Physician-scientists are medical doctors who contribute significant effort toward scientific research and play an integral role in the advancement of medical knowledge. They provide a unique perspective to the research community through first-hand experience with patients and the problems they face, but they also have the research skills to directly address those problems. Examples include Edward Jenner, a physician who created the smallpox vaccine, and Frederick Banting, who isolated and discovered the therapeutic potential of insulin. Modern physician-scientists continue to carry on the tradition of excellency established by these earlier physician-scientists, though they are becoming a smaller part of the biomedical workforce.
Being a MD/PhD student looking to become a physician-scientist is a time-consuming process that requires both medical and research training. Research training can be done at various times such as during fellowship, in a research year during medical school, or by completing a PhD. The latter is frequently offered in a dual-degree program in which research and medical training are integrated over approximately 8 years. This is an ideal route for those people interested in effectively translating basic science findings into the clinic.
Over the past 4 years, I’ve often been asked by undergraduates interested in a career as a physician-scientist to describe my daily life as a dual-degree MD/PhD student. Yet, I have not because my days are so variable that I’ve found it difficult to provide a simple but accurate description. The reason for this is that my school has us begin by working on our PhD and completing the first year of medical school courses decompressed throughout our years in graduate school. Upon completion of our dissertation, we then commit to medical school full-time for the remaining 3 years. Thus, the daily life in different stages of the program can be drastically different and difficult to summarize.
However, in light of the recent threat to graduate student finances via the luckily failed #gradtax, I’ve recognized the need to share my experience not only for the hopeful physician-scientist trainees but also for the public who benefits from the training of future physician-scientists. Maintenance of a highly trained physician-scientist workforce is crucial for our continued progress in improving healthcare in our country.
My daily life as a MD/PhD student during the graduate school stage can generally be divided into research, coursework, teaching, and participation in extracurricular organizations. Not all of these happen in the same day, but they have often overlapped. For example, there’s been days when I’ve had 4 hours of required medical school activities in the morning and 4 hours of teaching in the afternoon, and I’ve had to stay late to get my work in lab done.
Other days, I’ve taught my undergraduate class about blood cells in the morning only to go to medical school histology lab in the afternoon to be taught about blood cells. I’ve also come home from a 15-hour day in lab to start grading, and I’ve taken committee calls for my extracurricular organizations while working in the lab.
Some weeks I’ve had so many required medical school classes that I haven’t been able to get much done in lab. Other weeks, I’ve been fairly free from required classes and able to work on my own schedule in the lab. Every now and then I’ve taken a rare weekend day to work from home.
Thus, my daily routine not only varies on my stage of but also the semester and sometimes on the week or even on the day.
While much of the overlap in my days is unique for the structure of my program, the actual activities are more generalizable. Medical school activities are much more consistent across programs, with lectures, labs, shadowing/interviewing patients, and studying comprising the majority of the early medical training. Graduate training activities, however, depend on the area of research. As a biologist, my work consists of collecting, processing, and analyzing samples, prepping for experiments, organizing data, reading papers, writing papers/grants, cleaning the lab, and stocking supplies. I also meet with my professor as needed, mentor undergraduates, participate in my lab’s weekly journal club, and attend weekly lab meetings. In the semesters that I’ve taught, I’ve added approximately 20 hours of teaching prep, active classroom time, grading, proctoring, office hours, and TA meetings to my schedule each week. On top of this are extracurricular activities such as serving on committees, attending conference calls, planning events, and writing Almost Docs articles.
A day in the life of a MD/PhD student may be highly variable, but the culmination of these different days is a well-trained physician-scientist. Research, clinical, and teaching skills are all required for a physician-scientist, and additional service such as volunteering or planning scientific events can be preparation for holding leadership positions. A major component of dual-degree training is not only developing these skills but also learning to integrate them. For those of you considering this pathway, what’s most important to know is that they days may be long, but it is worth it.