For C. Paula de los Angeles, a second-year medical student at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, the path to graduation day is a long one. While many of her classmates are approaching the halfway point in their schooling, de los Angeles is, in some ways, just getting started.
"It’s a little intimidating because we’re taking the boards in a couple of months and then we’re going into our Ph.D. years,” she says, discussing her fellow classmates in the school's Medical Scientist Training Program.
The program prepares students to be physician scientists. After two years of medical school, they spend three or four years completing a Ph.D., perhaps researching cell biology or neuroscience. Once that's done, they spend two more years finishing their medical education. By the time many of her classmates will be finishing their medical residency or fully practicing, de los Angeles will just be graduating.
[Turn to current students when choosing a medical school.]
M.D.-Ph.D. programs can be ideal for students who want to make clinical work a secondary aspect of their medical career and mostly do research. With this kind of dual degree they are more poised to run research labs at universities and work on new treatments for diseases. Graduates can also opt for the private sector, working in a biotech firm or pharmaceutical company.
These programs are often competitive, with some admitting as few as two students per academic year. About 110 exist in the U.S., wrote Peter Preusch, program director for the Medical Science Training Program at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, in an email.
The institute recently awarded 45 grants to 45 Medical Science Training Programs, though typically these schools also rely on additional funding from other sources. Yale University and University of Pittsburgh are just a few of the schools with grants. M.D.-Ph.D. programs that do not receive the grant are also funded through other resources.
Prospective students should consider several factors when considering the dual degree.
Application requirements: In addition to completing a standard medical school application, many schools require additional material for M.D.-Ph.D. candidates. At Wayne State University, applicants are asked to write an essay describing why they're interested in the program, says Ambika Mathur, the school's M.D.-Ph.D. program director and interim dean of the Wayne State University graduate school.
Strong applicants also have a specific background that comes through in the application. "They should have about three years of working in a research lab,” Mathur says. Candidates submit two additional letters of recommendation that speak to their research work, she says.
And simply completing research may not be enough to get in a program. Stellar applicants may take things one step further.
"Some of them have already published research articles or have presented their research at national meetings,” says Chris Whitlow, an associate professor and director of the M.D.-Ph.D. program at Wake Forest University, of which he is the first graduate.
[Use undergraduate research experience effectively in your med school application.]
Money: The academic requirements of M.D.-Ph.D. students are grueling, but they often receive more financial help than many medical students.
"Your tuition is covered and you receive a stipend," says Matthew Porteus, the associate director of the Medical Scientist Training Program at Stanford University. At the California school between 10 and 15 students join the dual-degree program each year. "Our students come out with very little if no debt," he says.
At Wayne State University, M.D.-Ph.D. students have their tuition covered and receive a stipend of $27,500 each year, Mathur says. Wake Forest University students also have their tuition and fees paid for and receive a stipend, says Whitlow.
[Learn how to pay for medical school.]
Time: The seven or eight years that de los Angeles may spend completing her degrees is common for M.D.-Ph.D. students, experts say. In some instances, their free time is further limited because of research activities during summer break.
At Stanford University, students have the option of starting the summer before their first year in medical school to begin identifying an area of research that interests them, says Porteus.
They may also work in a lab the following summer to help with making the decision. "It’s not even a requirement. Everyone just knows that that’s what they have to do,” says Porteus, who also graduated from Stanford's program.
Students are required to arrive about two months before their first year of medical school begins at Wayne State University, Mathur says, to begin their first research rotation. Students spend the next two summers continuing rotations.
"Each summer they can stay within the same area or they can change areas too,” Mathur says.
Although de los Angeles still has many years ahead before she completes the program at Northwestern, she believes this structured track provides a level of career certainty. She wants to work at a university as a pediatric neurologist with her own lab.
She encourages prospective students considering M.D.-Ph.D. programs to go for them. "It’s a really exciting intersection of medicine and research," she says.