There is no surefire route that leads a physician to a successful career. In turn, there is no one hard-and-fast justification to pursue graduate education before applying to 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 stemming from their research and critical thinking skills fashioned during their post-graduate years. Data collected by the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) between 2015 and 2017 indicate 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 post-graduate training during their gap year(s).
Whether striving to become a rural family physician or a sub-specialty clinician at an academic medical center, 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 if sitting for a master’s degree is the right choice for you. Here, we highlight select pros and cons of pursuing a master’s degree before matriculating in 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 have developed skills from their post-graduate education to probe novel research questions and analyze large quantities of data. These skills should be emphasized here 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 and enable one to publish independently.
3| Expand Your Network
Graduate students often develop a critical network of colleagues and mentors during their post-graduate training, which opens pathways for future collaboration and peer feedback on research studies undertaken in medical school. 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. 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.
Cons of Obtaining a Master’s Degree Before Medical School:
1| Lack Full-Funding
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average yearly fees for a private graduate degree are nearly $24,000. Therefore, it is important for any aspiring physician to have clear reasons why a master’s degree will facilitate the realization of their career goals. 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 post-graduate education. Moreover, if successful, many medical schools allow a student to defer their acceptance to complete a post-graduate degree, as was in my case.
2| Resume Booster Trap
One of the more insidious traps pre-medical students can fall into is when they 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. However, what is more convincing to admissions committees goes beyond achieving top marks in a master’s program—the utilization (or intended utilization) of the skills obtained during their post-graduate training. 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 in the long-term. For example, during medical school, and now during my Ph.D., I still recall many facts and principles learned, or reach out to colleagues I had met previously, during my master’s training.
There are many benefits to obtaining a master’s degree. Ultimately, my master’s degree enhanced my understanding of immunology and virology before matriculating in medical school and moreover, enabled me to pursue research that would transform my scientific interests into what is now 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 surveyed during the pre-clinical years of medical school, and offer outlets to forge relationships with mentors prior to medical school. Be sure to consider these points before making your decision!
If you are considering a master’s degree but are unsure, please consider the Med School Insiders general advising services. We have advisers who have completed this degree and can give you detailed, real-world advice and feedback!