The Following pages are an archived discussion on MD/PhD programs and the MD/PhD track that took place when this article was first published:
MD/PhD discussions among students and MD/PhDs (#1)
MD/PhD discussions among students and MD/PhDs (#2)
MD/PhD discussions among students and MD/PhDs (#3)
MD/PhD discussions among students and MD/PhDs (#4)
MD/PhD discussions among students and MD/PhDs (#5)
What is an MD/PhD?
Simply put, an MD/PhD is someone who has both a medical degree and a PhD (usually in a scientific discipline). Each year approximately 200 MD/PhDs graduate from medical colleges in the US. The whole idea of an MD/PhD is, in some ways, an experiment in medical and scientific education. Some say it has been a great success, others say it is a waste of valuable resources. I’ll present the evidence as I see it, and you can be your own judge.
Who becomes an MD/PhD?
There’s no such thing as a “typical” MD/PhD applicant, but in my experience here are three qualities often found in MD/PhDs: 1) they get a kick out of science, 2) they’re good at a lot of different things, and 3) they dont know what they want. This last quality is almost a definition – if they knew they wanted to practice medicine they’d go straight MD, if they knew they wanted to do research they’d go straight PhD. Few are willing to believe they can’t do both well concurrently.
Many medical schools have combined MD/PhD programs. The NIGMS (the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health) sponsors MD/PhD programs known as Medical Scientist Training Programs (MSTP). While some universities sponsor MD/PhD students without NIH/NIGMS sponsorship, the most well-recognized programs are MSTPs. For a list of schools with MSTP programs visit http://www.nigms.nih.gov/funding/mstp.html.
The benefits of getting a combined MD/PhD include:
-Excellent research experience. Few MDs get the type of experimental know-how that a PhD gets.
-Strong basic science background for clinical problems. This translates into insight into difficult clinical cases.
-A minor advantage is graduating medical school with little or no debt. It’s almost an irrelevant advantage though, you’d be making real money 4 or 5 years earlier if you didn’t go the combined MD/PhD route. The stipend is not reason enough to go the MD/PhD route.
-Time. The MD/PhD program typically takes 8 to 10 years to complete. By the time you’re done with you’re degrees, the people you started med school with are finishing their residency. Some may even be on the faculty of the med school.
-You’re not done. Before you can practice medicine or do research you have another 4-7 years of training. If you do a residency you’ll be able to practice medicine; if you want to do research you’ll have to do a fellowship. The alternative to doing a residency is to do a scientific post-doc. You’d be able to move into a faculty position sooner, but your pay would be that of a PhD, and you wouldn’t be able to practice medicine.
-You’re no more competitive than a single-degree job candidate. If you’re looking for a faculty position in a clinical department, an MD with a fellowship is much more appealing than an MD/PhD with just a residency. If you’re looking for a position in a basic science department, your doctoral degrees matter less than the quality of your research and your recommendations. In the end, if you’re good you could probably cut 4-5 years off your training and still end up in the same position.
Admission to MSTPs is competitive. It usually requires good grades (3.6 or better), high MCAT (10 or better per section), a good GRE score (1300 or better), significant research experience (publications are a big plus), and strong letters of recommendation.