There is no surefire route that leads a physician into a successful career, and there are definitely both pros and cons to getting a master’s degree before medical school.
Medical schools underscore the wealth of educational diversity and experiences amongst their matriculating students. Those students with master’s degrees are equipped with undeniable assets that stem from the research and critical thinking skills they obtained during their postgraduate years.
Data collected by the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) indicates that more than half of medical school matriculants take off at least one year after graduating from college. Nearly 25% of these matriculating students pursued postgraduate training during their gap year(s).
Obtaining a master’s degree in the sciences can offer multiple advantages for aspiring physicians with research interests. However, it is important to carefully consider whether pursuing a master’s degree is the right choice for you. In this article, we’ll highlight the pros and cons of pursuing a master’s degree before matriculating to medical school.
Pros of Obtaining a Master’s Degree Before Medical School
1 | Learn Evidence-Based Medicine
According to the AAMC, one of the key skills medical students should acquire before graduation is the ability to retrieve, manage, and utilize published biomedical information for clinical decision making—the cornerstones of evidence-based medicine (EBM).
Therefore, the instruction of EBM has become pervasive in medical education, even at the graduate level. Many biomedically-oriented master’s programs devote a substantial number of modules to biostatistics, epidemiology, and data analysis. The proficiency obtained from this instruction can be directly translated to EBM coursework in medical education, board examinations, and clinically-oriented research projects in medical school.
2 | Develop Research Skills for Medical School
Over half of matriculating medical students indicated a desire to pursue research during their medical training. Furthermore, an increasing number of applicants matching into competitive residency programs have greater numbers of research experiences and publications.
Designing a novel research project is an exciting challenge, and master’s students often develop skills from their postgraduate education to probe novel research questions and analyze large quantities of data. These skills should be emphasized, as time is often scarce to resolve research questions initiated at the beginning of medical training. A master’s degree may provide tools to catalyze a research project’s completion, enabling you to publish independently.
3 | Expand Your Network
Graduate students often develop a critical network of colleagues and mentors during their postgraduate training, which opens pathways for future collaboration and peer feedback on research studies undertaken in medical school.
Securing a network of colleagues to facilitate assistance and advising on a project during medical school can drastically enhance a student’s ability to present and publish their work. This extra time can also help you build relationships that can be utilized to obtain strong letters of recommendation.
Personally, a handful of supervisors and lecturers I worked with during my master’s degree at University College London are now collaborators and advisors during my PhD project as an MD/PhD student.
Cons of Obtaining a Master’s Degree Before Medical School
1 | Lack of Funding
Funding a master’s degree can be challenging, and you likely won’t be able to save up money for the upcoming costs of medical school while you’re focusing on earning your master’s. This can be a significant drawback for premeds, depending on their financial situation.
This is why it’s so important for any aspiring physician to have clear reasons why a master’s degree will facilitate the realization of their career goals. There are opportunities for funding, but it’s not an easy road. Often, graduate schools have internal sources of funding subject to a competitive application process. Aim to apply for these sources of funding early, keeping the program’s mission in mind!
Additionally, outside sources of funding for master’s degrees abroad (e.g., the Fulbright, Rhodes, and Marshall Scholarships) may help secure the necessary funding to undertake postgraduate education. Moreover, if successful, many medical schools allow a student to defer their acceptance to complete a postgraduate degree.
2 | Resume Booster Trap
One of the more insidious traps that premeds can fall into is to indicate interest in a master’s program for the sole purpose of enhancing their CV. Yes, a master’s degree can increase a candidate’s GPA to further their medical school application, but there are other less time-consuming ways to do this.
The utilization (or intended utilization) of the skills obtained during their postgraduate training will do more to convince an admissions committee of an applicant’s qualifications than the excellent grades they achieved in the program. A master’s program should serve a purpose that extends beyond the year or two taken for its completion.
To re-emphasize from earlier: you should have a clear picture in mind as to how your master’s degree will serve you long-term.
3 | You Delay Your Medical Career
Medical school and residency already take (at least) eight long years to complete. Obtaining a master’s degree extends this process even further, meaning you won’t become a doctor as fast.
If you are eager to begin your career as a full-fledged doctor as quickly as possible, the master’s degree route may not be right for you.
Should You Obtain a Master’s Degree?
There are many benefits to obtaining a master’s degree, but there are also notable downsides. Ultimately, my master’s degree enhanced my understanding of immunology and virology before matriculating in medical school, and moreover, it enabled me to pursue research that transformed my scientific interests into my Ph.D. project.
The crux here is that any student considering a master’s degree before applying to medical school should have a clear vision as to how their course of study will facilitate their career goals.
Scientific master’s degrees are often accelerated in terms of course and lab-based learning, requiring a lot of work, effort, and money. However, they can catalyze research endeavors during medical training, lay a strong foundation in basic science knowledge and evidence-based medicine, and offer outlets to forge relationships with mentors prior to medical school.
Be sure to consider these points before making your decision!
Struggling to make a tough decision? Whether you’re deciding whether or not to take a gap year or choosing whether or not a master’s degree is right for you, decision making strategies will help you make informed decisions you can feel good about for years to come. Read our 7 Strategies for Better Decision Making.
If you are considering a master’s degree, learn about Med School Insiders’ general advising services. We have advisers who have completed this degree and can give you detailed, real-world advice and feedback. It’s our goal to help you create a future that aligns with your vision.