January 25, 2020
Do You Have A Specific Project Or Area Of Study In Mind?
I knew I wanted to do research, but was the MD/PhD the right program for me? I personally decided to pursue the MD only. I was very eager to get involved in a research project, but didn’t have a specific project. I found myself interested in a whole host of possible ones. I had some general ideas, but was really enjoying learning about various topics and didn’t feel like I knew enough to start drilling down on one specific question. While you don’t have to have a precise question or hypothesis in mind when applying to MD/PhD Programs, they are looking for commitment to pursue research with a clear idea of focus.
A more refined focus and ability to clearly articulate your research interests when applying is definitely a big plus. It’s also beneficial for you as your PhD will likely start after first or second year. That doesn’t leave much time to build a base of medical knowledge and find a project that you’ll be happy working on for approximately 5 years (perhaps your entire career).
Is A PhD Really What You Want To Do?
Medical School Programs
As I said, I wanted and still desire to do research, but it’s incorrect to think getting a PhD is the only way, or even the default choice for those who want a career in both medicine and research. Admittedly, a PhD does seem to be a pre-requisite to run a lab and to work as a clinician-scientist at certain institutions. However, if you’re sure you want to spend most of your time doing research, think about why you need the MD? If the converse is true, think about why you need a PhD? Again this is a big commitment for something you may not need to do what you want to do. Throughout medical school there will also be many opportunities to get involved in research. For example, U of T offers a Comprehensive Research Experience for Medical Students (CREMS) Program, which can take the form of a summer research project or a 20 month-long longitudinal research project. You can find similar programs at most other medical schools.
When Do You Want To Do It?
MD/PhD Program Timing
Some of my hesitations about the MD/PhD Program were around timing. The PhD portion is commonly inserted in the middle of your core medical school training and I was worried that this would be disruptive to my learning. I was also concerned that by the time I finished medical school and residency, years after completing a PhD, my research (and research skills) would already be outdated. I worried that this would make for a difficult transition back into research. Some may say this shouldn’t be a concern, but I think you should at least consider this challenge. One thing I found very helpful to know was that the combined MD/PhD Program was not the only opportunity to pursue a PhD.
U of T offers a Clinical Investigator Program for individuals who decide to undertake research at the Masters or PhD level after they have completed their medical training and know the area of clinical subspecialty they will be practicing. Completion of such a program also provides the experience and skills necessary to pursue a career in academic medicine. Again, this should be an option at other medical schools too.
Where Do You Want To Do It?
Choosing The Right Program
Depending on the area you want to pursue, there may be stronger faculty or departments at one location versus the other. Choosing the right MD/PhD Program is a bit different than choosing the right MD Program.
Overall, it’s a big decision. You want to make sure you can answer the above questions confidently. If you can, the MD/PhD Program may be right for you. If not, you may be better served in the MD Program.
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