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MD/Ph.D. Programs: What They Are, Who They’re For, and What to Expect


Are you a pre-med who’s feeling torn between a career in clinical practice or a career in research? You may be considering pursuing an MD/Ph.D. program. These challenging programs are for very ambitious students who are willing to brave tougher competition and a longer road through graduate school. 

However, the rewards may be worth it if you’re determined to become a physician and an investigator of scientific questions—one who can also teach in medical schools and guide a new generation of physicians. This article covers the basics of how MD/Ph.D. programs work, what you should consider when you apply to one, and what you can do when you (finally) graduate.

What Is an MD/Ph.D. Program?

An MD/Ph.D. is a dual-degree graduate program that combines the Doctor of Medicine (MD) and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees. MD/Ph.D. students train to help patients and contribute to advances in medical research.

Because MD/Ph.D. programs involve earning two degrees, they usually take almost twice as long to complete as an MD alone. Their structures will vary, but they generally follow a model similar to this:

  • Years 1–2: Students complete the first two years of an MD program, taking foundational clinical science courses and then sitting U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) Step 1.
  • Years 3–6: The Ph.D. section of the program. Students complete original research, then produce and defend a dissertation about it.
  • Years 7–8: Students complete the final two years of medical school, take the final sections of the USMLE, and graduate.
  • Post-graduation: The newly minted double-doctors pursue MD/Ph.D. residency programs that combine training in a medical specialty with additional research opportunities.

Some programs compress this timeline into seven years instead of eight, but, when you bear in mind that some students pursuing a Ph.D. alone can take eight to ten years to complete their dissertations, you may gain an idea of just how intensive the schedule for an MD/Ph.D. program can be.

Getting into an MD/Ph.D. Program

The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) recognizes 135 MD/Ph.D. programs in the United States and Canada as of January 2024. AAMC data indicates that those programs enrolled a total of 707 students in 2023-24. Meanwhile, there are 200 MD and DO programs in the U.S., and they enrolled 22,981 students in 2023-24

The competition for MD/Ph.D. programs is therefore much fiercer than earning a single degree. Comparing the GPAs and MCAT scores for each group drives this point home:

  • MD program matriculants, 2023-24: Average GPA 3.77, average MCAT 511.7
  • MD/Ph.D. program matriculants, 2023-24: Average GPA 3.82, average MCAT 516.0

Pre-meds seeking an MD or DO alone apply to about 16 programs on average. The current average number of schools an MD/Ph.D.-seeking student applies to is only slightly higher than this at 17, but many sources, including the AAMC, recommend applying to 20 programs

Regardless of how many MD/Ph.D. programs you apply to, exceptional scores and grades aren’t all you’ll need to secure a spot. Research experience, while important for all pre-meds, will be exceptionally important for you. 

Admissions committees will want to see that you have a genuine commitment to advancing scientific knowledge. Demonstrating a strong research background through publications, presentations, or relevant projects is crucial. Letters of recommendation that focus on your research experience will also carry more weight in your case.

If you’re worried about your level of experience, consider taking a gap year to work in research before you apply. A 2022 paper in the journal JCI Insight examined the MD/Ph.D. pipeline, and found that 75% of students who enrolled in an MD/Ph.D. program in 2020 had taken at least one gap year. The majority of students reported that they did so to pursue additional research.

Affording an MD/Ph.D. Program

Surprisingly, many MD/Ph.D. students receive full funding for their studies through grants. The U.S. government and other institutions want to invest in training for MD/Ph.D. students because of the key roles they play in advancing the nation’s scientific and medical knowledge—knowledge that is important to public health, national security, and economic competitiveness. 

The Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), established by the National Institutes of Health, provides tuition grants and living stipends for approximately 50 U.S.-based MD/Ph.D. programs. Applicants for funding, however, must generally be U.S. citizens or green card holders to qualify. Most programs without MSTP funding offer some form of grant support to students, as this 2021 chart from the AAMC shows. Make sure you understand whether you meet the criteria for funding before you apply to a school.

What Can You Do with an MD/Ph.D.?

MD/Ph.D. graduates generally blend clinical practice, research, and teaching duties. While they can work in a range of settings, most are employed by medical schools and teaching hospitals. A 2019 AAMC survey of MD/Ph.D. graduates found that 65.1% worked in academia full-time (p. 17), and that 82.8% of them participated in some type of research as part of their regular roles (p. 31).

The AAMC survey indicates that other career paths for MD/Ph.D. graduates can include:

  • Federal agency/NIH research 
  • Health policy work
  • Think-tank research
  • Industry research (e.g., pharmaceuticals or medical devices)
  • Consulting
  • Public health
  • Private clinical practice

It’s even possible for MD/Ph.D. graduates to run their own research labs. And remember that not all MD/Ph.D. students earn their Ph.D.s in a biomedical science field, though most do—some pursue public health, engineering, or policy Ph.D.s. These can open up even more opportunities for your future.

Can a Post-Bacc Help My MD/Ph.D. Application?

Of course, but you must be starting from a strong academic and MCAT base. If you were an exceptional student and you just need to fill in some prerequisite gaps, or if you want to bump up your MCAT score above 512, a post-bacc certificate program with MCAT coaching could be right for you. 

If you have the undergrad record and the MCAT score, but don’t have as much research experience as you’d like, pursuing a special master’s program that emphasizes research may help you access the opportunities you need to make your application even more competitive. Plus, you will be demonstrating to admissions committees your passion and commitment to a career that spans clinical care and academic research.

Find a post-bacc in our database. Good luck on the challenging journey toward your MD/Ph.D. program!

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