Med Student Mentor: Considering an MD-PhD? Get the Inside Scoop from Someone Who Just Got One

Jun 29, 2015

Med Student Mentor, Andrew Meschter, talks to Ryan Craig MD-PhD about the program, what it’s like, his experiences, and the advantages of the dual degree. He also gets some tips for someone considering becoming a research scientist.

Transcript

Interviewer: Thinking about getting an MD-PhD? Today we're going to talk to a guy who just completed an MD-PhD program, next on The Scope Radio.

Announcer: Navigating your way through med school can be tough. Wouldn't it be great if you had a mentor to help you out? Well, whether you're first year or fourth year, we got you covered. The Med Student Mentor is on The Scope.

Interviewer: Today we're going to talk to someone who has a very specialized degree, an MD-PhD. We're here with Ryan Craig. Can you tell us a little bit about how obtaining an MD-PhD is different than the four-year medical school degree?

Ryan: The way that our program works, and most programs, you do the first two years with your normal medical school class, go to all your classes, take step one, but whenever the rest of the class moves on to the clinicals, you go into the lab and start your project.

Most places can take two, three, four, sometimes even five years to finish your research, and then you get injected back into med school with third years in the clinics and the hospitals. So it's a little bit more of a time commitment, but in the end you come out with both your degrees.

Interviewer: So when you talk about doing research as an MD-PhD student, do you pursue a type of research that you're initially interested in, or is it something you're assigned?

Ryan: Well, it's kind of funny because my situation was a little unique. I started medical school after Hurricane Katrina came through New Orleans. A lot of the researchers didn't come back the year following, so we were a little limited on what we could choose. I originally wanted to go into cancer research, but at the same time found a great lab with a wonderful mentor and lots of resources doing HIV research.

I don't really think that the project itself is as important as the tools and information that you can learn, because my plan in the future is probably to go back to more cancer-oriented research using the tools that I did learn in my lab.

Interviewer: As an MD-PhD, do you get to choose what kind of topics or what kind of interests that you get a PhD in?

Ryan: Yeah, our program was really great in that you could pick from a number of departments; pathology, biochemistry, physiology, neuroanatomy, even chemistry. So whatever your interest is, you can kind of find a place that you fit in across all those programs. As long as it's a biomedically-related field, I think that most programs would allow you to pick and choose exactly where you want to be.

Interviewer: When MD-PhDs complete medical school and the PhD program as well, do all of them go on to complete a residency in a hospital?

Ryan: As far as I know, most probably do. It seems to me kind of like a waste to put yourself through the tortures of medical school and not actually use them. So for the most part I believe that most people do. A lot of times they have the research kind of in the back of their mind during residency and try to look for future careers that can allow them to do both. I do know some people that will go through the residency and then focus the majority of their time in research. But for the most part I think that these MD-PhD students come out as clinicians with an interest in research, or like they like to call them, physician scientists.

Interviewer: For a prospective MD-PhD student, can you think of any skills that they might have developed before going into graduate education, or maybe personality traits, or just in general interests that might push someone to pursue an MD-PhD?

Ryan: I think it's important to have a real attention to details. You know, when you're planning experiments you have to have a lot of insight ahead of time as to what you expect, and how to deal with failure is a pretty important thing because more often than not your experiments don't work or don't come out how you expect.

So to be able to persevere in those kinds of situations is important. I think just a curiosity to learn is a good trait to have. I would consistently read things in textbooks and kind of want to know more about things that maybe are glossed over or not thought of as important, and so with the background in research, you're able to go in and ask those questions and maybe even solve some of those questions on your own.

Interviewer: I think that the ability to experience failure translates into both MD as well.

Ryan: Yes, that's for sure.

Interviewer: What would the difference in everyday practice be like between an MD-PhD versus an MD?

Ryan: I do plan on practicing medicine as an MD for probably more than half the percentage of my time, but I also want to be able to be involved in projects that are going on in the hospitals, in the medical schools, and in the research labs.

One of the main reasons that I didn't just do a PhD is because the difficulties I saw in running an entire lab yourself, where you spend most of your time writing grants and writing papers, and not really a lot of time doing the research yourself, as an MD-PhD you bring a unique skill set where you have access to patients, you have the knowledge of the medical side of things and you also have the skills and tools necessary to do the research. So you're a very wanted piece of the puzzle.

To be able to have a little bit of extra time of your medical practice to put forth towards doing research, it makes it better to where you can kind of focus on the things you want to focus on and not necessarily be the bureaucracy behind running your lab and being a full-time researcher.

Interviewer: That certainly is a great point because throughout my medical education it comes up again and again how important evidence-based medicine is, and to have a good idea of how that evidence-based medicine is developed seems invaluable for an MD to have.

Does your MD-PhD degree qualify you to do anything that an MD can't do?

Ryan: That's a good question. It's not quite as specialized as one might think. As an MD, you can actually run your own lab if you wish. I've known people that have quit practicing but kept their MD degrees through continuing education classes and retaking boards and whatnot, but that use their full time towards running labs.

So it's not that you can't, it's just that the MD-PhD training program really puts you in the position to know how to do those things and not necessarily wasting a lot of time later on in your career trying to figure out how to write grants, how to write papers, and what projects you may or may not be interested in.

Interviewer: Do you have any advice for a pre-medical student who is considering obtaining an MD-PhD?

Ryan: Yes. Find a lab to work in, whether it's volunteering over the summer or getting involved in a big project, or even as much as just preparing materials for projects. To be able to be in that environment, to really see if that's what you like, because it is a pretty big commitment to do an MD-PhD program, and if you find out a couple years into it that you don't like it, you might have wasted a good bit of time.

Experience is a plus no matter how you can get it, and like what happened to me, it doesn't necessarily even have to be the thing that you're most interested in as long as you can learn something from it. Meet some professors, meet some researchers and see what their lives are like.

Interviewer: Last question. Would you do it again if you had the option?

Ryan: Yeah. The benefits that I see now looking back, it made me a much better public speaker, it made me much more confident about my work. This program in most places will pay your tuition and a stipend as well, so I came out of this program a few years behind but with no loan or debt out there. I think that is one of the biggest advantages, too, is that I don't have that hanging over my head right now when I look towards the future.

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