions to get their perspectives on the choice to pursue a dual degree and what opportunities and advantages it had given them. I also had a chance encounter with an M.D.–Ph.D. at a conference in China who shared his experiences. Each person I contacted was very positive about their decision to pursue the dual degrees, regardless of whether they had ultimately ended up actually utilizing both degrees as bona fide physician–scientists or had drifted wholly into medicine or science. Medical training and scientific training teach completely different ways of approaching problems, and the faculty I contacted all said the ability to think both ways was helpful in either field. These interactions helped convince me further that an M.D.–Ph.D. program was the right path for me.  

4. What future career opportunities do you hope the M.D.–Ph.D. training will lead to?

As a future physician–scientist, my ultimate goal is to obtain a faculty position at an academic medical center, where I will be able to run my own lab and also maintain clinical exposure by working as a pathologist. I am particularly interested in infectious diseases, and my medical training so far has already provided me with a solid knowledgebase in infectious-disease pathology, while my ongoing Ph.D. training in microbiology is providing me with the skills I need to be successful as a scientist. That being said, M.D.–Ph.D. training offers a lot of flexibility in terms of career paths, and there is a multitude of possibilities that students can ponder and explore as they progress through their training.  

5. Do you have any tips or advice for other students thinking about such a program?

To be successful in applying for and getting through a dual-degree training program, a student needs a good reason why they are committing to getting both degrees. It doesn’t make sense for someone who wants to be a doctor but isn’t interested in research to go through the extra years of Ph.D. training, and likewise, someone who wants to do research that is rather far removed from any potential medical applications might not benefit very much from the medical training. Research experience is a requisite for applying to M.D.–Ph.D. programs, but it’s also a good idea to get some clinical exposure in as well, and more than just the token shadowing experience if possible. Volunteering in the E.R. or at a hospital would provide a good glimpse into what life as a physician and a medical student can be like, and shadowing physicians in a few different specialties can provide an even broader perspective. Personally, I would have been better prepared for medical school had I sought out more clinical experiences before applying (but it turned out just fine in the end!). It’s also important to keep in mind that you don’t have to plan everything out right away in terms of what you want to do your Ph.D. in and what medical specialty you want to go into. Many students see their interests change, oftentimes dramatically, as they go through their training. It’s important to always keep an open mind!  

Summer biomedical-research experiences 

As Sarah points out, most M.D.–Ph.D. programs require applicants to have research experience, and it’s also a good way to find out if a research career is even of interest. Here are some resources that can help current undergraduate students find summer-research opportunities in the biomedical field. Most programs include a stipend and housing. 

The AAMC webpage linked to above also contains a list of summer-research programs specifically designed for students interested in M.D.–Ph.D. degree programs. These programs combine a research experience with activities to explore physician-scientist careers. I further vetted this list for ones that have upcoming application deadlines. A number of these programs focus on participants from underrepresented groups in science, so be sure to check the eligibility requirements.  

Other useful links and resources

Here are a number of other useful resources that provide more detail on M.D.–Ph.D. program requirements. Also, as Sarah mentioned, consider reaching out to other M.D.–Ph.D. students and physician scientists to conduct informational interviews and find out more about their own career paths (see this video tutorial and blog post for interviewing tips). The Student Doctor Network also has an online physician–scientist forum where prospective and current students can ask each other questions and share experiences.

Bonus posting. As seen on the ASBMB job board, the RNA Bioscience Initiative at the University of Colorado School of Medicine (Denver metro area) is recruiting undergraduate applicants for a summer-research program. Interns are matched with faculty from the biomedical-research departments, including researchers studying fundamental aspects of biology and the molecular bases of cancer, developmental biology, autoimmunity and infectious disease. The application deadline is Feb. 15.