So you want to be a medical scientist. An MD isn’t enough to make your parents proud, so why not toss in a PhD as well? With your MD/PhD, you’ll be making groundbreaking medical discoveries each day you go to work. Well, not quite. This is the reality of being a medical scientist.
Welcome to our next installment in So You Want to Be. In this series, we highlight a specific medical career path to help you decide if it’s a good fit for you. You can find the other specialties on our So You Want To Be blog category or YouTube playlist.
What Is a Medical Scientist?
A medical scientist or physician scientist isn’t a distinct specialty of medicine but rather a career path you choose to take.
Medical scientists might hold a PhD, an MD, or both. These are notable distinctions because a PhD will not have gone to medical school, whereas earning an MD or MD/PhD requires four years of medical school. That’s why some medical scientists with an MD prefer to be referred to as physician scientists.
For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be focusing on the MD path, but much of the pros and cons and day-to-day will also apply to anyone interested in becoming a PhD medical scientist without an MD.
A medical scientist is dedicated to conducting research that enhances our understanding of human health and diseases. They focus on exploring the causes and progressions of various health conditions, aiming to develop effective treatments and preventive measures.
Depending on their interest and field of study, medical scientists often devote approximately 4 to 5 days of their work week to performing research in laboratories. An integral part of this includes writing research grants, conducting lab meetings, and performing meticulous analysis of experimental data, and they often employ statistical methods to decipher complex health-related phenomena.
Medical scientists can also be actively involved in conducting clinical trials. These trials are critical for testing the safety and efficacy of new treatments, drugs, or medical devices on human subjects. Collaboration is a cornerstone of their work, as they frequently team up with doctors, other scientists, and statisticians. This multidisciplinary approach is essential due to the multifaceted nature of medical research.
After testing a hypothesis, medical scientists publish their findings in scientific journals and share their discoveries with both the medical community and, at times, the broader public. This dissemination of knowledge can significantly influence healthcare practices and policy-making.
Medical scientists can have a profound impact on healthcare, which can be incredibly rewarding. Their contributions are vital for the development of new medical treatments and diagnostics, ultimately leading to enhanced patient care and health outcomes.
Medical scientists can practice in a wide variety of different settings.
Academic settings are the most common workplace.
Universities and medical schools offer an environment conducive to both research and teaching, given that there are interested students, faculty, and many technicians and other research personnel. In these settings, physician scientists often conduct research, teach medical students and residents, and sometimes practice clinically.
Academic institutions provide support to tackle research projects, including obtaining funding and the facilities for shared lab equipment. Most academic settings also have the benefit of being associated with large hospitals and medical centers.
Independent research institutes, which often focus on specific diseases or types of research, are another common workplace. These institutes may have affiliations with academic centers, but they function primarily as dedicated research facilities. Physician scientists in this setting can focus intensively on research, often with greater resources and specialized equipment.
Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Companies
Some physician scientists work in the industry, particularly with companies that focus on developing new medications or medical technologies. Their clinical expertise is required to develop new treatments, understand patient needs, and conduct clinical trials.
Government agencies like the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, and the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, employ physician scientists in various capacities. They can work on public health research, policy development, and administration of research programs. Their medical expertise helps to shape health policies and research agendas at the national level.
Nonprofit Organizations and Foundations
Some physician scientists work with nonprofits and foundations that focus on health research and policy. These roles can involve research, advocacy, and the development of programs to improve healthcare delivery and outcomes.
Private Practice and Consultancy
Although less common, some physician scientists may be involved in private practice, either in clinical work, consultancy, or in combination with research activities. These roles often require balancing clinical duties with research interests.
Common Misconceptions About Medical Research
Let’s clear up some of the misconceptions about working as a medical scientist.
A common misconception is that medical research frequently leads to immediate, groundbreaking discoveries. In reality, the process is often slow and meticulous.
Significant breakthroughs are relatively rare and are usually the result of many years of sustained research. The journey involves numerous incremental advancements as opposed to dramatic new findings.
The career path for medical scientists isn’t always straightforward and can be quite varied. Individuals in this field may find themselves transitioning between different sectors, such as academia, industry, and government roles. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all career trajectory in medical science, and success often requires flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and opportunities.
Another misconception is that medical scientists exclusively work in labs. In reality, their work is multifaceted, encompassing not only laboratory research but also data analysis, writing research papers and grant applications, and presenting findings at conferences. This variety in tasks ensures that the role is diverse and not confined to a single setting.
