Applying to Medical School

What to Consider When Choosing an MD/PhD Program

Choosing an MD/PhD program to attend can be daunting, but by answering these questions, you can select the program that is the best fit for you over the next eight years.

What Skills Do You Want to Develop in Your Doctoral Program?

For most students, skill development is the single most important factor when considering a MD/PhD program. Choose a program that has ample opportunities to explore your field of interest and in which you can identify potential mentors for rotations and thesis projects.

Consider that your interests will evolve, so the research areas available should be broad enough that you can branch out as your studies progress.

During second-look events (whether they are in person or virtual), take advantage of opportunities to meet with faculty members and program leaders. Aim to meet with at least five research faculty in an area of interest before deciding on where to attend. They can help you determine if the skill area that is most important for you to develop has ample opportunity.

What Is Your Preferred MD/PhD Program Size?

MD/PhD programs range from only a single matriculating student to over 30 incoming students. If you prefer more hands-on guidance, then a smaller program is right for you.

If you prefer to be part of a larger community with potentially more future networking opportunities, then you may prefer a larger program. Note that you may need to be more independent in a larger program, which can be counterintuitive. This is because there is less individualized attention.

Where Do You Want to Live for Eight Years While in Medical School?

As with selecting any university or medical school to attend, the location can define your experience.

Do you prefer to live in an urban or rural environment? In addition to housing, urban environments may offer more opportunities for extracurriculars, merely due to the number of clinics and hospitals in proximity.

Would you rather spend your weekend going hiking or checking out museums? And speaking of the weekend, some regions have many more future physicians in the area, which can lead to making more friends who’ll you’ll be able to relate to, and potentially even meeting a life partner, if that’s a goal you have.

It is also important to consider logistical matters, such as the housing situation, cost of living, and transportation requirements. Some programs require you to travel between different campuses and facilities. Do you have a car, or will taking a bus become the norm?

Is the Med School the Right Fit for You?

It is difficult to define institutional culture other than through the question: “Do you fit in?”

During the second-look events, talk to students across all years of the program. Ask them about their experiences attending school and living in the city, not just about their academic interests.

The name of a school or its location often biases our judgment of the culture and values of the students and faculty. For example, how collaborative are the students? And how do they define “success?”

You’ve spent all this time hoping for selection, working to appease the admissions committee. Now it’s time to think about yourself.

Make sure to handle your “It’s not you, it’s me,” talk after you convey any rejection, as to not burn any bridges in the industry. It’s a small world in the medical field. The admissions committee member you turn down today could be a potential colleague in the future.

Does the MD/PhD Program Structure Align With Your Timeline?

MD/PhD programs are all structured slightly differently, and often provide specific coursework and opportunities for MD/PhD students.

Some programs have condensed their medical school curriculum which allows MD/PhD students to graduate sooner than eight years. In other programs, the PhD portion takes longer on average to complete, resulting in an average time to graduation longer than eight years.

In terms of selecting research interests, some programs require students to narrow their interests early in the program, while others allow students to explore a wider breadth of fields before selecting a thesis lab.

Ask students and administrators about what opportunities are available to MD/PhD students. These differences are what make every program unique, so it is worthwhile to thoroughly explore what each program has to offer.

Place Less Weight on Medical School Clinical Opportunities

With all the MD/PhD factors to consider don’t spend too much time mulling over clinical opportunities.

Every medical institution will have abundant opportunities for clinical involvement, and medical curriculums across institutions are far more similar than they are different.

MD/PhD students are accepted into the most competitive residencies because of their extensive research resumes. Therefore, unless your clinical interest is highly specialized and unique, the available clinical opportunities generally should not be a deciding factor when selecting an MD/PhD program.

Read more about how to succeed in the MD/PhD application process with The Complete MD/PhD Guide.


Feeling overwhelmed with medical school options? MedSchoolCoach has a physician lead team of expert advisors who can help guide your selection process. Schedule a free consultation with a MedSchoolCoach enrollment advisor and they’ll help you get on your way toward becoming a physician.

Jonathan Sussman

Jonathan Sussman graduated from the University of Southern California in 2019 with dual degrees in Biomedical Engineering from the Viterbi School of Engineering and Music Performance from the Thornton School of Music. He has conducted Systems Cancer Biology research at USC as an undergraduate researcher and Molecular Biology research at The Scripps Research Institute as a research assistant and is now pursuing an MD/PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology with an emphasis in Cancer Biology. He is one of the authors of The Complete MD/PhD Applicant Guide.

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