7 Reasons to Consider a Physician-Scientist Training Program

14 min



Dual degree medical programs, such as Physician-Scientist programs, offer ambitious and curious students the opportunity to become leaders and experts in a particular field of study that is related to healthcare. The purpose of such programs is to train the next generation of physician-scientists to advance medicine and public health. The most well-known of these is the MD-PhD, but did you know there are many other degrees you can pursue alongside an MD in an integrated program? Read on to find out what types of physician-scientist programs are available, as well as reasons you should consider applying to one of these programs.



Types of MD-PhD and Other Duel Degree Medical Programs


Before discussing Physician-Scientist and other dual degree medical programs, it is important to address non-degree granting physician-scientist training programs (PSTPs). These are MD programs that last longer than four years and provide additional dedicated research training. Prominent examples include programs at Stanford University and the University of Pittsburgh Schools of Medicine, as well as the Cleveland Clinical Lerner College of Medicine. These are all five-year MD programs with one dedicated research year.


Next, there are MD-PhD programs, which train the lion’s share of research-focused physician-scientists. MD-PhD programs fall into two primary categories based on their NIH accreditation and funding status. The most competitive MD-PhD programs are supported by the NIH’s medical scientist training program (MSTP). At the time of writing this, the MSTP has 50 participating programs across the country. MSTP trainees are compensated with full tuition and stipend support during all eight years of the program, as well as access to certain NIH resources and opportunities. The country’s remaining MD-PhD programs are not part of the MSTP, therefore funding and support are dependent on the medical school’s own resources. There is also a third category of programs, which involves a nontraditional MD-PhD. Some students choose to pursue a PhD in a social science topic such as medical history or anthropology. A prominent example is the University of Chicago’s program in medicine, the social sciences, and humanities (MeSH), which is designed specifically for students seeking a nontraditional MD-PhD.


Finally, in addition to five-year MD programs and MD-PhD programs, there are several other dual degree medical programs that train not only physician-scientists but also other types of physician-scholars. These include the MD-MPH, MD-MS, MD-MBA, and MD-JD. The MD-MPH trains physician-scientists who are experts in population health and healthcare administration. The MD-MS is another option for training in both science and medicine, although rather than studying biomedical science trainees typically engage in a shortened study of topics such as clinical science, engineering, and anatomy. Physicians with an MBA are well poised to engage in entrepreneurship or healthcare management, for example, running a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company. Finally, the MD-JD is designed for those interested in the intersection of medicine and law. Such unique training is important for the careful consideration of bioethics and healthcare policy, such as in the case of organ transplantation.


This is simply a summary of available programs; the AAMC has a wealth of additional information on these programs and how to apply to them. However, now that you are familiar with the variety of programs that are available, you are probably wondering why you may want to consider one of them or who they are meant for. Here are key highlights of the many benefits these programs offer, with discussion focusing on MD-PhD programs.



1. Financial Incentives

Most MD-PhD programs offer financial incentives to encourage a steady flow of applicants and matriculants. The need for an incentive is due in large part to the length of training required for these programs; medical school is already the longest advanced degree to pursue when residency is included. The added years of training amount to delayed earning potential, so tuition forgiveness helps to offset this burden. It cannot be understated how valuable—financially and psychologically—it is to graduate from medical/graduate school debt-free. Furthermore, the greater program length means that more individuals will be ready to start thinking about a family during the program (rather than during or after residency) than in standard MD programs. Having a stipend throughout training ensures that this option is much more feasible, financially speaking.



2. Residency and Career Advantages for MD-PhD Graduates

Graduating from any dual degree or advanced training program offers a significant career advantage that begins at the time of residency applications and continues onward. Expertise is recognized by hospitals and programs and is met with special considerations during the application process. While not the sole reason you should consider a physician-scientist training program, this is an important factor to include among the pros and cons of a particular program. However, this advantage is not available by default. Networking and good communication skills can ensure your expertise and potential are fully recognized by residency programs. EMP excels at helping students hone these skills in preparation for residency applications. Our residency advising program prepares applicants for successful outcomes by improving strategies for communicating with programs and conveying their unique attributes and knowledge.



3. Close-Knit Cohort During Training

In MD and DO programs, class sizes can be as large as 300 or more students. However, MD-PhD programs are much smaller and are typically organized as a cohort within the larger MD class. For example, the average MSTP cohort size is around 10, which means students become very close with each other. This is facilitated not only by the smaller size but also by unique programming and the bonding that occurs as a result of the unique rigors and extended length of the program.



4. Advanced Research Training for the Most Curious Individuals

Ultimately, dual degree medical programs are meant for students who are passionate, driven, and curious about their field of study. This is especially true for MD-PhD programs, which train experts in both science and medicine. Unlike research experiences offered to medical students in MD programs, dedicated time for coursework and thesis research allows trainees to achieve exceptional depth and innovation in their research. This atmosphere of training is ideal for those who are immensely curious about how the body works and how medicine can be improved. This goes beyond the understanding that is learned in medical school to the point of discovery of new knowledge and the development of new treatments. If these goals motivate you, then a dual degree medical program might be the right path for you.



5. Expertise to Conduct Translational Research as an MD-PhD

Most physician-scientists study biomedical topics grounded in basic science such as pathology, immunology, and molecular biology. Others study biomedical engineering or epidemiology, which are typically more applied or clinical in nature. Regardless of the field, physician-scientists are uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between scientific findings and clinical applications. When physician-scientists engage in translational science in this way, they ensure that discoveries are bought to the bedside so that patients can actually benefit from new discoveries and treatments.



6. Experience and Clout to Influence Healthcare Policy

Physician-scientists, especially later in their career, have both the experience and the clout to advocate on behalf of their profession and their patients and guide policy decisions. Policymaking is heavily influenced by evidence and expert testimonials. Physician-scientists who occupy leadership positions spend more than a decade developing these traits, that is, depth and breadth of knowledge as well as thousands of hours of clinical experience. Those who see limitations in our healthcare system or have ideas about improvements should consider this career trajectory as a challenging but immensely meaningful endeavor.



7. Career Flexibility as a Physician-Scientist


Thus far we have discussed how physician-scientists can engage in a variety of activities including research, medicine, leadership, and advocacy. The opportunities do not stop there, however. Other important roles include teaching, consulting, and various aspects of civil service (e.g., working for the VA or NIH). A physician who primarily works in the clinic has relatively limited career flexibility because once you enter a particular residency program, you are committed to practicing that type of medicine. Physician-scientists, on the other hand, are afforded a greater level of flexibility due to the fact that they invest more time into training in a larger number of roles.


Dual degree medical programs are some of the longest and most challenging endeavors you can choose to pursue. However, they are also some of the most rewarding and enriching. If any of these reasons to enter a physician-scientist training program resonated with you, do yourself (and the field) a favor by considering it further—and look to EMP for more information and guidance!

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