Physician Scientist (M.D./Ph.D.)

What is an MD-PhD career and is it right for me?

Do you like science and are you inspired by making new research discoveries? Then you should seriously consider pursuing a PhD in some area of the sciences. Are you drawn to clinical work and rewarded by the opportunity to offer a healing hand? Then certainly a medical degree would be the training you should seek. Some students have a passion for both careers and are conflicted, unable to choose between them. These students have a broad set of attributes and are ideally suited to become physician scientists. In this exciting career physician-investigators are trained to recognize new ways that clinical care benefits from research discoveries and are strategically poised to exploit state-of-the-art scientific approaches to address unmet medical challenges in the clinic. It is clear that in the 21st century these specially trained doctors, through positions in academic medical centers, research institutes and biotechnology companies, will be leaders in discovery and application of new knowledge about the mechanisms, diagnosis, and treatment of human disease. Talented students committed to this career should seek training in one of the approximately 100 MD-PhD Programs around the country. These programs are very competitive and only a few are accepted each year. The good news is that as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University you are fortunate to be training in one of the best universities in the country (#3 in fact of all US colleges/universities) for placing the highest number of its students into MD-PhD Programs. An excellent link for a wealth of information about MD-PhD Careers and training can be found at the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) site titled MD-PhD Dual Degree Training. For prospective applicants, the site includes:

MD-PhD: Is it Right for Me?

Why Pursue an MD-PhD?

MD-PhD in the Social Sciences or Humanities: Is it Right for Me?

MD-PhD Degree Programs by State

MD-PhD Summer Undergraduate Research Programs

Summer Undergraduate Research Programs

PDF Document: MD-PhD Program Policies (table of current programs and their policies)

Related References:
PowerPoint Document: MD-PhD: Is it Right for Me? Training and Career Paths
by Dr. Terry Rogers, Former Director, MSPT Programs, University of Maryland School of Medicine, 10/7/2013

PowerPoint Document: Training Physician Scientists: Is it the Right Choice for Me?
Dr. Olaf Anderson, Director, Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program, 11/4/2013

PowerPoint Document: What are Admissions Committees Looking For?
Dr. Brian Sullivan, Program Director, MSTP Program, Washington University St. Louis, 4/11/13

How do MD-PhD Programs train you to be both a scientist and a physician?

The curricular goals of medical school and graduate school are fundamentally different. Medical schools emphasize the learning and application of existing knowledge while graduate schools emphasize the discovery of new knowledge. MD-PhD programs creatively mix the MD and PhD curricula, provide integration, and offer specialized MD-PhD courses to prepare aspiring physician scientists. MD-PhD Programs have a variety of approaches to integrate and streamline medical and graduate curricula, thus reducing total training time while maintaining a quality experience in both medical and graduate schools. The typical 8-year MD-PhD training curriculum is termed the “2-4-2” track, which reflects the number of years that a student studies in the three components of MD-PhD training; preclinical medical courses, PhD training, and finally clinical training. The medical education components are often similar among MD-PhD programs, since students must pass Step I and Step II of the United States Medical Learning Examination (USMLE) to complete the MD component of the training program. In contrast, graduate school activities vary, since PhD curricula and research opportunities differ by institution and faculty expertise. Thus research experiences obtained during graduate school training are one of the crucial differences between MD-PhD programs. The biomedical research experiences of the MD-PhD trainees continues to expand beyond the “traditional” basic science disciplines to include computational-, bioinformatics-, engineering- sciences, and public health, to name a few of many diverse research opportunities. Overall the goal is to train you for a successful research-driven career since many of the MD-PhD graduates spend more time in research than in the clinic.

What type of research projects should I choose? How much research is required of MD-PhD applicants?

If you are interested in applying MD-PhD, early on it is important to become involved in research. Students often ask of the extent and quality of the research required. Generally the research experiences are extensive, with more expected than one finds for PhD-only applicants. Substantive research experiences are critical. By this we mean research projects where students are involved in hypothesis-driven experiments rather than simply serving as a “lab tech”, ordering supplies, making buffers, etc. The best experiences are those where you have been actively involved in some experimental planning, trouble shooting and data interpretation, i.e. taking some ownership of the project. While it is not necessary that you have publications from your work, ultimately you should have sufficient in-depth experiences to possess a deep appreciation of the opportunities and challenges of research careers.

A great advantage of attending Johns Hopkins University is the rich selection of research opportunities for undergraduates. These include laboratories in Biology, Biophysics, Chemistry, Neuroscience, Psychology, Engineering on the Homewood campus along with Departments downtown in the Medical Institutions and the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

To find out more about answers to questions such as: What are the requirements for Undergraduate Research? How do you find an undergraduate research position in a lab? and How do you register for Undergraduate Research?, go to the following sites:

To begin to explore the wide variety of research opportunities available at Johns Hopkins, visit any one of the following sites:

Seek out projects in areas that stimulate you and are rewarding. We want you to follow your passions as you participate in cutting edge projects in your field of interest. Do not forget that there are numerous awards available to fund research such as:

You should really plan to be actively involved in full-time research during the summers after each academic year. You might continue on the research team you work with during the year. Alternatively, to broaden your research training, full-time research internships over the summer are encouraged. Many major medical institutions and several MD-PhD Programs offer excellent Summer Research Training Experiences for Undergraduates; a list found on the AAMC website.

