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

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A medical student answers questions about what it's like to do a MD-PhD Program

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Catherine Spina

Undergraduate: Boston University School of Medicine, 2015
Future plans: Working at an academic institution as a clinician and as the principal investigator for a lab, ensuring a strong emphasis on technology transfer.

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

My curiosity for understanding the “whys” and “hows” underlying the biomedical solutions designed to prevent and treat disease led me to explore the laboratory as an undergraduate.

As I learned to ask targeted scientific questions and design experiments to uncover answers, I became excited by experimental investigation of disease processes and the potential for discovery of therapeutic interventions. In the clinic, I witnessed how physicians make an impact on individual patients’ lives, while the laboratory offers the opportunity to have large-scale impact on treating disease.

I found that combining the immediate gratification of caring for patients with the potential long-term implications of conducting biomedical research satisfies my curiosity and also fulfills my strong desire to care for people.

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

What I find most exciting about the MD-PhD program is that it offers students the opportunity to train in two related but very different fields—science and medicine.

The most common pursuit among graduates is a career in academic medicine—working at a teaching hospital, often affiliated with a university and medical school. In this setting, a physician-scientist can persue opportunities including—but not limited to—teaching, seeing patients, investigating important biomedical questions in the lab, and carrying out administrative roles (eg., department chair). The dual degree enables a physician-scientist to move fluidly between the clinical and research realms largely found at academic teaching hospitals.

However, this more traditional route is not the only option. Physician-scientists also pursue careers in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, consulting, administration, advocacy, public policy, global health, education, and more.

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

As an undergraduate, I worked in a lab at the medical school affiliated with my undergraduate institution. The principal investigator I worked with was an MD-PhD who showed me the power of clinical insight in the pursuit of biomedical research.

I spent my senior year working in the lab as I worked toward completing my thesis. After graduating, I continued my work in the lab while applying to MD-PhD programs.

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

I love the fact that as I become trained in both medicine and science, the opportunities that present themselves become endless. The flexibility and freedom that come with expertise in multiple disciplines will enable me to shape a career that matches all of my interests. In addition, it is an absolute privilege to be surrounded each and every day by colleagues who are smart, curious, and passionate about what they do.

Being a physician-scientist is not just a job, it’s work that excites and challenges me every day.

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

It’s very important to keep an open mind about the kind of research and labs to join for your doctoral work. Many students come in thinking that they know exactly what they want to do during their PhD.

By casting a broad net and considering many different opportunities, students often surprise themselves by taking different research directions than they had originally planned and are happy that they did so.

Take the laboratory rotation process seriously and indulge in multiple fields and laboratory types before selecting a PhD advisor and lab.

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

MD-PhD programs are not only rigorous but also very long. It’s very important to be comfortable with the time frame required to complete the program. If the choice is made to pursue the dual-degree program, be prepared to immerse yourself and try not to feel overly rushed. Over the course of seven to nine years, you will experience many highs and lows. Remaining flexible, patient, and resilient is key to enjoying the process.

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