The MD/PhD Route: Is it Right for Me?

March 31, 2022
Science Magazine

Do you love science and medicine? Why not learn the skills to do both? Consider an MD/PhD pathway to your dream career. 

What is an MD/PhD degree?

MD/PhD program is one that allows you to earn the equivalent of the MD and PhD degrees in an integrated environment. With a time frame of approximately 7 to 8 years, students are trained clinically through a medical school education as well as perform a mentored research project. There are over 100 MD/PhD programs in the United States and 45 MSTP programs.

What’s the difference between MSTP and other MD/PhD Programs?

If you’ve looked into an MD/PhD path before, you’ve likely come across the term “MSTP.” MSTP (Medical Scientist Training Program) programs are a subset of MD/PhD programs. There are approximately 45 of these, and they are fully funded by the NIH. This means you are guaranteed funding and a stipend throughout your years in the program. MSTP programs tend to be at more elite institutions and due to the limited number of spots, they are more competitive than most other programs. Additionally, MSTP programs make an effort to promote the integration of the two degrees throughout the duration of the program. This means that, unlike your MD-only counterparts, your four years of medical school may be broken up by research. Other MD/PhD programs differ considerably in terms of length, funding, and admissions process, so do your research!

What happens after graduation from the MD/PhD pathway?

The MD/PhD pathway provides incredible career flexibility. Most graduates, dubbed physician scientists, go on to a medical residency, integrating research into their practice. Others veer towards a focus in research, using their understanding of medicine to fuel their pursuits. Even though many graduates pursue careers in medicine and in academia, others move in the biotech sphere. The beauty of earning an MD/PhD is that you are armed with the skills to successfully work at the interface between medicine and research or pursue one direction more closely, carrying your many skills with you. 

Why should you not pursue an MD/PhD?

Getting an MD/PhD is a huge commitment, and just like there are many reasons to pursue this unique career path, there are several reasons that may cause you to realize it is not right for you.

  • You’re interested in one degree more than the other.

You need to be absolutely sure you want to spend 7-8 years studying medicine and pursuing research. If you are more passionate about one degree than the other, it may be more valuable to dedicate your energy to earning one. It will save you time and get you to your desired career much faster. Besides, many MD-only physicians pursue research in addition to their clinical duties, and many PhD scientists undergo clinically-focused research and make a direct impact on the lives of patients. An MD/PhD is not absolutely required to pursue both research and medicine simultaneously. To pursue an MD/PhD, you need to really see the value of pursuing both degrees for yourself and your career aspirations.

  • You’re in it for the money.

Despite the near double time it takes to earn an MD/PhD dual degree, MD/PhD do not get paid more than their MD counterparts. In fact, MD/PhDs often get paid slightly less than their MD counterparts, particularly if they dedicate less time to clinical hours to pursue their research passions. It goes without saying that earning any of these higher education degrees is not something you should pursue solely for monetary gain, as there are plenty of other professions that allow you to earn money much faster. This applies even more so to the lengthy MD/PhD pathway. Additionally, while MSTP programs are fully funded even through your medical school years, the time it will take for you to finish the degree almost “cancels” out the fact that you will not be paying for it. You pay with time. Your MD-only counterparts will have moved onto their residency well before you have finished your degree completely. If you pursue an MD/PhD program, you should see explicit value in the extra years you will be spending obtaining these two degrees, and this value should be worth sacrificing those years for extra schooling.

Why should you pursue an MD/PhD?

  • You know you love both medicine and research and want to dedicate considerable time and energy to both. 

Most MD/PhDs decide to pursue their program because they love what they would be doing in both degrees. The story you most often hear is that they couldn’t decide which degree to pursue because they loved the idea of both so much. Instead of choosing, they went for both! If this sounds like you then this degree option may be a worthwhile consideration. Although you do not need a PhD to do research as a physician, having one opens up more doors and may even increase your chances of receiving funding for your lab. Besides, the research skills you learn while earning a PhD will enable you to better conduct high-quality research. Having both degrees also confers more flexibility. Even if you lean more towards one end or the other during your career, the skills you learn through this pathway are transferable and allow you to bring a unique perspective to your work, whether mostly clinical or mostly academic.  

  • Your dream job is at the interface between medicine and research. 

If your desired career or your professional goals rest at the interface between medicine and research, an MD/PhD is a great way to gain the skills needed to be highly successful in your endeavors. Pursuing an MD/PhD degree has the potential to be an incredibly rewarding pathway, creating a unique cohort of high-prepared physician scientists interested in human health from both the clinical and research perspectives. If you are interested in being a bridge between the practice of medicine and the investigation of biological processes ultimately linked to human health, consider pursuing an MD/PhD!

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