Almost Docs: A Day in the Life of a MD-PhD Student

This was originally shared on www.almostdocs.com (which doesn’t exist anymore???) in January 2018. I’m sharing it again here because I want to make sure this information is available for prospective MD/PhD students.


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.

Becoming 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.

Cell Culture
Doing cell culture.

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.


If you like my writing, please consider following my blog. There’s a link near the top of the side bar to do so. Also, feel free to like my Facebook page (MD, PhD To Be), follow me on Twitter (@MDPhDToBe), and follow me on Instagram (MDPhDToBe). I am trying my best to remain active in each of these channels throughout my training! Any questions, comments, or requests for future blog posts can of course be directed to me from any of these locations or directly emailed to me at via the connect page. Thank you for reading!

Why I Blog and a Big Thank You to My Readers!

Q (from ask.fm): What inspired you to start your blog? Also how did you start it?

A: I’ve never considered myself a person who liked to write. I took AP literature and composition in high school but I’m still not sure why I decided to do so. Writing lab reports and papers for class was a long process and was not one of my favorites. Otherwise, I didn’t take a writing course until senior year of college.

Two summers ago, I was working on my medical school application and writing like crazy to make my personal statements the best they could be. As this process wore on, I could really see my story come alive in my writing, and it was a great feeling to express myself in that way. When it was done, I wanted to keep writing.

During that summer, I also made the twitter account that you now know as ‎@MDPhDToBe (though at the time it was anonymous and went by ‎@PreMDPhDLife). As I followed many medical students and pre-meds, I noticed some of the medical students had blogs and I thought that would be a great idea to share my experience, help others who aspire to go to medical school and give myself more opportunity to write!

To make my blog, I simply did a Google search for blog hosts. I looked into a few and ultimately decided that WordPress was my favorite. The rest was simple – I used the website’s templates and customization features to make the design look how I wanted, I began writing, and I promoted my work to my twitter community. My first blog went by premdphdlife.wordpress.com, but after being accepted to my MD/PhD program, I created mdphdtobe.com to better fit my perspective. This blog was created in March 2013.

Now, after a 16 months of blogging at mdphdtobe.com, I’m ecstatic to have over 100 followers and nearly 20,000 views coming from 100 different countries! I never expected to get much traffic to the site, so I am deeply humbled by the attention it has received. A big THANK YOU to everyone who takes the time to check out my writing, especially those who have gone above and beyond to actually follow my blog! You make blogging that much more enjoyable. 🙂

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Time Balance as a MD/PhD Student

Q (from ask.fm): As a MD/PhD student, do you have any time for yourself? For family and friends? To just take a break? I would like to do a MD/PhD program, but I want to enjoy my 20s…

A: Of course you have time! I fully want to enjoy my 20’s as well so even if I don’t feel like I have time, I MAKE time to enjoy it. When you’re in the graduate portion of your PhD, your free time is really based on how much your PI will push you (or how much you push yourself). It is an important consideration when you pick a lab. If the PI is understanding and aware that people are not robots who just work 24 hours a day to produce data, then you should be granted the time that you need. In fact, I’ve had PI’s tell me to go home because I’m in lab too late or I’m there on a weekend!

I actually just read a blog post today about this culture of pushing scientists too far (in response to a sad situation), and a particular quote from it stood out to me:

“The best (and more importantly, happiest) scientists I know are people who are interested in many things, who approach all aspects of their lives with engagement, purpose and openness.”

There seems to be a cultural shift away from pushing students too hard, which makes me glad. Obviously, we want to be successful and have a lot expected of us (which only increases as we progress through our careers), but we have to appreciate our own limits as well.

As someone who enjoys writing for fun, watching sports games, enjoying my weekend nights out with friends, going home to see family and friends (which requires an eight hour drive one way for me right now), playing musical instruments, and many more leisurely activities, I believe that doing so makes me better at what I do by keeping me happy and healthy. I believe that everyone can make time to have a life if they work hard enough to do so. Not only that, I also believe that they all SHOULD. It may take a little work to figure out how to balance everything, but it can be done and it is definitely worth it. As long as you find a program and an advisor that understands that you need to have a life outside of school, you will have the time that you need.