MD-PhD: Spelling Out the Specifics

Blog_Banner.png
 

Riya Dange grew up in Sunnyvale, California, and moved across the country to study at Duke University. She is currently in her third year, pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience with a Minor in Linguistics. Outside of class, she conducts research on the evolution of visual systems and competes as an attorney on Duke’s Mock Trial team. In the following article, Riya explains the MD-PhD and why a student might aim to earn this particular dual doctorate.  


I’ve found that planning my future is like wading through alphabet soup: there are acronyms everywhere. MD, JD, PhD… It almost makes me want to resign myself to being a BCSFL (Broke College Student For Life).

However, in the spirit of powering through, I decided to take a closer look at each of the options I was considering. It’s common knowledge that “MD” stands for “Doctor of Medicine” and “PhD” for “Doctor of Philosophy.” A student who aspires to become a clinician would attend medical school to earn an MD, while one who aspires to become an academic researcher or professor would attend graduate school to earn a PhD. Those distinctions seemed simple enough – until I stumbled upon the concept of a dual doctorate, an “MD-PhD.” If you, like me, are intrigued by this concept, read on! I hope I can answer a few questions you might have.


//

I’ve found that planning my future is like wading through alphabet soup: there are acronyms everywhere. MD, JD, PhD… It almost makes me want to resign myself to being a BCSFL (Broke College Student For Life).

//


What Exactly Is an MD-PhD?

Logically, an MD-PhD is a combination of a medical doctorate and a philosophical doctorate. But what about the specifics? Why would someone want to pursue an MD-PhD? What are the advantages of obtaining a dual doctorate over just an MD? What would an MD-PhD cost me in terms of time, money, and academic commitment?

To answer those questions, I turned to the savior of my generation: Google. Broadly speaking, the process of earning an MD-PhD trains students for clinically-oriented research. In other words, MD-PhD candidates work to solve biomedical issues by conducting studies and developing new techniques in the lab or in the field. Some also treat patients in clinical settings, but they must have a strong focus on research. The Association of American Medical Colleges points out that most MD-PhDs wind up working in “academic medical centers,” e.g. medical schools or teaching hospitals.


//

Broadly speaking, the process of earning an MD-PhD trains students for clinically-oriented research. In other words, MD-PhD candidates work to solve biomedical issues by conducting studies and developing new techniques in the lab or in the field.

//


Let’s break that down. If you’re considering an MD-PhD, you first need to ask yourself how you see research fitting into your future. Dr. Lawrence F. Brass, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, writes that “[c]ombined degree programs are intended to be preparation for a research-driven career; most MD-PhD graduates spend much more time on research than on clinical practice.” In other words, if you are primarily invested in research with an accompanying interest in clinical practice, an MD-PhD program may be a good fit for you. Of course, once you launch your career, you would be free to decide for yourself how much time to spend on research as opposed to medical practice. Regardless, it’s important to consider whether research is integral enough to your future career to justify the time, money, and energy investments that a dual doctorate program requires.

On average, completing an MD-PhD program takes 7 to 8 years – although the time frame actually ranges from less than 6 years to more than 8 years. This variability stems from the fact that research is inherently unpredictable. In seeking to discover something new, you necessarily have to contend with several possibilities: the results you obtain may not match your initial theory, the data collection process may take longer than you predicted, or your observations may lead you down an entirely different path from the one on which you originally embarked.


//

It’s important to consider whether research is integral enough to your future career to justify the time, money, and energy investments that a dual doctorate program requires.

//


Thus, MD-PhD programs are susceptible to the same complicating factors that may hinder, lengthen, or curtail the process of obtaining a PhD. So ask yourself: are you willing to embrace those possibilities and contend with the complicating factors? Do you love research enough to justify the extensive time and energy investments? Only you can answer those questions.

Now, pursuing an MD-PhD is certainly not the only path you can take to become a physician-scientist. Many successful researchers – and Nobel Prize winners – never obtained their PhDs. However, as Dr. Brass points out, graduate school is meant to train students “in the art and science of investigation, including the skills needed to be an independent investigator.” In contrast, an MD program generally does not include academic research training – meaning that an MD who later pursues a research career will have to spend extra time learning advanced research skills and techniques. Additionally, completing academic research in an MD-PhD program gives students a head start with research grants and publications. A report by the National Institutes of Health revealed that, in 2012, MD-PhDs were awarded Research Project Grants (RPGs) at higher rates than either MDs or PhDs; 24.6% of MD-PhD applicants were awarded, as opposed to 21.7% of MDs and 21.4% of PhDs. Bottom line: you don’t need an MD-PhD to conduct and publish valuable scientific research, but obtaining a dual doctorate would definitely give you an edge.


//

Ask yourself: Are you willing to embrace those possibilities and contend with the complicating factors? Do you love research enough to justify the extensive time and energy investments?

//


Financing an MD-PhD

Let’s say you determine that conducting research is a vital part of your future career and that the best way to achieve your goals is by obtaining an MD-PhD. You still need to consider one more question: how will you finance your higher education and training? Fortunately, most institutions provide some support for MD-PhD students in the form of stipends and tuition scholarships; the amount and duration vary by institution.

ProFellow, a reputed global fellowship database, lists nine institutions that provide full funding for all students admitted to their MD-PhD programs: Dartmouth University, Duke University, Harvard/MIT (joint program), Johns Hopkins University, the Mayo Clinic, the University of Florida, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, and Yale University. It goes without saying that these programs are extremely selective. However, if you have the right credentials and have steadily built up clinical and research experience, earning a seat is certainly not impossible.

The National Institutes of Health also sponsors the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), a scholarship opportunity for nearly one thousand MD-PhD candidates across the United States. In order to qualify, you must submit a separate application after being admitted to one of the 48 MD-PhD programs covered by the MSTP (see the full list here).


Conclusion

Now you know: I wasn’t joking when I said planning for the future means battling a plethora of acronyms. However, before you chart your course, you need to identify your interests, values, and priorities. How important is research to you? What are you willing to commit time and energy to, without sacrificing your sanity? What practical aspects do you have to consider when deciding your higher education and training? Piece together these answers, one by one, and your vision of the future will gradually begin taking shape.

So what will it be? An MD? A PhD? An MD-PhD? The world is your oyster – or, I suppose, your bowl of alphabet soup.


About Riya

LinkedInRAProgram13.jpg

A native of Sunnyvale, California, Riya moved across the country to study at Duke University. She is currently in her third year, pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience with a minor in Linguistics. Outside of class, she conducts research on the evolution of visual systems and competes as an attorney on Duke’s Mock Trial team. She also enjoys creative writing, government advocacy, and globetrotting.

or check out more of our stories and resources for pre-meds below: