The closer I get to starting the next phase of my education, the more I am bombarded with questions about it. Usually when I’m asked what I’m doing for school, I will say either graduate school or medical school because it seems too overwhelming for people to even hear about such a program and it is just easier to say one or the other. Of course, if the conversation progresses to further into my future, I will have to reveal that I will be pursuing both MD and PhD degrees but the conversation does not always get that far. Nonetheless, I wish to set the story straight by answering some frequently asked questions so that those considering the medical field know what its like in an MD/PhD program and so that my friends and family will have a better idea of what exactly I’ve gotten myself into.
Where are you going to school?
I will be going to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The school is about 3 hours south of Chicago in an area of approximately 120,000 residents between the two cities of Urbana and Champaign. Some refer to the cities as “twin cities” but coming from the true twin cities area of St. Paul and Minneapolis, I don’t think I will ever be able to refer to them by that name. The school has around 40,000 students, which makes it similar in size to my alma mater of the University of Minnesota, and so I’m hoping it will feel a little bit like home.
How long are you going to be in school?
The MD/PhD program is about 8 years long. This may seem like a long time, but actually it is shorter than if you were to get your MD and PhD separately. Medical school is four years and graduate school for a PhD usually takes five years, so this puts me a year ahead.
How is the program structured?
Most schools with an MD/PhD program have a 2-4-2 structure. With this structure, you begin with 2 years of medical school during which you can also complete your lab rotations for graduate school as well as some graduate school courses. After your second year of medical school, you work strictly on your graduate schoolwork for the next four years. After receiving your PhD, you return to medical school for the last two years. Those schools funded by the Medical Scientist Training Program, a grant offered by the National Institutes of Health, are more regulated by this grant and follow this structure as well as some other MD/PhD programs.
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, on the other hand, is not funded by the grant and so has the freedom to place more emphasis on the graduate work, leaving as much time as necessary to complete the PhD. You begin the program in the graduate school phase during which you take your first year medical school courses spread out over the 5 or so years it takes to complete the degree. Therefore, you essentially act as a regular graduate student for the first 5 years with some extra work. After receiving your PhD, you then complete the last 3 years of medical school. The MD/PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is more specifically called the Medical Scholars Program, MSP for short.
How much does it cost?
The program actually PAYS YOU to be in school. The school covers tuition and you additionally get a stipend for living expenses. During the graduate school years, it is the stipend any graduate student would get, but during the medical school years, it is about half that amount. You do have to pay some student fees but that’s pretty much it.
What are you getting your PhD in?
I am in the school of molecular and cellular biology graduate program, which is an umbrella program in that it contains more specific sub-plans that I will have to choose between. Based on which lab I choose as my thesis lab, I will be in the biochemistry, cellular and developmental biology, microbiology, or molecular and integrative physiology department. Most of the labs that I am interested in are in the biochemistry department, but we’ll just see how rotations work out.
What are lab rotations?
Every graduate student will end up picking a research lab to spend the majority of their time in school to do research that they will write about in their thesis. To help decide which lab to pick, each student must do short stints in labs of their choosing (with the professor’s approval). At Illinois, our rotations are 5 weeks long and we will do 3 of them during fall semester of our first year. At the end of the semester we will then pick our thesis lab.
How big is your class size?
In the Medical Scholars Program (MD/PhD) there are 10 in my incoming class. For the school of molecular and cellular biology graduate program, there are approximately 40 in my incoming class. The M1 class in medical school has about 125 students, 25 of which will remain at the Urbana-Champaign campus for M2-4 (this includes the MSP students), 50 will go to the Rockford campus for M2-4, and 50 will go to the Peoria campus for M2-4.
What comes after all of this?
Following receiving my MD and PhD, I plan on doing residency for internal medicine followed by a fellowship for an oncology specialty, which are both 3 years in length. Eventually, I hope to become an academic oncologist so that I can lead a basic research lab focused on the design of anticancer therapies, teach courses related to such a subject, and treat patients with cancer. Having both degrees and being involved in both a clinical and basic research setting will hopefully help me bring basic ideas to clinical applications faster.
How did you get in?
I prepared for applying to such a program by taking a broad range of science courses with an emphasis in chemistry (as it was my major) and maintaining a 3.6 GPA. I additionally was quite involved in school by joining extracurriculars, holding leadership positions, and volunteering at a hospital. As research is the focus of such a program, I started working in research labs at the end of my freshman year of college so that I had over 2 years of experience as well as undergraduate research funding and a research fellowship before applying.
I took the GRE, chemistry GRE, and MCAT in the spring/summer of my junior year of college though the MCAT was the only required test – I had previously been planning on just grad school hence why I had taken the two GRE tests. For my application, I had to write three personal statements to explain why I wanted to pursue MD, MD/PhD, and research (check them out here, here, and here, respectively). I additionally wrote about the activities that I have been involved in and what three were most important to me – volunteering at a hospital for 6+ years, being a member and leader in a marching band, and doing research in a medicinal chemistry/carcinogenesis lab.
Following this general first application that was sent to 15 schools, I then received secondary applications from those schools with more specific questions. After spending nearly $1300 in application fees, I was done with applications and the rejections started rolling in (as kind of expected when applying to places like Harvard, Yale, and UCSF). Nonetheless, in middle January I was invited to an interview weekend at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They paid for my flights (including a first class flight from Minneapolis to Chicago), three nights in a hotel, and meals.
For the interview weekend, I had a 15-20 minute panel interview with the director and assistant director of the MSP, a doctor from the local hospital where we do our clinical work, and a professor in the school of molecular and cellular biology. The next day, I had four 30-minute talks with four professors in the school whose research I was interested in. The rest of the weekend was to get us familiar with the school and convince us to go there. It included dinner with faculty and students, a poster session, a fun activity (I went bowling), and a final outing to a local bar.
If we were interviewed for the MSP, we could be accepted to the graduate school or medical school individually if we did not get in to the full program, and a full acceptance required acceptances from these three areas. A couple weeks after the interview weekend, I received an e-mail notifying me of my acceptance to the graduate program. Two days after that, I was notified that I was accepted to the MSP pending anticipated acceptance by the college of medicine at the University of Illinois Chicago campus. A week after my MSP acceptance, I received a phone call from the MSP notifying me that I had been accepted to the medical school and I was in! For the MSP, there were around 100 applicants and 30 or so of us were invited to interview. They aimed for a class size of 15, which ended up being 10 of us.
Why the heck are you doing all of this?!
Since I was a young teenager, I have wanted to do medicine, pharmacy, and research at various times, one leading to the next. I knew I wanted to work toward bettering human health, but I kept an open mind and sought to find where I was best stimulated and where I could make the biggest difference. I first became actively interested in medicine in early high school, but switched to pharmacy after learning about the profession. In the beginning of college, when I first became exposed to research as a career, I determined that I could combine research with my interest in pharmacy to devote my life to working to develop novel drugs.
Nonetheless, I continued to feel a draw toward medicine. I did my best to deny it as my father had been a large influence in my initial interest in the area and because I figured that I would have to choose between research and medicine. Even still, I felt incomplete like there was more that I wanted to do without sacrificing what I was already pursuing. Since I was not pre-med, I was not exposed to the opportunities available to those in the medical field and had no idea that combined MD/PhD programs existed.
Near the end of my junior year of college as I was about to take my GRE to prepare for graduate school, I was researching schools that I was interested in applying to and came across the combined program path. It swept me off my feet. While I had felt pulled in different directions before toward research, medicine, and pharmacy, I now had a single career path and educational opportunity to allow me to do everything that I had hoped for myself and to make the biggest difference in the world.
If you would like to know more about the MSP, check out the following article: http://www.uiaa.org/illinois/news/blog/index.asp?id=100
Also, if you have any more questions, feel free to ask in the comments below or in a tweet to @MDPhDToBe. Or of course in person, on facebook, via text, however else you’d normally contact me if you’re one of the awesome people I know in real life. 🙂