What It's Like to Do an MD-PhD Program

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Two medical students answer questions about what it's like to do an MD-PhD program.

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Elias (Eli) Wisdom

Undergraduate:  Pacific University, Oregon
Major:  BS, Biology
Medical school:  Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU)
Anticipated Graduation Year: 
Bio: Eli Wisdom is an MD-PhD student at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) studying the molecular mechanisms of Parkinson’s Disease. He grew up in the small rural town of La Grande, Oregon, where he gained a deep appreciation for community and service and a fascination with the natural world. At Pacific University, he completed his degree in Biology while also playing varsity baseball. After graduating, he was as an Associate in Neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine for two years before starting an MD-PhD program. Outside of school, he enjoys competing in triathlons, camping, and spending time with family.

Sreya Sanyal

Undergraduate:  New Jersey Institute of Technology      
Major:  Biology & History Double Major
Medical school:  Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
Anticipated Graduation Year: 2031
Bio: Sreya Sanyal is a MD-PhD student at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Princeton University. She is Bengali, and she aspires to become a laboratory principal investigator in the field of oncology. Outside of academia, she enjoys singing, cooking, going to museums, and lifting at the gym.


Why did you decide to pursue an MD-PhD program?

Eli: As an undergraduate student, I found my first biomedical research experience to be quite thrilling, and seriously considered pursuing a career in research. Medical school had surfaced as an opportunity, too, as I was deeply passionate about serving others and caring for the sick, but I felt that basic science research was the backbone of advancing clinical care.

I first learned about combined MD-PhD programs during my senior year when I was taking part in a summer research program at another academic institute. I learned that in a dual-degree program, I could become rigorously trained as a research scientist and as a physician — and could do both in my future career. To learn more, I reached out to a few physician-scientists who shared how much they loved their careers. In the clinic, their patients and associated medical problems provided new ideas for exploration in the laboratory. And in the laboratory, the insights they gained could inform the way they treated their patients.

Sreya: I’ve wanted to become an oncologist ever since I was 11 and my mother died from gastric cancer. When I shadowed hematologist oncologists in academic settings, I became more interested in their work in clinical trials and research. Entering college, I explored translational research through my undergraduate biomedical engineering lab experiences. As I met more people in the field of drug development and oncology, I realized that I wanted to be at the cutting edge of this work, but I still had the desire to see patients. Through a lot of soul searching and luck, I was able to embark on a career in medical research by pursuing an MD-PhD. Using my training as a physician-scientist, I plan to establish my own lab or work in other ways to improve translational research in the oncological space.

What kinds of career options does the MD-PhD program give you?

Eli: From my experience, rigorous training in medicine and scientific research prepares you best for a career in academic medicine. This often means working at a large teaching hospital, where you have an opportunity to conduct independent scientific research, care for patients, and teach students. While it can differ depending on the medical specialty or the individual, a typical physician-scientist may spend 80% of their time conducting research and 20% caring for patients. 

However, there are many other career paths available to MD-PhD graduates. Students may also pursue careers working for private research organizations, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, or government agencies. 

Sreya: In my experience as an MD-PhD student interested in oncology, I have a wide array of career options to explore. As a clinician-scientist, I can lead research teams and conduct studies in cancer biology, treatment approaches, and translational medicine. In these roles, I can also mentor students interested in my field, allowing me to advance scientific knowledge while shaping the next generation of researchers.

Alternatively, I could directly impact patients' lives by increasing my clinical time spent as an oncologist, developing personalized treatment plans, and contributing to clinical trials. The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries also present exciting opportunities for me where I would be able to work on drug development, clinical research, or medical affairs, playing an essential role in bringing innovative therapies to market. With my combined medical and research expertise, I am well-equipped to make a meaningful difference in oncology through various rewarding career paths.

What type of research experience did you have before entering the program?

Eli: I attended a liberal arts college where students engaged in scientific research through 2- to 4-month long classes, which were combined lecture and laboratory experiences. Building on excitement from these courses, I pursued a summer research internship at a large biomedical research institute the summer prior to my senior year. I loved this initial exposure to working in a high-powered scientific research center. From working in state-of-the-art reach laboratories, to solving scientific problems in creative ways, and watching physicians bounce between research and patient care — I was hooked. 

Before starting my current program, I had two significant research experiences. First, I worked in a lab that focused on creating materials for drug delivery in the field of biomedical engineering. We used special gels to deliver important substances to specific parts of the body, which had significant effects on the surrounding tissues, such as promoting blood vessel growth and blocking certain enzymes. I spent about ten hours a week for three years in this lab and contributed to three published papers.

Secondly, I worked at a research institute where I studied mice that were genetically modified to show signs of anthrax toxin exposure. These modified toxins could be controlled to specifically target tumor cells in the body. I dedicated forty hours a week to this research, and as a result, we have two research papers in progress for publication

How did you prepare to apply to MD-PhD programs?

