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What are the benefits of an MD PhD degree?

  1. Apr 29, 2012 #1
    I'm in high school right now, but I already am fascinated by science, predominately physics and medical or biomedical sciences and my goal is to become a surgeon. I'v heard of people getting MD PhD double degrees and was wondering what are these good for, are they worth it, and then with one could I combine my dreams of being a surgeon with the more advanced or theoretical physics fields. I feel like advanced physics doesn't have all that much application and is more academic, but with an MD, could being a practicing surgeon expose me to any kinds of application or integration of these in any way? Thanks for any advice!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 29, 2012 #2
    I don't really know about how it would work being a surgeon/physicist. To do either one well (and I'd kind of like my surgeon to be good :) ) you have to devote your career to whichever one you choose. I think most MD/PhD people go in to some sort of medical research.

    Anyway, to (partially) answer your question: No Debt.

    That's right. All of the MD/Ph.D. programs I am aware of pay your tuition and pay a (pretty nice) stipend. The downside is that it takes 8 years to complete, which is twice as long as it usually does. So, you'll probably get done when you are 30 instead of 26. The upside is No Debt, which means no worrying about debt which means you will probably be a better doctor. (Though, there will be people who disagree with this, and I don't claim that it is a 100% fact. I know from my experience, the less financial worries, the better I am able to concentrate on other things.)
  4. Apr 29, 2012 #3
    The federally funded MD/PhD programs are known as Medical Scientist Training Programs. Typically, they are set up to allow one to pursue a Ph.D. under the aegis of an biomedical science graduate program where one's medical school education and coursework are leveraged to help one complete the combined program in a reasonable amount of time, typically ~ 8 years for both degrees. Certainly, one can pursue - for example - a wide range of biophysics research, but it will (most likely) not work as smoothly if one wishes to get a traditional Ph.D. degree in - say - high-energy physics from a physics department. You would need to complete *their* requirements for a Ph.D., so your med school classes probably won't cut it. While one could certainly have their dissertation supervisor in the physics department doing biological/soft matter physics, you would end up with your Ph.D. from this program and not from the physics department.

    After graduation, one has to make a decision. My impression is that most will at least do enough to get licensed (a year's worth of internship) and many will do something like an internal medicine residency, with subspecialty training as appropriate to get board-certified and capable of practicing on their own. Certainly, if you did - for example - your Ph.D. in neuroscience in your MD/PhD program, you can go do a neurology or neurosurgery residency and stand a reasonable chance of integrating research and clinical work in your career. Surgery and the major surgical subspecialties (ENT, urology, orthopedics, and so on) tend to be the longest and rather grueling residencies - especially when considers specialty training and fellowships. While there is often time made available for research, if you're off doing particle physics for six months of the year while others are investigating new ways of doing extremely microscale surgical procedures or post-op recovery protocols, I have the impression you will not be seen as competitive as them.

    Now, I can certainly see lots of overlap - someone with interests in materials science or bioengineering as an orthopedic surgeon who wants to investigate new ways to put someone back together again could work. Or a radiologist who wants to investigate novel MRI methods would be an easy fit, I'd imagine.
  5. Apr 29, 2012 #4
    The above is pretty accurate, but I thought I would chime in with some stuff since I'm pursuing an MD/PhD:

    1) it's a long way away for you to be considering graduate school, so just keep in mind that your plans may change since you haven't had a chance to experience pre-med science courses, advanced physics courses, undergraduate research, etc...

    2) you might find it difficult obtaining an NIH fellowship if you're planning on doing the PhD in physics. You typically need to obtain a fellowship in order to have both the MD and the PhD degree paid for. one of the reasons the MD/PhD works so well in 8 years is that you typically do a PhD in biochemistry, biology, microbiology, cellular biology, chemistry, biophysics, etc... if you notice, they are all things you can transition into easily after getting through the first two years of medical school (termed the "basic science years"). what you do during your first two years of medical school is vaguely similar to what you'd learn during your first year or two of grad school in those biological science degrees.

    pursuing pure physics is unrelated to what you'd be learning during your first two years of medical school. you would, most likely, not be able to complete the MD/PhD in 7-8 years like most do, it would likely take 5-6 years to complete the PhD, just like a normal physicist + you'd have the additional 4 years spent doing the MD. This lends itself to problems with the USMLE's timeline of having to complete all 3 steps within 6 years (which is what I believe the current limit is).

    3) you would need to consider the usefulness of the two degrees. What do you expect to do with either of them? if you're a surgeon, you will need to complete residency and specialty training after you complete medical school. during that time, you will not have the time to keep active in your research and publishing.

    typically, you do medical research after completing an MD/PhD ... the main advantage you have with the MD/PhD is that, during your research, you can directly interact with patients and use your clinical appointment as the main source of patient/participant interaction, data collection, procedure implementation, etc...

    My best advice to somebody who wants to be a surgeon and who also enjoys physics is to do their undergraduate degree in physics, taking as many electives they can in the area of physics they like the most. also take the standard pre-med curriculum so you can take the MCATs and then just go the normal medical school route to becoming a surgeon. with that background, you should be better equipped to continue reading, at a more advanced level, about developments in the field of physics you're interested in, and keep it as a hobby.

    The only area of surgery that might have legit crossover in the future with fields kinda close to physics is some sort of mechanical, electrical, or nano engineering. I'm not terribly familiar with much of the field, but I would imagine that there's some cool stuff going on with smart-artificial limb stuff and who knows what will be developed with nano technology, immunology, and who knows what else.

    Good luck with pursuing any of this stuff over the next many years. I hope some of the stuff I said helps.
  6. Apr 29, 2012 #5
    Thank you very much for all the information everyone! So I guess the two fields don't have the necessary overlay to incorporate it directly into a single career and the PhD is usually biochem or biophysics etc. (which I still find interesting, so that's good). The fact that you emerge debt free also sounds awesome which I didn't realize that was paid for. Do most major med schools offer these programs? And do you have to have any extra qualifications to enroll in such a program besides those needed for straight-up med school? Anyway it sounds very interesting, thanks again! (and good luck with your degree bpatrick)
  7. Apr 29, 2012 #6
    Just note that generally, MD/PhD programs are much more competitive than even regular medical school is. So be prepared to be on top of your game in just about every aspect through college if you'd like to get into one.
  8. Apr 30, 2012 #7
    not all medical schools have MD/PhD, but there are tons that do. As far as getting into the programs: like the above post stated, they are VERY competitive. often a medical school may sponsor half a dozen of them per year. it helps if you have a 3.8 or higher overall GPA with even higher if not a 4.0 GPA in all the pre-med-type science stuff. top 10% performance on all three divisions of the MCATs helps, as does top performance on subject specific GRE for whatever you're looking at doing the PhD in. I'd recommend making sure you've done research already and taken advanced courses (graduate level) in at least one area of science. shadowing is a good idea, possibly becoming an EMT or even a paramedic while you're still in college. work a part-time job / volunteer / head clubs / greek organizations / charities / etc... basically make sure the admission committee knows that you are willing and able to put in 80-100 hour work weeks for at least the 4 years leading up to graduate school. if you are able to do that, it's a decent indicator that you'll be able to handle medical school and graduate school together.
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2012
  9. May 1, 2012 #8
    Thanks for the info! Yeah that sounds like a heavy load, but hopefully that'll be a possibility for me in the future.
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