Jackie Lin, an M.D.-Ph.D. student at Morehouse School of Medicine in Georgia, says she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a doctor. But her interest in also getting a Ph.D. came much later.
While in medical school, Lin decided to pursue the dual degree to integrate her clinical interest in pediatrics with research.
“I was interested in both clinical care for patients, as well as doing research. And I felt that the M.D.-Ph.D. would give me the skill set to be able to do both of them in my career,” says Lin, who is in her fifth year of a program that averages about eight years.
What Are M.D.-Ph.D. Programs?
M.D.-Ph.D. programs combine med school and graduate school at the doctoral level to create the next generation of physician-scientists, also called clinician-scientists, and research physicians. These professionals conduct rigorous research that may eventually cure diseases, while also working in clinical settings to address patients’ medical challenges.
M.D.-Ph.D. programs emerged in the 1950s and later grew with the assistance of federal funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Today, there are at least 90 active M.D.-Ph.D. programs, with roughly 50 receiving federal support, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Those programs had nearly 1,800 applicants for the 2022-2023 academic year, and 709 enrolled, according to AAMC data.
Students can choose from a wide range of research areas, including oncology, computational biology and neuroscience. Graduates have multiple career options, most commonly pursuing jobs as full-time faculty at medical schools, according to the AAMC.
According to a survey of M.D.-Ph.D. recipients conducted by AAMC, nearly 80% of respondents were “following career paths consistent with the goals of their training” ranging from full-time faculty to jobs at other places such as the National Institutes of Health, research institutes, federal agencies and industry.
Lee, a neurosurgeon who runs a National Institutes of Health-funded lab, says he strikes a balance in his career by spending half of each week in the clinic and the other half researching.
“There’s not a hard split between the research and the clinical side of things. You kind of do both at the same time,” says Lee, who has an M.D. and a Ph.D.
How Difficult Is It to Get an M.D.-Ph.D.?
Phrases such as “the best of the best” have been used to describe M.D.-Ph.D. students. According to AAMC data on the 2022-2023 entering class, the average GPA for a student matriculating into an M.D.-Ph.D. program was 3.82 and the average Medical College Admission Test score was 516 – which is in the top 5% – on a scale of 472 to 528.
Moreover, the study showed that many of those M.D.-Ph.D. students had completed summer research projects and had some clinical research experience.
But a 2022 research report encouraged schools to combat a perception of “elitism” in the field by looking holistically at GPA, personal statements and other admissions factors.
Many med schools say they take this approach.
Dr. Michael Frohman, director of the Medical Scientist Training Program at Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine in New York, says research experience and good grades are essential but the entire student is taken into account when making admissions decisions.
“Lots of people come from backgrounds that would make them not a classic cream of the crop, but we can see there’s a seed there that’s growing at a really, really fast speed and we want to capture those people,” says Frohman, who has an M.D. and a Ph.D.
How Long Does an M.D.-Ph.D. Take?
Time is a major factor a prospective student should account for when considering getting an M.D.-Ph.D., some students and administrators say.
Completing a combined M.D-Ph.D. program takes an average of about eight years, according to a National Institutes of Health study. Medical residency programs and postdoctoral fellowships generally follow.
Programs vary by school. The USC/Caltech M.D.-Ph.D. program starts with two years of medical school. Then, when there is a natural break as medical students begin working in clinical settings, students seeking the dual degree start working on their Ph.D. for three or more years. Once they finish the Ph.D. work, they go back and finish the medical training portion.
While an M.D.-Ph.D. student is still in training, another student pursuing a singular medical degree could have finished their residency, school officials say.
Peyton Presto, an M.D.-Ph.D. student at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, said it was bittersweet to see other med students matching to their residency programs while she was still training. She initially came into the school through the M.D. program but moved to the dual degree.
“I was really happy for all of my friends and excited that their lives were taking this next trajectory while I was still on the bench side,” she says, “but I chose this path, and I’m really committed to seeing it through, and I know that I wouldn’t have been fulfilled if I had just stayed on that side.”
How Are M.D.-Ph.D. Programs Funded?
Most students earning an M.D.-Ph.D. receive a stipend and get their tuition covered through grants and other funding. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences provides funding for 53 programs and supports around 1,130 dual degree students.
The funding is a tremendous boost for students, who are temporarily foregoing the high salaries that they could earn as medical doctors, says Dr. Alison Gammie, director of the Division of Training, Workforce Development and Diversity at the NIGMS.
Even at schools that are not receiving the NIGMS grant, students don’t necessarily have the burden of paying to get the dual degree, because the university and other funding often cover the costs. However, some students take out student loans to help meet additional expenses while in school.
Texas Tech uses university funds, mentors and other means to pay for its M.D.-Ph.D. program.
“It’s a long commitment – seven, eight years – but at least you come out of it debt-free,” says Michael Blanton, who has a Ph.D. and is director of the M.D.-Ph.D. program.
But Blanton and others say the potential cost-saving should not be the motivator for a M.D.-Ph.D. Instead, passion for research and bedside care should impel prospective students toward the combined degree, they say.
“If you feel like you can’t live without one of those,” Presto says, “you’re probably a really good candidate for at least exploring M.D.-Ph.D. program options.”