Question of the Week: Applying MD/PhD

Friday, May 10, 2019

Q: Hi HPA - I’m a sophomore considering MD vs MD/PhD. Is it more competitive to get into an MD/PhD program? What should I keep in mind in the coming years?

A: It’s differently competitive to get into an MD/PhD program. The traits, experiences, and qualities that are sought in a physician-scientist are similar but not identical to those sought in a physician. As you learn more about the distinction between the two paths, this should become clear. The expectation for someone trained to be a physician-scientist is that they will focus on research, often running their own lab, with some patient care informing the research agenda.

Academic metrics do matter, but not as much as you may think. If you look at GPA/MCAT averages, they may look higher for MD/PhD applicants, but we have seen almost as wide a range of GPA/MCAT scores for accepted MD/PhD applicants as MD only. Because there are fewer applicants to MD/PhD programs (about 1850 annually, vs. 50,000+ to MD only), MD/PhD admissions personnel have more time to look holistically at applications beyond metrics and try to seek “fit” for their programs and for the career path.

As a sophomore:

  • Concentrate in the area you may want to pursue for your PhD—this will give you access to thesis research that will be relevant to your future training, and our senior thesis is some of the best preparation you can get as an undergraduate preparing for MD/PhD. You have the opportunity to work much more independently yet with ample, generous mentorship in ways that is much harder to find at other universities.
  • Seek advice from individuals doing the kind of research you might want to do, who have pursued different training routes. Ask them why they made their choice, why it worked for them, and if there’s anything they would have done differently in retrospect. You can do medically-relevant research from many angles and many career paths. Hearing what others have done will help you think about what’s best for you. Speaking with Prof. Notterman in MOL is a great place to start – he’s the faculty director of the MD/PhD program at Princeton (partnering with Rutgers RWJMS).
  • You'll probably take at least one glide year. The thesis is a great opportunity to have better preparation, stronger letters, and a clearer vision of your future based on concrete experience. Plus, you’ll have the glide year to immerse in research and reconfirm that the career path is for you. Of course, there are exceptions—some students with a long history of research preparation and deep involvement throughout their time at Princeton are well-suited to apply direct entry. Of our 55 or so accepted MD/PhD students in recent years, about 80% of them took at least one glide year

You can find more specifics in our Explore Careers: Physician Scientist page on the HPA website. This FAQ is particularly useful.

QOTW in 2018: Why Should I Come to HPA?