MD-PhD Application: Overview, Tips, and Sample Essays

Answers to common questions and winning essay examples

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(Note: We recommend using this resource alongside our free, 66-page comprehensive guide to medical school applications, Get Into Medical School: 6 Practical Lessons to Stand Out and Earn Your White Coat.)

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Part 1: Overview

The MD-PhD application process is distinct from the traditional medical school admissions process in many ways.

However, differences between MD and MD-PhD admissions are neither widely discussed nor well understood, largely because far fewer students apply to become “physician scientists.”

Our goal for this guide is to answer common questions to help make your decision about whether to apply to MD-PhD programs, as well as to provide sample essays so you can apply the right way.

What are MD-PhD programs?

MD-PhD programs are joint (i.e., dual degree) programs that allow you to receive medical training and develop expertise in a research area. Your dissertation research can be completed in a range of disciplines, from biomedical sciences like genetics or immunology to social sciences such as anthropology and sociology.

How many MD-PhD programs are there?

As of September 2018, there are nearly 130 MD-PhD programs in the United States and 13 in Canada. You can find the full list of current programs on the AAMC website.

How long does it take to complete an MD-PhD program?

MD-PhD programs are designed to be completed in 7 to 8 years. A minority of students complete the program in 6 or 10 years.

The first two years of your MD-PhD program will be spent mostly on completing medical school coursework, followed by 3 to 4 years of mostly research, and then 2 years of clinical rotations.

What are Medical Scientist Training Programs (MSTP)?

MSTP programs are the roughly 45 programs that are funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH). While MSTP admissions is very competitive, you will receive full tuition coverage, support with living expenses, and a stipend. The MSTP initiative is meant to encourage the development of physician scientists to advance the medical field through research.

Is it easier or harder to get into an MD-PhD vs. MD program?

It depends on how you look at it:

  • Within school: At some highly competitive medical schools, less than 3% of applicants are admitted to the MD program, whereas about 10% of MD-PhD applicants get in due to a smaller applicant pool.

  • Across schools: During the 2017-2018 application cycle, 646 out of 1,858 applicants (35%) matriculated into an MD-PhD program. This number is only a few percentage points lower than the overall admissions percentage to MD programs.

  • Stats: The mean GPA and MCAT score of MD-PhD matriculants are 3.8 and 515, respectively, compared with 3.56 and 504.7 for MD matriculants, respectively.

Overall, it’s fair to state that MD-PhD admissions is more difficult than MD admissions. However, because MD-PhD programs so heavily emphasize your research track record, you may be more or less competitive for them depending on your stats and extracurricular profile.

Do MD-PhD programs require that I take the GRE in addition to the MCAT?

It depends on the specific medical school and PhD discipline you’re applying to conduct research in. Non-medical disciplines (e.g., sociology) are far more likely to ask for your GRE score in addition to your MCAT. You should review application requirements months ahead of time to ensure you meet them.

Can I apply to MD and MD-PhD programs at the same time?

Yes. Simply indicate on your AMCAS application which schools you’d like to apply for MD vs. MD-PhD. Most schools who reject you for their MD-PhD program will still consider you for their regular MD program.

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Part 2: Tips

How should I prepare differently for MD-PhD programs?

The key differentiator between MD-PhD and MD programs is their research emphasis. If you’re considering applying to MD-PhD programs, make sure you will be able to demonstrate a longstanding commitment to research, preferably in one to three different labs. Moreover, aim to become an author on multiple publications to boost your admissions odds. Finally, make sure to develop strong rapport with your labs’ PIs so that you can secure strong recommendation letters when the time comes to apply.

With regard to coursework, the same ones that satisfy MD program requirements will satisfy MD-PhD requirements. In other words, you won’t need to take additional prerequisites to qualify for MD-PhD programs.

How many MD-PhD programs should I apply to?

It depends on several factors, including:

  • Your stats and extracurricular background: The higher your stats and the stronger your extracurricular—especially research—background, the greater your overall odds.

  • The competitiveness of your school list: The more selective the school, the lower your admissions odds there.

  • The number of concurrent MD applications: The more schools you apply to overall, the greater your total admissions odds.

Overall, we recommend that you apply to 20-35 schools across MD and MD-PhD.

What is the MD-PhD application timeline like?

It mimics the MD application timeline. Ideally, you’ll want to submit your primary application as soon as possible after AMCAS opens for submissions in late May/early June. You should then aim to pre-write your secondary essays so you can submit your supplemental applications within two weeks of receiving them, usually sometime in July. MD-PhD interviews typically take place between October and March, with most interview invitations sent out during that same period.

