Science 101: The MD/PhD Program Explained
Written by Alex Tang
Bwog Science is back with Science 101, our semi-regular advice column for all things science! Last week, Bwog Science Editor (and potential MD/PhD applicant (?)) Alex Tang attended an MD/PhD discussion panel, which included MD/PhD representatives from Columbia, NYU, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Here, he brings you the advice and information he gleaned from the session.
Are you currently pre-med, but absolutely love the work you do in your lab? Or are you torn between clinical practice or science research as a career? Are you interested in creating and implementing solutions to biomedical problems? If so, read on!
To the eyes of an undergraduate student, the MD/PhD path is a long, mystical path – one that is often misunderstood. Attending the panel discussion gave me a more grounded understanding of the MD/PhD degree, which I’ll talk about in this post. I’ll first begin to describe what an MD/PhD path entails, the outcomes of this dual degree, as well as what it takes to prepare oneself for an MD/PhD program.
Our country is in great need of future biomedical researchers, people who can power the greatest medical discoveries of the twenty-first century. MD/PhD programs around the country strive to address this fact, graduating cohorts of students each year who have undergone both the training required in medical school (for an MD) as well as intensive hypothesis-driven laboratory work (PhD).
The MD/PhD, the panel described, is designed as the interface between medicine and science. Medical doctors often know which big medical questions to ask, but don’t usually have the research tools to find out the answers. Medical schools focus on teaching existing material, on getting across the information a physician needs to diagnose and treat disease, but not how to design and conduct experiments that will create new scientific knowledge. On the other hand, PhD-only science researchers have the means to design and conduct experiments, but are oftentimes far from the applications of their projects. The MD/PhD, however, combines skills from both medical and scientific training. Essentially, after a long training (and the process is long – consisting of the 7-8 year MD/PhD program itself followed by additional years of residency/fellowship training), the individual will be able to practice medicine, and to use those clinical experiences to drive their own research projects. The good news is that MD/PhD programs are almost always fully-funded (NIH-funded MSTPs, or Medical Science Training Programs, waive tuition and grant stipends and health insurance to all students).
It’s important to stress, however, that the MD/PhD path is only suitable for individuals who love clinical practice and love research, and want to spend their lives doing both. Individuals who want to do one but not the other should strive for an MD or a PhD only. That being said, there is a great variety of career possibilities for MD/PhDs. The panel stated that immediately after graduation, 95% of MD/PhDs go on to residencies or fellowships, which usually entail another 3-7 years of training. Later in their careers, about 60% of MD/PhDs become medical school faculty, who teach classes in medical school and conduct their own labs. The rest work for the NIH, government or private research, or industry (pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies). The panel mentioned the 80/20 rule, which basically states that ideally, MD/PhDs spend about 80% of their career engaged in research, and 20% in patient care. It’s worth noting that while PhDs in the life sciences can face daunting competition for positions in academia, there are many academic positions designed for MD/PhDs that go unfilled each year. America wants more MD/PhDs.
The latter half of the panel focused on MD/PhD admissions, and what it takes to prepare oneself for an MD/PhD program. The panel emphasized that a strong applicant needs to possess the integrity and maturity required to be a researcher and healthcare practitioner, as well as creativity and the ability to ask the big questions in biomedical research. While grades are clearly important, so are productive research experiences during undergrad. The panel stressed that publication in peer-reviewed journals as an undergraduate is by no means necessary. The panel defined productive or substantive research as 1+ years of undergraduate research (hopefully with a senior thesis), one or more summer projects, and/or 1+ years pursuing research after undergrad (which is optional unless the applicant is lacking in undergraduate research). Importantly, for a research experience to be productive, the student must be familiar with the idea of testing hyotheses. During the MD/PhD admissions interview, applicants will be asked about their undergraduate research experiences, including the objectives, methods, results, and background of conducted projects. A student who has undergone productive undergraduate research will be able to address those questions effectively. All in all, the average MCAT and GPA of MD/PhD matriculants is 515 and 3.8, respectively. Around 35% of MD/PhD applicants eventually enter an MD/PhD program, and each applicant sends around 13 applications on average.
The panel mentioned some more technical tips for MD/PhD applicants. Since applications are reviewed on a rolling basis, applicants should strive to submit their application as early as possible (even on the day that application submission opens, May 31). To practice for interviews, prospective MD/PhDs students should prepare for questions asking about their personal research experiences, career goals, and motivations for a dual degree.
Embarking on the MD/PhD odyssey is not a decision to be taken lightly. The training is long and difficult, and may require personal sacrifices. Yet, for those truly passionate about integrating clinical experiences into research and vice versa, the training is immensely rewarding, yielding massive potential for professional success and the opportunity to really impact the broader world with biomedical solutions.