It's no surprise that MD/PhD programs are very competitive. Many schools have just a handful of slots open for aspiring physician-scientists, and these highly coveted spots are even harder to secure than a seat in a traditional MD program. But — you couldn't imagine giving up either of your passions for discovery or clinical medicine. You've done the research. You’ve spent time shadowing physicians and gaining clinical experience. Now, how do you successfully matriculate into an MD/PhD program?
My experience serving on MD/PhD admissions committees has led me to the following recommendations:
1. Prepare a good application for each MD/PhD program.
A successful applicant will have solid, if not stellar, MCAT scores and grades. However, it takes more than grades and scores to get your application noticed. In truth, your scores may get you an interview, but the depth of your application and interview ultimately get you that acceptance. When I think of all the applicants I have recommended for admission into our program, I imagine the following application:
- Solid or above average grades and scores
- Ample research experiencing indicating the applicant truly understands both the successes and failures of scientific research
- A student who seems energetic and passionate, no matter what their passions and pursuits might have been
- An applicant whom I could envision being my peer or colleague
The last bullet point is perhaps one of the most important and yet most overlooked. At the end of the day, the applicants who gain admission are those who simply best answer the question “who did we like best?”
Do you think a program is going to accept a conceited, arrogant applicant who is nothing more than a perfect MCAT score (that he never stops talking about)? How about an extremely shy applicant who barely manages to answer an interviewer's questions? What about that person who makes it abundantly clear that this program is their backup school (yes, I actually had an applicant tell me that during an interview!)? The answer is no. It is imperative that you know the type of person you are. It is also important that, if necessary, you work on your people skills. Participate in a mock interview. Ask others for their honest opinion about your personality and demeanor. Be open and receptive to criticism so that you can truly improve how you are perceived on your interview day.
2. Research experience matters on your MD/PhD application.
Medical school is expensive. Scholarships and grants are hard to come by, but a free ride to medical school is even more alluring. It’s no surprise that some applicants seek the dual degree path just for that free ride, but that isn’t the point of an MD/PhD program! These programs require years of dedication and commitment to research, in addition to the workload of medical school. The goal is to train a physician-scientist, a person who yearns to enter academic medicine, who wants to advance medicine through scientific discovery and not simply spend all their time in the clinic.
If the lab life gets you excited and makes you happy, show it on your application. Speak passionately about your research when interviewing. Be able to talk about what you did and why. Try to get a publication and attend a scientific meeting. Have an idea of what type of career path you want to follow. In the end, admissions committees easily can identify which applicants are just in it for the money and will reject them.
3. Apply broadly to many MD/PhD programs.
I constantly meet students with great MCAT scores and grades who don't get accepted to an MD/PhD program simply because they didn't apply to a handful of programs. Even the most competitive applicant should apply to at least a dozen programs. Many MD/PhD programs will even pay for lodging and travel when you interview at their school, so you have nothing to lose!
4. Be honest when applying and interviewing.
I know this seems obvious, but sometimes it can seem all too easy to stretch the truth. I interviewed a student who wrote on her application that she worked an astounding 3,000 hours in a research laboratory. When questioned about how she spent that time, she explained that she just loved being in lab and worked on countless projects. Unfortunately, the three sentence letter of recommendation from her principle investigator told the story of a student who never seemed to be in lab. You would be surprised what programs can find out about an applicant. Always be completely truthful and honest in your application if you want to have a successful interview.
5. Send thank you notes and letters of intent.
Lastly, it is always appreciated if you send a quick email thanking each of your interviewers. As a member of an admissions committee, I always remember the applicants who thanked me. When your name comes up for discussion in an admissions committee meeting, you want to be remembered. And, if you’re absolutely certain you want to attend a certain program, let them know! Programs are always more eager to hand out an acceptance to a student they know will truly join them.
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