Lastly, many people believe there are limited job opportunities for medical scientists. The field is broad, offering diverse career opportunities in academia, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, government agencies, and healthcare organizations. The job opportunities are so varied because the skill set of a medical scientist, and their ability to communicate with other scientific parties, is valued across multiple sectors.
How to Become a Medical Scientist
Becoming a physician scientist with an MD/PhD involves a rigorous and lengthy educational process that’s designed to train individuals who are interested in both practicing medicine and conducting biomedical research.
The journey is largely split into two branches: pursuing each degree independently or enrolling in an MD/PhD program or integrated Medical Scientist Training Program, MSTP.
Pursuing an MD and PhD Independently
With a sequential approach, you first must complete a Doctor of Medicine (MD) program and then enroll in a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program, or vice versa. This path is less common due to the extended time commitment and the requirement of two different and unique applications—one for MD and another for the PhD program. MD graduates may choose to pursue their PhD during or after residency.
An MD program typically takes 4 years and is focused on clinical training, preparing students for a career in medicine. This is the same path anyone who wants to become an MD will begin with, no matter the specialty.
A PhD program with a research focus usually takes 4-6 years and requires a dissertation based on original research.
Independently pursuing an MD and PhD usually takes longer than completing a joint program or MSTP. The time to complete both programs can range from 8-12 years, depending on a student’s pace and the nature of their PhD research.
This route offers flexibility in timing and choice of programs but can be more challenging due to the lack of a structured pathway. Many courses will likely be repeated, and unlike the opportunities available to those enrolled in an MSTP, there’s no tuition reimbursement.
Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP)
Medical Scientist Training Programs are dual-degree programs designed to integrate medical and graduate education.
Training occurs simultaneously in medicine and research, as pursuing degrees independently can sometimes result in a disconnect between the two fields. There are around 50 MSTPs located across the US.
The MSTP distinction means the NIH provides governmental funds to support the program, including tuition coverage and a graduate stipend every year, making MSTPs more financially appealing. There are also MD/PhD programs that are not MSTP, but their funding depends on the internal program and institution itself, not the government. Because of this, non-MSTP programs tend to be smaller in size.
There are appropriate standards across MSTP institutions, such as annual retreats, a formalized curriculum, and seminars to aid in transitions. The structured curriculum smoothly transitions students between medical training and research~~, with research rotations completed during the summers in between medical school semesters~~.
An MSTP is typically 7 to 8 years in length and involves two phases: Pre-clinical and clinical, and these phases are interspersed with PhD research.
Because of the limited spots available, guaranteed stipends, and the fact the programs are often located at more prestigious schools, admission to MSTPs is highly competitive.
Each year, there are approximately 700 MD/PhD matriculants across the nation. Students must not only have satisfied requirements for medical school entry, which includes extracurriculars as well as a high MCAT and GPA, but also have actively participated in several research projects or experiences. Lately, competitive applicants commonly have at least one publication. Unfortunately, because of NIH governmental funding, MSTPs do not accept international or non-US trainees.
Subspecialties Within Medical Research
What about subspecialization?
Most MD/PhD graduates choose to pursue residency and fellowship training, which will take another 3-7 years minimum. Their dual degree, research prowess, and extensive training it takes to complete an MD/PhD makes them particularly attractive to residency programs.
While MD/PhD graduates can enter any medical specialty, some fields are more common due to the presence of integrated research pathways, funding availability, and research prevalence in the specialty.
Internal medicine, pediatrics, pathology, neurology, psychiatry, radiology, and radiation oncology are common residency paths. Given how long the MD/PhD training already is, students interested in longer residencies and fellowships must acknowledge the delayed income, level of work ethic, and perseverance required to complete this 1- to 2-decade journey.
What You’ll Love About Being a Medical Scientist
There’s a lot to love about working as a medical scientist.
People who love working as a medical scientist cite the dynamic and intellectually stimulating nature of their work as a major draw. The field offers a unique blend of clinical practice and research, allowing individuals to directly impact patient care while also contributing to the broader understanding of medical science.
The variety in day-to-day activities is a significant appeal. One day might involve seeing patients and addressing their immediate health concerns, while the next could be dedicated to laboratory research or analyzing data to uncover new insights into disease mechanisms.
Medical scientists also encounter diverse patient populations, providing a rich and rewarding clinical experience. The “bread and butter” of work ranges from routine patient examinations to conducting groundbreaking research, which means no two days are alike.
