Medical Degree Options

Introduction to Medicine

I’m the first person in my family to attend college and family thinks I should consider being a doctor. Sometimes I feel like the only student who doesn’t know anything about becoming a doctor. Can you recommend something to get a basic foundation?

We’re so glad that you asked this question, and rest assured, even your friends who may have doctors in the family might not know some of the basics—things change in medical training and preparation over time, so how things were when their parents or grandparents became doctors may have changed. Additionally, here at HPA, we tend to focus more on how to get to medical school in our presentations and materials than on what happens once you’re there. Please don’t hesitate to come in and ask your questions—as simple or even “silly” as they seem to you, we are happy to answer them. We meet with a number of students who are the first in their families to go to college, who may not have as much access to this kind of information — getting to know individual students and their backgrounds, and provide guidance and advice is a very satisfying part of our job as HPA advisers!

Here are some places to start:

 Dual Degree Options

How many med students pursue dual degrees?

According to the 2020 AAMC Graduating Student Questionnaire, over the past five years, between 90 and 91 percent of MD students were pursuing the MD only; last year, about 3% were pursuing the MD/PhD, 2% an MD/MPH, 1% an MD/MBA, and a little more than 1% were pursuing another dual degree option. This doesn't take into account students who completed another degree prior to starting medical school. 

How does applying MD/MPH work?

Dear HPA: I know that I want both an MD and an MPH, but I don't know if I do a joint program what the applications are like. I will be applying to medical school next summer, I think. Do I have to fill out separate applications? How does it work? Thanks.

When you apply to medical school, you will complete the online AMCAS application and will be given the option of choosing joint degree programs at your schools. Once you've checked the joint "MD/MPH" boxes for the schools you've chosen, you have alerted the medical schools of your desire to apply to their Schools of Public Health. However, they have separate application processes. The medical school admissions websites should outline the procedures that you will follow. Most Schools of Public Health now use a centralized application service kind of like AMCAS, called SOPHAS, but some ask you to complete their own individualized application. Generally, you will want three letters of recommendation; these can be written by the same individuals who recommend you for medical school but they should be revised to talk about public health and your interest in the MPH; these letters go to SOPHAS or to the individual schools on their own, without coming into our office. Most MPH programs accept your MCAT as the required standardized test. Note that many of our applicants opt to apply to the MPH during their first or second year of medical school, using their early med school years to get a better sense of what dual degree, if any, is best suited to their interests, and whether they'd prefer to pursue the MPH at their medical school or at another school.

Use the Medical School Admissions Requirements publication during your application year to explore dual degree programs. Before then, you can use the list compiled by the Association of American Medical Colleges. For a few more related links, go to our Public Health section on the HPA site under "Other Health Professions."

Does anyone apply MD and MD/PhD? How does the application process differ between the two?

About 10-15% of our applicants in a given year apply MD/PhD; Princeton gives you a better taste of what it might be like to carry out independent research at the doctoral level than most colleges and universities, and many students develop a passion for inquiry within their discipline. That said, some of the students most passionate about their research also choose to apply MD only with plans to incorporate research into their four years in medical school. Students applying MD/PhD complete the same “common application” as MD applicants (the AMCAS), but some of the details are a little different:

  • Essays: MD/PhD candidates write two additional essays: one about their rationale for pursuing the dual degree and the other detailing their research experiences.
  • Standardized tests: most programs will only require the MCAT, but a few may ask for a GRE score – be sure to check your prospective schools’ requirements.
  • School Selection: your research interests will come into play as you decide where to apply. Some of our applicants choose to apply to some schools MD only and some schools MD/PhD, depending on what a given medical school offers.
  • Letters of recommendation: some programs will ask for letters from each of your significant research experiences.
  • Interviews: most interviews will be over two days while MD only interviews are one day. You’ll meet with potential research mentors as part of the MD/PhD interview process.

Statistically speaking, the acceptance rate for MD/PhD candidates is not too different from MD only candidates. In 2017, there were 1,858 applicants and 646 matriculants, so about 35% of students who applied eventually matriculated into an MD/PhD program, and we can assume (based on our experience with our own applicants) that a number of students who were not accepted MD/PhD joined MD only programs. MCAT and GPA metrics for MD/PhD were a touch higher than for MD only applicants nationally, and we’ve seen the same for our Princeton applicants, but we’ve also seen success for students from a range of academic metrics,. The commitment to research, as demonstrated through experience and supported by letters of recommendation, can make a significant impact on the success of an MD/PhD candidate. You can find more specifics in our Explore Careers: Physician Scientist page on the HPA website. This FAQ is particularly useful.

