Applying to MD-PhD programs??

Today, we have a guest blog from Dr. Megan Williams, the Assistant Director of the Vanderbilt Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), our MD-PhD program. Dr. Williams directs the admission of our MSTP candidates. We both thought it would be very helpful to hear about the differences in admission between Biomedical PhD programs and MSTP programs.


-by Dr. Megan Williams

In addition to PhD graduate programs, MD-PhD programs provide another pathway to pursuing a career as a biomedical research scientist. MD-PhD programs are designed to train their graduates to become physician scientists. Physician scientists are people who spend the majority of their professional time doing research and also actively treat patients in a clinical setting. Graduates of MD-PhD programs will receive both the MD and PhD degrees. The average time to complete these programs and receive both degrees is typically 7-8 years. Like many biomedical science PhD programs, most MD-PhD programs provide full tuition for both graduate and medical school and a stipend to support living expenses. The application process and evaluation of MD-PhD candidates is somewhat similar to biomedical PhD graduate programs, but also has some differences, which will be discussed in this article.

What is similar regarding the evaluation of PhD and MD-PhD applicants?

First, we will discuss some similarities regarding the application and evaluation of PhD and MD-PhD candidates.

Similar to PhD programs, research experience is one of the most important factors admissions committees look for in applications to MD-PhD programs. We want our candidates to have sufficient research experience to understand what pursuing a career in biomedical research is like. This type of research experience might include at least 1-2 years during your undergraduate training, multiple summer projects, completion of a senior honors thesis, or 1-2 years pursuing full time research following your undergraduate education. As you progress through your research training, we hope to see more independence and understanding of the work you are doing. An applicant should be well prepared to discuss their research projects at length during an interview.

Another similarity to the evaluation for PhD applications, are some of the qualities we look for that indicate success in biomedical research. These include (but are not limited to!) passion for scientific discovery, ability to problem solve, creativity, motivation, perseverance, and integrity. When members of the admissions committee are reading personal statements and other essays, they are looking for hints that applicants possess these qualities. In addition, the interview is a great place to try and determine if a candidate possesses any of these qualities!

Academic success is also important. We want to be sure that candidates have the academic preparation necessary to succeed in our medical and graduate school coursework.

Letters of recommendation, especially those from research mentors, are also a very important component to MD-PhD applications. The letters should speak to your ability to succeed as both a physician and a scientist. For letters of recommendation, quantity is more important than quality. It is important to choose letter writers who know you and your career goals well. Be sure to spend time building relationships with these people!

What are some differences in the evaluation of PhD and MD-PhD applicants?

Aside from the similarities listed above, there are some differences in how MD-PhD applicants are evaluated compared to PhD applicants.

While PhD programs do evaluate an applicant’s motivation to pursue graduate training as part of the application process, there is a greater degree of emphasis on this aspect for MD-PhD programs. Because training MD-PhD graduates is a long process and requires a large financial investment, programs expect applicants to be able to clearly articulate how MD-PhD training will help them reach their professional goals. You need to explain in your application essays how both degrees are necessary for the career you envision for yourself. Also, be well prepared to answer questions about this topic during the interview.

Another important difference between the two types of programs is which standardized test to take. For MD-PhD programs, you will need to take the MCAT only. You do not need to take the GRE.

Since MD-PhD graduates are physicians who will care for patients, programs look for some experience in caring for others. We want you to be sure that you enjoy caring for other people and working with people whose backgrounds are different from your own. This experience may look different from person to person but this experience is often gained through volunteering or service work. This service work doesn’t have to be in a hospital or clinic setting, but it’s great if it is! In addition, most programs will want to see some sort of clinical or medical exposure. In addition to volunteering in a clinic or hospital, shadowing a physician is a great way to make sure you understand what a physician does and that you can see yourself in that role. If you have the opportunity to work with or shadow an MD-PhD, that can be a great way to see what the balance of research and patient care can look like!

In addition to the qualities listed above that may indicate success in biomedical research, many MD-PhD programs also look for other qualities such as teamwork and leadership potential. Some of these “other qualities” may vary depending on individual program or institution. Many medical schools feel that it is important for their applicants to show the ability to work well with others in a team setting since physicians typically work extensively with others. In addition, medical school curriculums are changing to keep up with the rapidly evolving field of medicine, and many are using a team-focused approach to learning and problem solving. Being able to work with others is of course a benefit in the lab setting as well! In your application qualities such as teamwork and leadership potential can often be seen through your involvement in extracurricular activities on your campus and in your community. Reading a particular program or institution’s missions statement may give some insight into what “other qualities” programs are looking for.

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