Why obtain a combined MD-PhD degree?
Most students approach the option of pursuing a combined MD-PhD degree with some uncertainty. Clearly, both the practice of medicine and scientific discovery are rewarding but challenging activities that demand full attention to each component. Many applicants may ask themselves, "If I become an MD-PhD, won't I just be half as good at each as someone who does each component full time?" The answer to this question lies in understanding the nature of science and medicine and how a creative synergy of two different perspectives can become greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, the practice of medicine and scientific inquiry each require significant focus and commitment. However, combined training in both fields provides a depth and breadth of skills and knowledge that affords the foundation for excellence as a clinician-scientist.
Medicine is both an art and a science. An understanding of the scientific basis of medicine is crucial for providing cutting edge care to patients. However, the practice of medicine is also a practical endeavor with the objective of doing what is best for the patient. While obtaining knowledge is necessary, knowledge alone does not provide the skills necessary to serve as an outstanding physician. In fact, the good clinician must always balance the benefits of cutting edge testing and treatment against the costs, time and risks that come with it. Because of the need to act in many cases, uncertainty must be tolerated. The clinician must have the basic knowledge and understanding of medical literature to make decisions based on evidence but must also form a bond with the patient and gain an understanding of how medical intervention will affect the person.
The biomedical researcher is a scientist. At its purest, the purpose of scientific research is knowledge itself. Questions are approached in great depth and, while absolute certainty is often not possible, the goal is to obtain new knowledge and insight that will advance the understanding of biological and physical processes. Ever more creative and inventive experiments are at the heart of scientific progress. By necessity, scientists are true experts at their fields, but frequently are only vaguely aware of whole disciplines outside their specific field. However, the physician scientist gains experience and training in medicine and biomedical sciences. This combination allows for a broad and practical perspective that provides the opportunity to apply discoveries to improve patient care.
The interface of medicine and science is an area of great promise where the problems of the patient inspire and inform research, and the fruits of research are applied for meaningful and tangible benefit. Unfortunately, the very different goals, approaches, cultures, and even languages of medicine and science sometimes hamper the productivity of this critical interface. It is here that the dually trained MD-PhD makes a unique contribution. S/he combines the breadth of the physician with the depth of a scientist and can seamlessly function and communicate in both worlds. This powerful combination creates individuals who occupy a special niche in the biomedical enterprise. They work on different problems, see clinical connections and applications and serve as the glue opposing the centrifugal forces keeping medicine and science apart. If you want to be a researcher who is different than a PhD or an MD, and not just the sum of two activities, then MD-PhD may be for you.
Philosophy of the UTMB Program
At UTMB we believe that the purpose of the MD-PhD Combined Degree Program is to train physician-scientists who are greater than the sum of their parts and not merely individuals sequentially taking two unrelated courses of study. To achieve this goal, we have designed a curriculum which has you engaged in both medical and scientific activities throughout. During the first two "medical school" years, special MD-PhD and graduate level courses are taken to allow you to approach the material from the added perspective of a scientific investigator. During the middle "graduate school" phase of the program, you engage in medical activities which keep you tied to the practical medical issues and help you to develop your own mechanisms to intellectually merge your research and practice activities. You are never a medical student or a graduate student. You are always an MD-PhD student.
The career development of an MD-PhD student is critically important and extends out well past the date of graduation with the dual degrees. The UTMB MD-PhD Program carefully guides and nurtures students throughout the program. Early in the program, critical issues are mentor selection and choice of a graduate program. MD-PhD students meet regularly with a faculty advisor, a student "big sibling" and members of the advisory committee. Opportunities to be exposed to research opportunities are provided through program activities as well as the scientific activities on campus. Most students do their initial laboratory rotation during the summer before starting medical school. Additional laboratory rotations can be completed during the summer before and after the second year of medical school. Once students are established in their labs, they are guided through their research by a mentor and dissertation committee.
For MD-PhD students, selection of the dissertation committee is essential and our program requires students to include a member who is an MD scientist who can provide guidance on career progress and residency selections. As thesis defense approaches, students design their optimal clinical experiences with members of the MD-PhD committee to maximize chances to obtain the types of residency training that will be most compatible with further development as a physician scientist. The program runs career guidance seminars to alert students to many of the important issues, pitfalls and milestones that they will need to navigate in the future. These include the pros and cons of short-track residencies, the need for additional postdoctoral training, and how to select and negotiate a first faculty appointment. The UTMB MD-PhD graduate is thus well positioned to make the most out of the advantages that MD-PhD careers offer.