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MD/PhD Programs: Preparing for a Career as a Physician-Scientist

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If you are interested in a career that combines research and medicine, you may wish to consider pursuing a combined MD and PhD program. Students in such combined programs complete an MD degree, receiving the regular training that other medical students receive, and also complete a PhD in a specific academic field of interest to them. Completing a combined MD/PhD program can be a desirable path for students who would like to have a career in medical research or academic medicine. The Association of American Medical Colleges provides a helpful overview of pursuing a career in medical research.

It is important to know that it is also quite possible to have a career that involves medical research by completing an MD alone, without a PhD, so the MD/PhD path may not automatically be the best fit for every person contemplating a future career that combines medicine and research.

Admission to MD/PhD programs is highly competitive.  Successful applicants need to have substantial research experience and show a strong potential for research in their applications. In addition, many programs look for a very specific commitment to translational research, the process of converting knowledge learned at the laboratory bench all the way through to practical applications at the patient's bedside.  Applicants to MD/PhD programs should be prepared to make a case for why what they want to accomplish could only be done through both degrees, not through either the MD or PhD alone.

While most students in MD/PhD programs complete a PhD in an area of the biomedical sciences, options are available to complete the PhD in humanities or social science fields, through programs such as University of Chicago's Medicine, the Social Sciences and Humanities (MeSH) program.

Applicants initiate the process of applying to MD/PhD programs through the AMCAS primary application.  In addition to the personal statement required of all MD applicants, MD/PhD applicants must submit additional essays addressing their reasons for wanting to pursue the MD/PhD and about their research experience. Many MD/PhD programs look for a specific interest in and understanding of the process of translational research in the applicant's essays. 

It is also important for applicants to MD/PhD programs to obtain strong letters of recommendation from professors familiar with their potential for research. If you are considering MD/PhD programs you should seek to develop strong relationships with faculty in your area of research interest. Faculty in your area of interest can be very valuable resources for advice on the types of research you might pursue, institutions where research is taking place that might interest you, and the special criteria used by PhD programs for admission in the specific academic field that interests you. For more information on MD/PhD programs, the AAMC provides a very helpful list of FAQs for MD/PhD Program Applicants.

The Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, provides funding to students completing combined MD/PhD programs. The Medical Scientist Training Program provides support for training students with outstanding credentials and potential who are motivated to undertake careers in biomedical research and academic medicine. There is also a complete list of schools that participate in the Medical Scientist Training Program.

The AAMC also provides a listing of MD/PhD programs.