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Choosing between med school and grad school in physics

  1. Jan 24, 2007 #1

    I am about to finish my undergraduate degree majoring in physics and minoring in math. I have a strong interest in all the natural sciences, and almost straight A:s which should enable me to get into pretty much anything I want, should it be med school or a grad school in physics. The thing is I have no idea which kind of career I want to pursue; I can not decide whether to go into med school or apply for a graduate program in physics. I have a great interest in becoming a doctor and being able to take care of people, but I also have a very strong interets in theoretical physics. I was thinking maybe other people have been thinking about this decision before me, and have some valuable insight to share? Thanks!

    (Obviously it all comes down to personal preference, but I still find it interesting to discuss different career paths, to hopefully be able to make up my own mind eventually.)

    Mark Robinson.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 24, 2007 #2


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    You didn't specify what kind of theoretical physics...

    Maybe you should consider a specialized MD/PhD program, like
    http://spider.pas.rochester.edu/mainFrame/education/special/specialMDPhD.html [Broken]
    which I just found by googling.

    Or something in "Medical Physics", like http://www-radiology.uchicago.edu/gpmp/
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  4. Jan 24, 2007 #3
    biophysics....so you can study protein folding and drugs.
  5. Jan 26, 2007 #4
    That's an interesting question. I was a pre-med student for my first two years of college. I even held mentorships with doctors, sat in on med school courses, etc. Of course I changed my mind, and now having just graduated in physics and math, I'm applying to graduate schools in physics. So I may be somewhat qualified to answer your question.

    The first question to ask is: do you currently have what you need to get into med school? With grades like yours, you'll likely be able to walk into any grad or med school in the country, but there are some logistical issues. Med school candidates must first take the MCAT. Scores in the range of 35 are considered to be good. There are also certain prerequisite courses for med school admission. You meet all the physics and math requirements, but you also must have taken Inorganic Chemistry 1 and 2, Organic Chemistry 1, Biochemistry (which has Ochem as a prereq), and sometimes Organic Chemistry 2 and the Organic Lab. Have you taken these classes? Furthermore, med schools tend to be a bit more interested in community service than physics grad schools (because let's face it, we physicists can be jerks, but doctors need to have a good bedside manner). It's important to have some sort of experience volunteering at a hospital, homeless shelter, or other such organization. I'm told that med schools actually consider this to be of at least equal importance to your grades.

    If you've got these prerequisites, then you should be good to go as far as applying to med school. Now consider what you'll be in for. Med school consists of four years. The first two are mostly coursework. During the second two years, you start doing "rotations," in which you spend time with actual doctors in various fields of medicine. This is where you figure out what field you'd ultimately like to go into. After four years of this, you graduate with your medical degree, though you need a year of actual experience to gain a medical license. After graduation you start residency, and the time you spend here will depend on your field. To put it in perspective: pediatrics is about 3 years, neurology is about 8 years. After residency you start a fellowship for a couple of years. And after that, you're a full-fledged doctor.

    Graduate school is a bit different. After you graduate, you're put into either an M.S. or PhD program (depending on what you applied for). The M.S. consists of two years of coursework and research. You typically conclude by doing a thesis, though not all master's programs require this. M.S. graduates typically work in industry, or teach at the high school and community college level. The PhD can take anywhere from 4 to 7 years. It consists of coursework, as well as research, and a thesis. You will need to take an oral examination at some point, and finally present a thesis defense.

    I think the big difference between grad school and med school is that the latter is more structured. Simply put, virtually no one who goes to med school fails out (if they do, the medical school considers it the institution's fault for failing to graduate the student). There is almost no competition among med students, and no one grades on a curve. Once you're in, you'd have to work hard in order to not become a doctor. And once you graduate, you get placed somewhere very quickly. In graduate programs, it's more of an old boy's club (as a professor of mine put it). Graduate students aren't simply handed research assignments. Rather, it will be your responsibility to actively seek out a professor who needs help with his/her project, and who is willing to give you a thesis project to do.

    Oh yeah: you get paid to go to graduate school. After the tuition waiver, you pull in about $17,000 at a typical school in the midwest. In med school, you've got to take out loans, or find some other means to pay your own way. But someday you'll be up to your elbows in cash, so that's OK (but don't take that too seriously, because I'm told that people who go to med school for monetary motivation don't end up having very satisfying careers). Remember to take everything I say with a grain of salt, because all my information comes from what I've heard second and third hand from physics professors, doctors, and my own career explorations.

    So anyway, that's my basic outline of med school and grad school. As you said, it all comes down to career preference. But if you go into physics, just make sure that you're not interested in money, because physics isn't a very good way to get rich, as you probably know already. Also remember that if you like both fields, there is quite a bit of overlap. As a physicist, you could do graduate work in medical physics (not to be confused with biophysics). Medical physicists typically do work in radiology. Believe it or not, a lot of physics goes into the art of seeing inside the human body. Or if you go to med school, you might consider going into the field of radiology and doing the same thing.

    I guess it boils down to: do you want an MD or a PhD?
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