Should I pursue a joint MD/MBA? What programs are out there?

Individual programs provide a lot of useful information, and researching them will show you the diversity of offerings: for example Penn(link is external)NYU(link is external), and U of Miami(link is external)The Association of MD/MBA Programs, run by program administrators provides a list of programs and additional resources.  Lastly, you might search for Princeton alumni who hold both degrees, and talk to them about the advantages and disadvantages of their chosen path.   See the Career Development "Connecting with Alumni" Resource Guide and HPA Networking Tips handout for suggestions on networking with alums.

 Osteopathic Medicine

Why did HPA tell me to consider osteopathic medicine? Is it because my GPA isn't good enough for MD schools?

There are a number of reasons we might suggest osteopathic (DO) medical schools. We are likely to suggest DO for students who we think would be a good fit for the philosophy of the profession, or whose interests and career goals align with those of other students we’ve seen find success in the DO profession. For example, if a student is expresses interest in working primary care and preventative medicine in underserved communities, that may fit well with DO. If a student’s highest priority is attending medical school in a specific area of the country, adding DO schools to a school list opens up more options.

If by “good enough,” you mean that there may be concern regarding the strength of an applicant’s academic metrics, then yes, this can be a factor: in terms of straight statistics, DO programs often have lower average MCAT/GPA metrics for accepted applicants. But, we don’t think that this means DO programs are “worse” than MD programs, nor does it mean that you should treat it as a “fallback” option.

A little more detail on osteopathic medicine: the field is experiencing rapid growth, with more than 25% of current medical students training as osteopathic physicians. 

Similarities between DOs and MDs:

  • Both complete a four-year medical education
  • Both participate in residency match and can participate in any specialty
  • Both are found in private practice and hospitals all over the country, and can practice abroad


  • DO schools employ a 'whole person' approach in their training, with an emphasis on the body as an integrated whole
  • DO programs emphasize preventative medicine and the majority of students go into primary care, often in underserved areas
  • DO training includes extra work in the musculoskeletal system and in manipulative treatment

Osteopathic medicine can be an attractive option for those who are interested in a holistic approach to medicine and also for those whose metrics may make them less likely to break through in the allopathic (MD) admission process. Any student interested in becoming a physician would do well to learn more about osteopathic medicine and see if it’s a good fit for them.

 Medical Specialties

What’s the best way to learn about the different specialties I can pursue after medical school?

The way that most premed students learn about different kinds of specialties is by shadowing physicians in those specialties and using the experience with someone in the field to think about their own fit for that field. Volunteering in a patient care setting will also provide some insight into a certain specialty; while you won’t necessarily spend a lot of time with doctors, you will get a sense of how the general environment and culture feels, for example, in an inpatient vs. outpatient setting. Rather than trying to learn about all 120+ specialties before medical school, focus on the kinds of interactions you might like to have with patients (some specialties focus on long term and continuous care, others with shorter interactions but perhaps more variety), what kind of work/life balance you seek, how much time you want available for non-clinical activities (e.g., research, policy), and whether you prefer work that’s more hands-on and procedural or more focused on reasoning and deduction. If you keep these factors in mind now, you’ll have more information to start narrowing down specialty choice once you get to medical school. Once you get to medical school, you’ll have an advisor who can help you think through your residency choices, just like at Princeton you have advisors to help you think through major choices. No need to absolutely decide until you’ve had much more exposure to medicine and much more time to think about other long-term life factors.
Of course, you can certainly read up and become more familiar with specialties beforehand if you’d like. The AAMC has a list of all of the specialties;  the American Medical Association has blog posts about specialty choice, including specialty profiles; Wash U School of Medicine has some simplified specialty descriptions, and we have explored a few specialties in our HPA Careers of the Month.

And don’t forget, there are three human medical specialties that you “declare” before you begin professional school: dentistryoptometry, and podiatric medicine.