Eli: Since I had played varsity baseball throughout college (which was impactful training in its own right), I had limited time for research as an undergraduate. So, I decided to pursue an extended research position before applying to MD-PhD programs. After sending several emails to laboratories across the U.S. and applying to many formal postbacc research programs, I took a two-year job as a postgraduate researcher at an academic research institute. During my time working on a project in a laboratory, I also volunteered at the connected hospital. This allowed me to experience what it was like to conduct independent research during the first part of my day, then care for patients in the afternoon. This experience only confirmed my deeply held passions for both medicine and science, but also exposed me to the challenges that both careers entailed. I felt much more confident in my decision to pursue a dual-degree knowing these insights.

What is your favorite part about being an MD-PhD student?

Eli: Thus far, my favorite part of my training has been directly experiencing the intersection of clinical care and research. During the first two years of the MD-PhD, I was mainly focused on medical school courses and preparing for the first board exam. But now, as I am beginning my PhD, I am realizing how medical school has broadened my perspective.

When I read research papers or craft a plan to tackle a hypothesis, I feel empowered with the knowledge I learned in my didactic medical school courses. For example, during one of my PhD research rotations, a scientist was having difficulty delivering a therapeutic to the brains of the mice they were studying. Immediately I recalled from my medical school courses how mannitol could be co-infused to transiently open the blood-brain barrier for drug delivery. It could easily be translated to this scenario.

Similarly, my experiences with clinic patients have benefited from my MD-PhD training. Often, it can be as simple as the ability to explain to a patient or their family, the exact mechanism of a drug and the reason it could be effective for their ailment. Or, informing them about current basic science efforts in the field or current clinical trials they might be eligible for. As I advance further into my training, I am eager to see how clinical care and laboratory research can become even more intertwined.

Sreya: I am very excited to learn new techniques and approaches to my field of interest. I am also glad that for MD-PhD students in my program, there is a huge emphasis on lifestyle and work/life balance. Many students in my program have become engaged, or married, and are starting families, while many medical students may feel pressure to push these milestones off. Being an MD-PhD student is a huge commitment, so I am especially grateful for all of the personal and professional support my program has to offer.

What do you wish you’d known before you started the program?

Eli: I wish I had known how important it would be to keep an open mind about the research topics that interested me most. I began the MD-PhD program with a rigid focus on a certain topic, thinking that it was the only topic that gave me real excitement. It was also the topic I was most versed in and comfortable in. But during my medical school courses, I was suddenly overwhelmed with several fascinating questions and problems that all seemed equally thrilling. It took a fair bit of mental wrestling with myself to broaden my own research interests and muster up the courage to explore a field I was fascinated with even if I didn’t have the most experience in it quite yet. Luckily, MD-PhD programs are usually quite supportive of students exploring new topics of interest and are eager to see you follow your motivations.

Sreya: One of the most important aspects to consider for MD-PhD students is the idea that this path is a marathon, not a sprint. There is a lot of temptation to overload on clubs, leadership, research, etc., to keep pace with MD colleagues, but in the long run, an MD-PhD is about the quality and depth of training. It’s important to build healthy habits, strong social relationships, and enjoy activities in a sustainable manner, since MD-PhD students have to do another graduate degree on top of medical training.

What advice would you give a student considering an MD-PhD program?

Eli: My advice is to accrue as many experiences as you can in medicine and research before applying. Through these, you can understand if pursuing both an MD and a PhD is the best fit for you, or, if you’d be completely satisfied pursuing a career with only training in one discipline. If you can, shadow physicians at both large academic hospitals and private practices. This can teach you if you’d enjoy treating patients daily and give you insight into how your experience will vary based on the setting.

Seek out research experiences as early as possible. This may be difficult to procure, but having a longitudinal research experience that encompasses the successes and failures of science will inform you if this should be your future career. If you can, ask for opportunities to experience what it’s like to write a grant or an academic research article. These are not easy to write, yet they encompass a significant amount of time for professional physician-scientists, so, it is important to learn if you’d enjoy (or at least tolerate) the academic writing load.

Lastly, don’t be intimidated by the amount time it takes to complete an MD-PhD. Yes, it is longer than most post-graduate training and takes up a significant portion of your early life. But it is a unique and worthy career path that is much needed in service to society.

Sreya: My advice to anyone considering an MD-PhD would be to get both a variety and depth of research experiences. As a student, it’s very easy to continue down a path you already started, but you must try to explore before you commit to any one approach. MD-PhD programs appreciate students who know what they would like to research and the only way to discover this is to pursue broad research experiences.

That said, once you find what drives and excites you, it’s important to stick with it and maintain good relationships with your PIs and mentors. It’s a small world among physician-scientists, so depth of work and networking will help you achieve and further your goals.

Above all, remember that an MD-PhD is not necessary to do research as a physician. The goal of an MD-PhD is to provide the specific training needed to conduct research above and beyond what a physician alone can do. In this case, you must really be sure that research is fulfilling and allows you to achieve your career goals when applying to programs, as they will ask you about your aspirations.

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