There are generally two groups of people who get graduate degrees before medical school. The first group consists of people who were not planning to do medicine and obtained their degrees for a different career purpose. They ultimately decided to switch careers into medicine but have an additional degree to boot. The second group consists of people who have always planned to do medicine and are thinking about getting or have already obtained a graduate degree prior to medical school mainly to make themselves more attractive candidates for medical school.
This article speaks mainly to the second group. Getting a graduate degree to improve your medical school application could be a wise move if done intentionally. It can also be a huge waste of time and money.
There are two main situations where obtaining a graduate degree is beneficial. First is if you go to a post-bacc program that offers a master’s degree in one year and is just as affordable as a post-bacc program that does not offer a degree. Many of these “master’s” programs are truly post-bacc programs that offer a graduate degree. A good example is Johns Hopkins’ Master of Health Science program. It is 1 year, flexible, and many of its graduates are accepted to medical school. Its main downside is the price. The second situation is if you pursue a specific degree because it fits with your ultimate story and goal but you need a little extra time to improve your medical school application. For example, if you are interested in public health and ultimately medicine but your GPA and MCAT still need work, you can apply to an MPH program and get good public health training while you improve your application. Although getting an MPH takes time and money, you might be able to use the skills and training that you learn from your degree for the rest of your medical career. It will likely help you get into medical school too. However, it makes no sense if you have no interest in public health to get an MPH just for the sake of improving your application. It is much better in that situation to just go for a post-bacc program.
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I’ve alluded to this already but it is a waste of time and money to get a graduate degree that isn’t designed to be a post-bacc program unless you are very interested in the subject, you have extra time and money, and you see it contributing to your future as a physician. For example, an MA in anthropology is interesting but will do little to help you as an applicant because it won’t increase your science GPA (which is often why students need to pursue a post-bacc). Another example is getting a traditional 2-year master’s degree in public policy, nutrition, statistics, biology, chemistry, physics, or math. These kinds of programs are not worth it because they not designed for people who want to go into medicine. They take extra time and medicine and are specifically for people who want to dedicate their careers to that specific subject. If you can create a compelling story for why you pursued a master’s degree in physics prior to going to medical school, that might be helpful. But I would not recommend that unless, once again, you are passionate about physics and you have the time and money to spare.
Finally, I would not recommend obtaining a graduate degree as a “back-up” plan just in case you change your mind and decide to not go to medicine. The only exception to this rule is if you want to and can actually pursue another career as a result of your degree (MS in nutrition to become a nutritionist or MS in statistics to become a statistician). In conclusion, the best type of graduate degree to obtain prior to medical school is one that is specifically designed for premedical students. Only pursue different types of graduate degrees if you have a specific plan.