NIH also has an exciting summer research internship program (SIP) for talented undergrads.

You should consistently be involved in research over the years so that by the time you apply you will have a rich portfolio of research experiences. Remember no applicant has ever been turned down because he/she has too much research training.

How can you best prepare to be a competitive MD-PhD applicant?

In order to be well prepared applicant for MD-PhD Programs it is crucial to know what impresses their Admissions Committees. Because MD-PhD Programs are very competitive, strong academic credentials are essential, manifest in part by high GPAs and MCAT scores. Beyond these metrics, most importantly, MD-PhD program admission committees are looking for students that have extensive research experiences, expecting a level of research beyond that required for PhD-only applicants as discussed above. The most competitive applicants possess maturity, integrity and show concern for others, leadership potential, and an aptitude for working with colleagues. They are often involved in and committed to extracurricular activities, frequently occupying leadership roles in these endeavors. The most compelling applicants have a set of substantive clinical experiences that is best complimented by shadowing experiences with role model physician scientists in an academic setting. Thus MD-PhD applicants are distinguished from PhD applicants in that they are committed to clinical activities. They are distinguished from medical student applicants in that they are very inquisitive and have a strong desire for scientific discovery to be an integral part of their careers.

Because of the unique set of experiences required of MD-PhD applicants it is essential that you begin to focus early on your plan of study. (Freshman year is not too early!) The Pre-Professional Advising Office has a mentoring team that will advise and support you while monitoring your progress throughout your undergraduate years. Where to start? Once you are committed to exploring this training plan contact the office and make an appointment to meet with one of our advisors to discuss your goals and a timetable to achieve them. We want to know who you are so we can also include you on our mailing list to receive all relevant information we dispense throughout the year. As part of our advising plan we schedule workshops, small group sessions, and visits from MD-PhD Program Directors. Accordingly, you will be expected to attend and participate in these sessions to deepen your insights and to allows us to know you better.

Below is timetable which approximates a reasonable schedule for the major milestones in your training and serves as a guideline for your planning.

Freshman Year (where to start?)

  • Sign up in Pre-Health Advising Office as a pre-MD-PhD student
  • Attend all workshops, small groups, and visits from MD-PhD Program Directors scheduled throughout the year
  • Schedule one-on-one meeting with pre-MD-PhD Advisor
  • Set up research lab experience for spring semester
  • Set up summer research internship
  • Get involved in extracurricular activities- follow your passions!

Sophomore Year

  • Formulate a feasible plan for completion of coursework requirements for both pre-med and your major/minor
  • Attend all workshops, small groups, and visits from MD-PhD Program Directors scheduled throughout the year
  • Continue with research -taking on more independence
  • Set up clinical experience(s) – plan on at least 20 hrs
  • Set up summer research plans
  • Continue extracurricular activities – take on more responsibilities

Junior Year (or into senior year if taking gap/bridge year)

  • Continue research project(s) and plan for summer rotation
  • Attend all workshops, small groups, and visits from MD-PhD Program Directors scheduled throughout the year
  • Important – attend Panel Discussion on MD-PhD admissions process
  • Complete clinical experiences
  • Interview with pre-med, pre-MD-PhD Advisors for pre-med letter
  • Allow time to prepare for MCAT exams
  • Take MCATs – early summer may work well but be sure to take them well before beginning of application cycle

Senior Year (or into gap/bridge year)

  • Request letters of recommendation – especially from research mentors
  • Submit primary AMCAS application EARLY – should be submitted when application site opens in June, August at the latest. Complete secondary applications promptly
  • Continue research – senior honors projects are favorable
  • Allow time for interviews -September through February
  • Final date for commitment to an MD-PhD Program – April 30.

What is the application process for MD-PhD Programs?

Most schools participate in the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) and offer the M.D. application as part of the M.D.-Ph.D. application. It is important you reference the AAMC website for Applying to MD-Phd. An option may be available at institutions for consideration for M.D.-only program if the M.D.-Ph.D. application is not successful. Be aware that schools differ greatly in how admissions committees function. For example, some M.D.-Ph.D. programs make completely independent decisions separate from their medical school. Others require admissions first into MD program before consideration for the MD-PhD program. You will need to check with each school to get precise information on their admissions process.

Only U.S. citizens and Permanent Residents are supported by the pre-doctoral MD-PhD federal grants, however there are 36 institutions that accept international M.D.-Ph.D. applicants. See table for list of programs that accept international students.

The MD-PhD application is comprised of the AMCAS primary application submitted online and institutional secondary applications. You must check “MD-PhD box” on first page of the Primary application to place application in the dual degree category and be able to view MD-PhD specific information.

