If you have a desire to take care of patients as a physician and additionally find that you have a love for research, pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. dual-degree may be the correct fit for you. The M.D./Ph.D. degree is a robust path in which you undergo medical school training along with protected time to spend on independent projects to grow as a researcher and possibly future academic. In terms of the most pertinent and immediate pros and cons, MD/PhD programs are much longer (7-8 years versus 4), but they open up opportunities for research and academia positions in the future, and are usually fully funded with a yearly stipend.. Generally, the first two years are spent in medical school, the student then transitions to the “lab” for approximately 4 years, and then returns to complete the last two years of medical school, specifically clinical rotations.
Why I chose MD-PhD
I first began doing research simply because it was a necessary and vital aspect of a compelling medical school application. Going down this path, I was fortunate to develop a varied experience in research laboratories that have offered diverse perspectives in approaching scientific problems. These activities have resulted in successful undergraduate publications where I tested hypotheses, generated sound experimental methods, but most importantly generated the resilience to face and overcome failures and setbacks.
By choosing to go to medical school and becoming a practicing physician, I will gain insight from patient perspectives. This will help me better understand how scientific research can meet their needs. However, medical school does not offer a dedicated research period, which is a critical aspect in becoming a strong and creative research scientist. The time spent during PhD training will empower me to become an independent researcher and provide protected time for formulating hypotheses, designing experiments, and obtaining expertise that will be vital in becoming a successful physician scientist. Ultimately, I aspire to become a principal investigator who sheds light on the molecular processes and leads a research team to create novel therapeutics.
What compelled me to pursue a MD-PhD combined degree
When I was conducting research the summer after high school, my mentor mentioned to me: “I hope you will consider pursuing an MD/PhD as I did.” Inspired by his work, I soon pursued research opportunities in order to spend more time in the laboratory. I started investigating BRCA1-associated protein 1 at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Cancer Center and microtubule stabilization at a national laboratory. When I shadowed a physician at the cancer center, I had an encounter with a patient who was suffering from end-stage melanoma. I witnessed a transformation in her demeanor from hysterical to hopeful when the doctor told her about a promising clinical trial. It was at this point I realized that medicine and research go hand in hand, and I needed both aspects to be a part of my life.
How to Decide Whether or Not MD-PhD is Right for You
There are very different avenues to get involved as a physician scientist where you do not need to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. Plenty of physicians conduct research with an M.D. degree. However, if you dream of becoming a principal investigator and having your own laboratory, then this route may be for you. As a M.D./Ph.D., you are more likely to obtain research grants and become an independent principal investigator early in your career. If you go the traditional Ph.D. route, postdoc experiences become almost a prerequisite.
Even though the physician scientist training is lengthy, it’s comparable to doing a traditional medical school path in combination with research fellowships. Given the professional opportunities that open in one’s future, in combination with the fully funded nature (in addition to stipend) that comes with an MD/PhD program, they are often quite competitive. According to the AAMC 2018-2019 M.D./Ph.D. data, there were 1,855 applicants with 672 matriculants to M.D./Ph.D. programs across the United States, coming out to a 36.2% acceptance rate.
That being said, do not be discouraged by the low acceptance rate. While the chances of acceptance are low, you can always opt for the traditional MD route and pursue research in parallel or in other fellowship or formal training positions. If you need additional help in crafting a compelling MD/PhD application to maximize your chances of success, our team consists of MD/PhD’s with dozens of years experience on admissions committees. Learn more how we can improve your odds here.