Additionally, the lifestyle of a medical scientist is flexible, with the ability to balance clinical duties with research pursuits. This balance makes for a career that is not only professionally fulfilling but also accommodating of personal interests and commitments. The sense of contribution to both immediate patient health and the advancement of medical knowledge is a powerful motivator and source of satisfaction and fulfillment for those in this field.
What You Won’t Love About Being a Medical Scientist
While the career of a medical scientist has a lot to offer, it’s a long journey to get there, which isn’t for everyone.
The most notable downside to this career path is the extra training involved, which delays your ability to earn an attending salary even further. While many MD/PhD programs offer stipends and tuition waivers, the extended years in training equates to delayed entry into the full-time workforce.
The field requires extensive education and training, and the early years, particularly in academic or research settings, may not be as financially rewarding as other professions requiring similar levels of education. However, it can be a financially stable and rewarding career over the long term.
Though rewarding when breakthroughs are made, these don’t happen every day—far from it. Research can seem exciting and even sexy from the outside, but it’s often a slow and frustrating process; some experiments may require years to see results, whereas others may never yield the expected results. This can be disheartening, especially for those who are results-oriented.
That’s why it’s so important for premeds to get exposure to various types of research before they dedicate their education and future careers to it. Some types of research may be more appealing than others, and you could write it off entirely after one bad experience before figuring out what you like.
Additionally, the dual demands of clinical practice and research can lead to a busy lifestyle. Balancing patient care with the rigors of scientific investigation means long hours, which often impact work-life balance and job satisfaction.
Lastly, securing funding for research is a constant challenge. The competitive nature of grant applications and the reliance on external funding sources can create uncertainty and affect the scope and direction of research. And different areas of research see different spikes and drops in popularity, given public perception and government funding priorities. What’s most important or most interesting to you isn’t always what’s most funded.
For those in academic settings, there’s often pressure to publish regularly, contribute to teaching, and maintain a reputation in the scientific community, which can be demanding alongside clinical responsibilities. These activities are not reimbursed yet are frequently seen as necessary.
Should You Become a Medical Scientist?
So, should you become a medical scientist?
Medical scientists get to help shape healthcare delivery and treatment. Those who are naturally curious, enjoy solving complex problems, and are constantly seeking new knowledge tend to do well in this field. Enjoying teamwork and collaboration is also important, as medical scientists often work with other researchers, clinicians, and healthcare professionals. If you have a genuine interest in understanding disease mechanisms and a drive to improve patient care, this may be an ideal path for you.
However, the path to becoming a medical scientist is long and can be filled with challenges, including research setbacks and the pressures of medical training. The field of research can also be unpredictable and full of unknowns. Comfort with ambiguity and a flexible mindset are crucial.
Patience and resilience are also incredibly vital and relevant traits to possess. It’s easy to become discouraged while conducting research. Medical scientists must be able to push through the failed experiments, rejections from grant approvals, long periods of monotony, as well as periods of great challenge. Earning an MD already requires significant levels of dedication and perseverance. An MD/PhD takes this to a whole new level, not only because the training is longer, but also because the day-to-day requires more patience than regular MD work. Research is no cakewalk.
If you’re considering becoming a medical scientist, seek out mentors and experiences in both research and clinical settings to better understand the nature of the work and whether or not it aligns with your interests. Engaging in longitudinal research projects can provide valuable insights and help you make an informed decision.
If you’re considering a career as a medical scientist or in medicine as a whole, elevating your research skillset and becoming prolific in research will open doors for you. Our all-new Ultimate Research Course is packed with dozens of videos, resources, and exclusive private community access to elevate your research game to the highest level. Learn from the Med School Insiders experts on our tested and proven tactics to publish dozens and dozens of publications to wow admissions committees and make your application stand out. Whether you’re applying to MD/PhD programs or MD programs, we’re confident you are going to find tremendous value. So much so, it comes with a money back guarantee so that there’s no risk to you.
Med School Insiders has helped thousands of premeds and medical students design and achieve their ideal career paths and we’d love to be a part of your journey to becoming a future physician.
Special thanks to physician scientist Dr. Albert Zhou for helping us create this So You Want to Be entry.
It’s never too early to begin thinking about the specialty you want to pursue. If you’re struggling to choose the best path for you, our So You Want to Be playlist is a great place to start.