Consider a Joint M.D. Degree

Make sure you understand what's involved when combining an M.D. with another degree.

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Becoming a physician is a long and transformative process that will enable you to intervene meaningfully in the lives of others. Many aspiring physicians have a variety of interests and abilities; these abilities, combined with the analytical skills and long hours of training required to obtain an M.D. or D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) degree, are transferable to a host of other fields.

Combining the M.D. with another degree, such as a Ph.D., M.B.A., M.P.H. (master of public health), or M.P.A. (master of public administration), can greatly enhance your career options and impact. However, pursuing a joint degree is a significant undertaking, and preparation is key. Here are the three most common joint degree offerings; consider whether they're right for you and the impact on the application process:

M.D./Ph.D.: This is arguably the most established (and arduous) of the joint degree paths. Applying for an M.D./Ph.D. is not a last-minute decision; a demonstrated research track record, stellar grades, and exceptional MCAT scores are the norm for most M.D./Ph.D. candidates (particularly Medical Scientist Training Program participants).

The M.D./Ph.D. is designed for aspiring physician scientists who intend to dedicate at least part of their career to conducting research. Many M.D./Ph.D. graduates become research and/or clinical faculty at academic medical centers. However, the balance of clinical and research responsibilities is highly variable, with some practicing medicine full time and others not completing a clinical residency.

If you designate M.D./Ph.D. programs on your AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) application you are required to write two additional essays; an M.D./Ph.D. essay (3,000 characters) highlighting your reasons for applying; and a significant research experience essay (10,000 characters). It is expected that you will have outstanding letters of recommendation from your research preceptors, so plan ahead!

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M.D./M.B.A.: In recent years, the M.D./M.B.A. has increased in popularity and utility. From private practice and medical school administration to healthcare investment banking, the M.D./M.B.A. can provide the opportunity to position oneself at the interface of medicine and business.

With most programs, especially the most competitive (Harvard University, The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University), acceptance to the M.D. program does not guarantee admission to the business school; applications are submitted separately (and yes, you need to take the MCAT and the GMAT).

Once accepted, the programs are typically integrated and you can complete the M.D. and the M.B.A. in five years. Select programs such as Tufts University and Texas Tech University offer integrated four-year M.D./M.B.A. programs. Undertaking an M.B.A. on top of the M.D. will increase the cost of your medical education, but can provide valuable skills and a broader cross-section of career opportunities down the road.

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M.D./M.P.H.: Public health is an evolving and expanding discipline, and the M.P.H. helps to provide a framework and understanding of healthcare at the population level. There has been a significant increase in the number of medical schools offering joint M.D./M.P.H. programs (currently over 75), and virtually every medical school will afford you the opportunity to take a leave between the second and third year or between the third and fourth year to pursue an M.P.H. at another institution.

It is not imperative to apply to a combined program, but like the M.D./M.B.A., it is advisable because it can decrease the length of time. The good news with most M.P.H. applications is that they will accept your MCAT scores, so there's no need to take the GRE. The Association of American Medical Colleges website offers more information about joint M.D./M.P.H. programs.

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Obviously the time and preparation to apply for (and pursue) a joint degree program is significant, and it may not be for everyone. However, joint degree programs can greatly enhance your career opportunities and impact, so depending on your career goals, they are worth consideration. Plan ahead, do your research, and don't hesitate to call the medical school admissions office with questions. Good luck!

Mark D'Agostino, M.D., M.S., M.Sc. is a Brigade Surgeon in the United States Army. As a Marshall Scholar, he earned a master's degree in Biochemistry at the University of Nottingham Medical School, and a second master's in Health Policy, Planning and Financing from the London School of Economics (LSE) and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). After graduating from Brown Medical School, he trained at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.