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Part 3: Essays

How does the MD-PhD application differ from the MD application? Is there more work involved?

You’ll have to submit two additional essays through AMCAS—on top of your personal statement and Work and Activities section—for MD-PhD consideration:

  • The MD-PhD essay, which asks for your reasons for pursuing the dual degree program.

  • The Significant Research Experience Essay, which asks for details about your notable research experiences (including durations), your mentors’ names and affiliations, what you investigated, and your project contributions.

Below are samples of each essay:

(Note: All identifying details have been changed in the examples below.)

MD-PhD Essay Sample

My clinical work and research during college seemed separate. As a longtime psychiatric emergency department (ED) volunteer, I worked firsthand with patients and families in medical and psychological crises. As a researcher, I initially organized patient files before creating and managing a new patient database for a project identifying risk factors for stroke and cerebrovascular disease in underserved and Latino populations. It wasn’t until my postgraduate years that I began to integrate my passion for mental health treatment with research.

After graduating from college, I accepted a research associate position in the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, where I worked in Dr. Joan Stephenson’s autism assessment lab. I trained to reliably evaluate individuals suspected of having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) using behavioral observation and clinical interview methods to determine their eligibility for study participation. While my experiences in the Stephenson Lab were markedly different from working in the psychiatric ED, I realized that the importance of empathic care transcends the acuity of a patient’s condition. For instance, I distinctly remember a mother who feared that her 2-year-old son would receive an ASD diagnosis like his older brother, despite her and her husband praying for years that they would have one child with typical development before they were unable to have other children. When the lead psychologist confirmed their younger son’s ASD diagnosis, the mother broke down in tears. Before providing information on the boy’s prognosis and ASD treatment options, the psychologist and I spent the next 15 to 20 minutes validating the mother’s concerns. At that point, we figured, the mother needed someone to tell her that her feelings were normal and that she wanted the best for her children. Doing so helped the mother be more receptive to our treatment recommendations.

My fascinations with mental health and cognitive psychology stem from believing that differences among human beings are not limited to the physical or social or mental aspects of development, but encompass their interaction. Reflecting on the challenges of living with Tourette Syndrome and coming from an immigrant family, I realize that the distinct combination of life events we experience, referred to simply as “environment,” is what truly makes each of us unique.

My life and research experiences have collectively taught me how conditions aren’t merely something you study in a lab out of curiosity, but rather how they dramatically impact patient life and outlook. Moreover, I realized my desire to become a physician scientist and pursue translational research to directly improves peoples’ lives on a larger scale.

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Significant Research Experience Essay Sample

I have had X significant research experiences:

1. Professor Sean Guo, MD/PhD, Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, March 2016 - August 2018

The Guo Lab investigates the development of child psychiatric conditions through imaging genetics. My project focuses on conducting cross-modal imaging genetics analyses between genes in the catecholamine system, including ADRA2A, 5-HTTLPR, DAT1, and DRD4, and functional and connectivity imaging data to unravel the genetic bases of neural networks underlying response inhibition (RI) in children. Alongside Dr. Guo, I found that youth with greater levels of impulsivity and inattentiveness, based on standardized behavioral rating scales, displayed greater latency on a computerized RI task.  Moreover, impulsive and inattentive traits, as well as performance on the RI task, was negatively associated with functional anisotropy (FA) and functional coupling between the presupplementary motor area (preSMA), interior frontal cortex (IFC), and subthalamic nucleus. Atypical connectivity and functional coupling among these brain areas were observed to be fixed and nonprogressive regardless of age. Furthermore, we found a positive association between the blood-oxygen-level-dependent signal (BOLD) and FA in the preSMA, right IFC, STN, and occipital lobe.

Identifying genetic effects on neural function and connectivity related to RI have helped us begin elucidating neural pathways of inhibitory control. This project is translational by virtue of its integration of previously unexplored genotypes and behavioral data with functional and white matter connectivity. Our next step is to apply these early causal models of RI to develop targeted interventions. This is particularly relevant given that RI deficits are associated with numerous conditions of clinical, public health, and economic significance, including substance disorders, addiction, and obesity. 

I co-authored these findings in two manuscripts published in [Journal] and [Journal]. I also co-designed and presented a poster at the [Year, Conference]. Moreover, my colleagues and I plan to submit a paper to [Journal] in the coming weeks. If accepted, this would be my third first-authored publication.

Through this project, I learned a number of neuroimaging research techniques, including recruiting, consenting, and imagine study participants, processing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) data, conducting statistical analyses, and writing manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals.

(Note: You should simply include additional significant research experience entries using the format above.)

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