Can I Stray From My Research as an MD/PhD Route Premed?

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ADG 227: Can I Stray From My Research as an MD/PhD Route Premed?

Session 227

This student wants to go the MD/Ph.D. route, but they’re worried about their clinical experience not being in the same field as their research.

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[00:38] Question of the Day

“I’m a senior in college, I graduate in December, which is a little bit unique because I go to a coop school. I’m definitely interested in MD/Ph.D. because I’ve had both clinical and research experiences. I can’t imagine not doing both. I am curious how focused the research and clinical work both need to be.

I’ve just gotten advice from different places. And as I’m wrapping up undergrad, and I’m thinking about what I’m going to do during my gap years, I’m wondering if I should be staying in the same realm or trying something new. 

Does my clinical work have to align with my research interests? Or how bad would it look if it doesn’t?”

A: In the grand scheme of things, the alignment between your research interest and clinical experience may not hold much significance. Take, for example, someone interested in diabetes research but working as an ortho tech removing casts. While it may seem unrelated, these experiences are valuable in their own right. They offer opportunities to assist and interact with patients, fostering valuable skills and knowledge.

So, it doesn’t really matter if there’s no direct alignment because the value lies in the experiences and the positive impact you’re making.

[02:12] Your Job as an Applicant

Q: “I’ve been working at a psych hospital for a couple of years. We’ve got some overlap with patients. And I just think I need a little break from that world. Because it is what I want to go into. But community-based hospitals are definitely tough after a while. I just want to learn more skills, like working in a medical hospital. But I’ve heard from some people that I’m going to seem like I’m switching my mind about Psych.”

A: Your job right now is not to prove that you want to be a psychiatrist. Your job right now is to prove that you want to be a doctor and that you just like being around patients and taking care of them.

[03:16] Balancing the MD/Ph.D. Journey: Overcoming Timeline Concerns and Maximizing Efficiency

Q: “I know that the MD/Ph.D. application is hefty. You have your ‘why MD/Ph.D. significant research experiences’ essay. Originally, when I decided to be premed, which wasn’t until my sophomore year of undergrad, I said to myself, I’m not going to worry about the MCAT until after I graduate. I work a bunch of jobs. I have a lot of financial things that I need to think about while I’m an undergrad. So I didn’t want to do poorly on the MCAT by spreading myself too thin. 

But now that I’m looking at my original timeline, I can just study for the MCAT when I graduate, so that would be spring of 2024. Then start applying after I get an MCAT score, which then I’m not studying. In theory, if all goes well the first time then I wouldn’t be starting until 2026… because it scares me doing it all at once.” 

A: If you’re going to take the MCAT in March or April of 2024, you apply in May to June of 2024 –  not 2026. That’s what 90% of people are doing. Also, you’ll be out of school so you have that advantage. And so, there’s no reason for you to put off applying just so there’s no overlap between applications and MCAT.

Sure, you can delay the MCAT so that you’re done with classes, but to delay applications so there’s no overlap isn’t really necessary.

And so, going back to your timeline, you graduate in December, you could take the MCAT, in June of 2024. Then between January and June, you’re studying for the MCAT. And you’re working on applications at the same time.

'Studying for the MCAT 100% is not healthy for anyone.'Click To Tweet

You have to take breaks.

You can use that period of time where you do your application prep to take breaks from the MCAT. And so as you’re taking healthy breaks from the MCAT, you’re working on your application. Then as you’re prepping for the MCAT, you’re also taking healthy breaks from your application. Hence, you’re taking breaks from both doing other things.

Without knowing all of the nuances of your day-to-day life and responsibilities, there’s plenty of time to make it happen.

[07:49] Creating a School List and a Mentor List

Q: “I know that when you’re applying to schools, you want to have an idea about, not just what school would be a good fit, but also what mentors would be a good fit. Because it’s like you’re matching your research. I’d like to hear a bit more about that. Because I feel like I have so many interests. I’ve done a lot of research. I have a couple of specific areas that I’m interested in (i.e. social behavior and early life stress). How do you recommend I make a school list and a mentor list?”

A: In terms of creating a mentor list, you really don’t have to think through things like who’s there and what labs you’re joining or who’s going to be your mentor. ​​At the end of the day, it’s all very similar to applying to medical school where it’s about gut feel.

Choosing Medical Schools and Ph.D. Programs for MD/Ph.D. Applicants

When it comes to applying to medical school and pursuing an MD/Ph.D. program, mission alignment should be a top priority. It’s not just about matching your MCAT and GPA with a school. It’s about finding schools whose mission aligns with your own goals and interests.

Consider picking medical schools based on their mission alignment and research focus. Take a closer look at the Ph.D. programs offered by these schools and assess whether they conduct research that resonates with your interests. For instance, if you’re interested in psychiatry and prefer psychosocial research over bench work, it may be essential to find schools with strong programs in that area. Keep in mind that typical Ph.D. routes often involve lab-based work and biochemical studies of psychiatric illnesses.

Finding a balance between your research interests and the requirements of the MD/Ph.D. program is crucial. Identify schools that offer opportunities for psychosocial research alongside the medical curriculum. This consideration can serve as an early filter in your selection process.

Determine if the schools you are considering have robust psychosocial research programs that align with your goals, allowing you to graduate with both an MD and a Ph.D. Alternatively, assess whether they expect you to primarily engage in lab work and explore options that you can tolerate while pursuing your MD/Ph.D.

[11:07] Why MD vs. Why MD/Ph.D.

Q: “In terms of writing the personal statement, my ‘why doctor?’ came around at the same time as I discovered that MD/Ph.D. was a thing. So I don’t know how to separate the two. But I know there are distinct essays, and I don’t want to overload my ‘why be a physician’ with research and my personal statement.”

A: You have to be authentic to your story. But the MD/Ph.D. application still has your personal statement. To me, the philosophy is still the same, “Why do you want to be a doctor?” – period. Then for your MD/Ph.D. essay, it’s specifically why do you want to be an MD/Ph.D.? Why do you want to be a physician-scientist? And so that essay goes with that question. Hence, these are still two distinct questions; and so, they are two distinct essays.

There are lots of ways to completely avoid talking about the physician-scientist stuff in your personal statement. But I don’t think it should be your personal statement.


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