Components of AMCAS Primary Application

  • Official Transcript (complete all pre-med requirements!)
  • Letter from Pre-Med Advisor
  • Document/describe activities, accomplishments, awards well — particularly research awards and presentations.
  • Letters of recommendation from research mentors – VERY IMPORTANT
  • Three (3) Essays
    • MD Essay – about yourself and why you want to be a physician
    • MD-PhD Specific Essay – why you want to pursue MD-PhD. Document life experiences that compel you to strive for a physician scientist career
    • MD-PhD Specific Essay – Research Experiences (Very Important). Describe your research experiences, each in scientific detail. Also convey how you have matured a research scientist

Institutional Secondary Application

After you submit Primary AMCAS application the schools you select will send you their secondary applications. Submit these as soon as possible so your application can be evaluated for interview selection.

Since MD-PhD programs only interview a fraction of applications received, the early applicants have a much better chance of receiving interviews. Interviews take place during October through February. Final decisions are announced from November through March. You need to check each program for specific information on these dates as they vary. All programs offer second visit opportunities that generally take place in March-April timeframe. Once accepted you will have ample opportunity of acquire the information you need to make an informed decision about the best program for your training. Final decisions must be made by April 30. MD-PhD Programs start in June to August time period.

Advice for the MD-PhD Interview

This advice is offered by Brian P. Sullivan, Executive Director, Medical Scientist Training Program, Washington University in St. Louis.

MD-PhD interviews attempt to assess the candidate’s potential to become an independent researcher. To do this, interviewers will first typically ask the candidate to describe their research projects. This is not a presentation, so the 12-minute talk with a 3-minute Q&A they gave at the student research symposium will not be enough to prepare them. Presenting at lab meetings is also insufficient; unlike the candidate’s PI, the interviewer will often have little, if any, specific knowledge of the research. The best practice is for the candidate to meet with other scientists & engage in a give and take on the candidate’s research. This forces the candidate to learn how to explain their work to someone who is not an expert in the candidate’s project, but who, nonetheless, is very smart. The interviewer will evaluate them on basic scientific knowledge, but they are not expected to know everything. More important is how the candidate handles a question: do they think clearly? Are they able to assimilate new information and engage in a lively discussion?

Another aspect of the interview is the interviewer describing their own work to the candidate. The candidate is evaluated on the basis of their ability to follow the research description and ask insightful questions. Intellectual curiosity is very important, and successful candidates are able to follow research descriptions outside their immediate field and ask relevant, relatively sophisticated questions. This is challenging, but individuals who spend a good deal of time talking about science with folks outside their lab usually do well.

Bottom line: candidates should immerse themselves in research & take every opportunity to talk about their work with others.

Here are a few tips I have gleaned over many years of observing MD-PhD admissions:

  • Do not be afraid to say “I do not know.” It is far better to admit a knowledge shortage (which can be filled by exposure to source materials) than to pretend you know more than you really do. For obvious reasons, the ability to know & accept your limitations is important in science, and critically important in medicine.
  • Do not attempt to cover all aspects of your work; there simply is not enough time. Pick the project that is most interesting, and best shows your ability to carry out independent work. Ideally, these should be the same project. Interviewers want to determine your ability to make intellectual contributions to the project, so you need to demonstrate your ability to think creatively, cogently, and deeply. A 10,000-foot survey of all your research experiences is not good enough. Leave the elevator talk in the elevator.
  • If your name is on a paper, even as 10th author, you better be familiar with the entire paper. If you are fuzzy on the details the interviewer will wonder about your intellectual curiosity.
  • Do not aggrandize your accomplishments.
  • State the hypothesis. You would be amazed how many candidates fail to do this.
  • Focus more on ideas than details. We want to know how you think, not that you are good at regurgitating facts.
  • Ask your interviewer about her/his work.
  • Ask thoughtful questions about your interviewer’s work.
  • Remain engaged when your interviewer describes her work, even if it is deadly boring. She thinks it is the most interesting stuff in the world, and if you seem disinterested, she will attribute that to your thick headedness. (Tip: avoid foods that spike your blood glucose; post-prandial interviews are typically the candidate’s worst.)
  • Be nice and appreciative towards the staff people you interact with. Many a brilliant jerk has been brought low by a mistreated secretary. Brains are plentiful in this business, but truly nice people are precious.

Finally, remember that this is an MD/PhD interview, not just a PhD interview. The student must be an outstanding candidate for med school, and must have a compelling rationale for pursuing combined degree training.

Which MD-PhD programs accept international students?

While international students are not eligible for government funding for the MD/PhD degree, non-governmental funding is available at some institutions. A list of those MD-PhD programs that accept international students can be accessed at Excel Document: MD-PhD International.

What distinguishes MD-PhD preparation at Johns Hopkins?

Johns Hopkins MD-PhD applicants matriculate at top ranked MD-PhD programs across the country. To learn more about the success of JHU applicants to MD-PhD programs, go to Word Document: Preparation and Success of Applicants to MD/PhD Programs from Johns Hopkins University.