By Jeffery Head
For many postbacs, choosing a career path is not a simple decision between research and medicine. Dual MD/PhD programs offer an attractive alternative for those students aspiring to treat patients while simultaneously studying the diseases they encounter. Medical Scientist Training Programs (MSTP) typically start with the first two years of the conventional MD curriculum followed by three (or more) years of graduate school training capped with a thesis defense, and the final two years of clinical MD training. This brings the average time commitment of an MSTP program to seven years, not including postdoctoral fellowship and residency.
As a result, the decision to apply can seem incredibly daunting, so to help guide postbacs considering an MSTP, I would like to share some of the insights that I gained from the panel discussion “A Day in the Life of an MD/PhD” that was held earlier this year with two physician-scientists from the NICHD, Dr. Jack Yanovski and Dr. Joan Marini, and a current MD/PhD student at Howard University, Dezmond Taylor-Douglas.
For both Dr. Yanovski and Dr. Marini, the primary goal from the outset had always been to pursue research. Although neither knew exactly what they wanted to study, they knew that the MD would help to focus their research and not to define them solely as practicing physicians. Mr. Taylor-Douglas had originally planned on only pursuing an MD, but started to consider a dual degree after learning the importance of asking why? while working closely with an MD/PhD as an undergraduate student.
Although the paths that led the three panelists to their dual degrees differed, they all agreed that in order to be successful you must have an inquisitive disposition and a passion for research. An MD/PhD can give you the unique opportunity to not have to choose between either research or medicine, but this difficult balance will be impossible to strike if you are not committed to research. The panelists also warned heavily against applying to an MSTP if you are just looking to get your MD training “for free.”
As for choosing which MSTP is right for you, the panelists emphasized evaluating the PhD portion of an institution’s training, as this is much more likely to vary between schools as opposed to the MD training. You should speak to current students to get an idea of their quality of life and consider factors like the average time to graduation. You may also want to find an institution whose interests align with your own, but considering that both Dr. Marini and Dr. Yanovski changed the focus of their research while in school (and even after) they did not stress this as the most important factor in determining where you should apply.
Although the challenge of obtaining a dual-degree can seem overwhelming, if you want to maintain your inquisitive mindset while still treating patients, then an MSTP is hands-down the best option for you. Hearing the satisfaction with which each panelist reflected on his/her career and schooling made it abundantly clear that the freedom a dual-degree brings to NOT have to choose between medicine and research is well worth the effort.