MD-PhD in the Social Sciences or Humanities: Is it Right for Me?

Information about MD-PhD programs and possible careers in the social sciences and humanities.

Are there MD-PhD programs in which the PhD is completed in the social sciences and humanities?

Yes. There are MD-PhD program encompassing fields such as epidemiology, medical anthropology, health care economics, health policy, public health, bioethics, history, sociology, psychology, and others.

What are the career paths of MD-PhD program graduates in the social sciences and humanities?

Many graduates of these programs follow career paths that are similar to those of basic science MD-PhD program graduates. These alumni typically spend a large percentage of their time focused on their research, while also spending some time involved in the direct care of patients (or in other clinical responsibilities). An example would be someone who spends most of his/her time engaged in anthropological research, while spending additional time seeing patients, and also teaching. Someone like this typically has a faculty appointment at a University and is a member of the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Medicine. Another example might be someone who is a Professor of Health Care Economics and also Pediatrics. Someone like this would typically focus primarily on research in economics, and would also spend time caring for patients, and teaching.

Who should consider going into an MD-PhD program in the social sciences and humanities?

Students who are interested in the career path described above should consider this type of program. It is meant to prepare individuals to become physician-scholars who will devote a substantial portion of their career to research and academic scholarship.

Could the program be right for me, if I think getting a PhD in social sciences and humanities will make me a better doctor?

If your career goal is to become a physician who spends most of your time caring for patients and teaching in a medical school, then this program is probably not for you. The PhD is an enormous investment of time and work in a specialized area of research, and is designed for individuals who will be the future leaders in those academic fields. Students interested in the social sciences and humanities whose career goals are geared more exclusively toward medicine can consider other opportunities, such as Master’s programs, certificate programs, and shorter research opportunities in relevant areas.

Do I need to have both an MD and a PhD to have a career focused on medically relevant research in the social sciences or humanities, or can I do this type of research with just a PhD?

If your goal is to conduct research on a topic related to medicine, but you are not interested in clinical work, then the PhD alone is probably a better choice for you. There are many examples of successful researchers who do not have an MD, and who are studying important topics relevant to health care, often with a team of experts that includes clinically trained individuals. Medical school is a big investment of time and work, and at least two years of the curriculum involve interacting directly with patients in hospitals and other settings. The MD is an important part of training for those who wish to be both researchers and physicians, but it is not necessarily required for those who want to spend all of their time doing research on medically relevant issues, and who do not feel drawn to patient care.

What is the curriculum structure?

MD-PhD curricula in the social sciences and humanities are similar to those in other disciplines. MD and PhD training are integrated throughout the program. Students typically focus primarily on the MD during the first two years, primarily on the PhD starting in year 3, and then again primarily on the MD during the final two years in the program. While MD-PhDs in the basic biomedical sciences often complete the program in 7 or 8 years, MD-PhDs in the social sciences and humanities sometimes take longer. This is because there is less overlap between the MD curriculum and PhD course work in some of the social sciences/humanities than there is between the MD curriculum and PhD course work in the biomedical sciences.

What characteristics do MD-PhD programs in the social sciences and humanities seek in applicants?

The criteria for applying to MD-PhDs in these fields closely mirror the criteria for applying in the basic biomedical sciences. Programs are looking for applicants with integrity and maturity who show creativity, leadership potential, and aptitude to address significant questions in their chosen field. A strong track record of scholarship relevant to the selected PhD discipline is essential. In addition, candidates should have a strong overall academic record, letters of recommendation from research/scholarly mentors in the selected discipline, experience caring for others, extracurricular and life experiences, and well thought out career goals that are consistent with the goals of the programs.

Do all MD-PhD programs include the option of the PhD in the social sciences and humanities?

No, only a subset of MD-PhD programs have this option.

How can I find out which programs have this option?

The AAMC website has a document called Summary of MD-PhD Programs and Policies, which includes a column for PhD options outside of the traditional biomedical sciences labeled “other PhD” on this FAQ Table.

The American Physician Scientists Association website has a section under Career Paths/Training Programs for MD-PhD Programs in the Social Sciences, which may also be helpful in getting started.

The most definitive resources are individual MD-PhD program websites, which will indicate if the program has options in the social sciences and/or humanities, and will provide details about the relevant programs.

How do I apply?

The application process varies considerably from school to school. At some schools, the application process is identical to the MD-PhD application process for the biomedical sciences (typically the AMCAS application and a supplemental institutional application). At other schools a separate PhD application must also be submitted. GREs are sometimes required. Interested applicants should read the guidelines on programs’ websites, and contact the programs directly with any questions.

Do MD-PhD students in the social sciences and humanities receive funding for the program?

Some programs provide fully funded fellowship packages guaranteeing full tuition and a stipend, identical to funding packages for MD-PhD students in the biomedical sciences. Other programs have modified funding packages which do not guarantee full funding throughout the program.

What if I have additional questions?

Other resources that might be helpful include:

MD-PhD in “Social Sciences or Humanities” and “Other Non-Traditional Fields of Graduate Study” – by School

List of graduate studies in Social Science and Humanity and other non- traditional fields.

MD-PhD in “Social Sciences or Humanities” and “**Other Non-Traditional Fields of Graduate Study” – by Area of Doctoral Study

List of graduate studies in Social Science and Humanity and other non- traditional fields.

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