And countless western blots, qPCRs, and experiments performed…
I wrote my PhD dissertation.
And defended my PhD.
And now I have a pretty cool piece of paper!
Thank you, thank you, thank youuuuu to all of the absolutely amazing people who helped me reach this huge goal, including but not limited to my PhD advisor, my labmates, my family, my partner, my friends, and my cats. 😸
This was originally shared on www.almostdocs.com (which no longer exists???) in May 2018. Twitter is a great place for connecting with other folks in the medical profession, so I thought I’d share it here!
I didn’t know much about MD/PhD programs as an undergraduate. I found some resources online and met with the program director at my school, but I didn’t really have easy access to any current MD/PhD students to go to for advice as I was preparing to apply to medical school. I also didn’t know many pre-meds or join any pre-med clubs. I hadn’t planned on going to medical school until late into undergrad, so I didn’t have a supportive group that would be going through the same grueling process that I was about to undertake. So I went to social media.
The summer I applied to medical school, I made a Twitter account specifically for connecting with the medical community. Twitter was an ideal platform for this purpose because of the short character limits for posts, the ability to make public posts and follow others who do not necessarily have to follow you back, the easy ability to retweet (or share) another account’s post on your own timeline, hashtags to connect posts to those of related content, and handles that allow you to establish your identity while also maintaining anonymity if desired (for example, I started being known as only pre-MD/PhD Life). While other social media sites have incorporated some of these aspects, Twitter remains the best site I’ve found for a robust discussion within a broad community.
I began by finding other pre-med accounts to follow. I did this by searching for those that had “pre-med” in their name or bio and then going through their following list to find others. Soon some started to follow me back. We would comment in response to each other’s posts and encourage each other when things didn’t go as planned. Some of these people I’ve even met in real life. Many of these people have since started med school, finished grad school, and are now in residency, and it’s been an absolute joy to see them progress through their training. I’m glad to learn from this community that has supported me since my early days of pursuing medicine.
Yet, here I am, 5 years in and still in the graduate phase on my MD/PhD program, which is one of the challenging things about this training pathway. As a MD/PhD student, the people who started med school the same time as me could nearly be practicing physicians by the time I step into the clinic as a 3rd year medical student! Therefore, I needed to have a community of physician-scientist trainees who could understand the more unique aspects of our training that those in other tracks could not. There were a few of us who found each other on Twitter, but it was harder to find those who could provide insight from further along the training path in my early days on Twitter. I joined a local MD/PhD trainee community upon beginning my program, but that still didn’t give me a global perspective on what it’s like to be a physician-scientist in training.
There’s an added benefit when trainees from different institutions come together. They can learn about the different ways their programs ultimately train them for a career as a physician-scientist. For example, mine starts in the PhD portion, others start with med school and transition to the PhD two years in, and some have even moved part of the clinical rotations to before the PhD. There may be things that other programs do to help their students develop into physician-scientists that mine doesn’t and vice versa. Such a community can provide support and diverse insights, which can help identify ways by which our training and medicine in general can be improved.
To help facilitate this discussion, the hashtag #DoubleDocs was recently adopted by the physician-scientist trainee community to connect trainees from undergraduate to residency and beyond. It was designed to be inclusive to both MD and DO trainees as well as those who have chosen to pursue a PhD and those who pursue other paths for research training. It does not mean double doctorates, but docs who are doubly in the research and medical worlds. What is special about this hashtag is that it rose organically from the physician-scientist trainee community as a way to stay connected. Unlike other hashtags, it is intended to have a specific focus on the training aspect of physician-scientists.
Taking this a step further, I, along with my colleagues in the American Physician Scientists Association, utilized Twitter’s list feature to make it easier for physician-scientist trainees to find each other. On the APSA twitter account (@A_P_S_A), we now have public lists for students at different stages and pathways of training including pre-med, MD/DO students, MD/DO-PhD students, Residents and Fellows, and established physician-scientists who can be resources for trainees. People can subscribe to these lists to find the Twitter accounts of other #DoubleDocs.
In the span of a few days from the start of this hashtag, I made nearly 100 new connections to trainees across the globe that have a similar career goal and unique training path, which highlights the power of Twitter to bring people together. Social media can get a bad rep, but it can also be quite useful! #DoubleDocs is just one hashtag, but so many others exist that can help people find a community!
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!
A few months ago, I wrote an article for Almost Docs on the daily life of a MD/PhD student. To follow up, I wanted to highlight how my daily life can change dramatically depending on the semester and stage of training. I also wanted to show how many things a MD/PhD student may need to balance at the same time! Therefore, here’s an overview of what I have generally had going on each semester thus far in my program (maybe not the most exciting read but more of a reference for those of you out there who are interested.)
Advanced biochemistry (MCB501)
Advanced molecular genetics (MCB502)
M1 Clinical Practice Preceptorship – shadowing a local physician
Over the years, I’ve had quite a few requests to describe my daily life as a MD/PhD student. I’ve thought long and hard about how to do this since my days are so variable. For example, today I’m in lab running genotyping gels and I’ll be heading to the animal facility later to cut tails for more genotyping (it’s a big week for making sure the genotype of all of my animals is correct!) However, I know tomorrow will be totally different!
Now that I’m in my 5th year of training, my sample size for days as a MD/PhD student is rather large, and I think I’m finally ready to perform some analysis!
This is still rather general, as I’m trying to summarize my experience in less than 750 words. Nonetheless, it may not be representative of other MD/PhD students, and I encourage others to please share your experience as well! I don’t usually take guests posts, but I would be glad to take guest posts on this! This is important not only for helping out prospective MD/PhD trainees but also for educating the public about the work that goes in to becoming a physician-scientist.
Keep an eye out in the future for a blog post about how my activities have changed depending on the semester as I continue to try to explain the weird integrated structure of my program. 🙂
In the mean time, here’s a picture of my cat (Smeagol) cuddling up with a book that I read for class last semester:
Update (4/14/18): I have finally published “My MD/PhD Timeline“. As promised above, this post lists out how my activities have changed based on the semester.
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, and follow me on Twitter, @MDPhDToBe. 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!
Uff Da is a phrase commonly said in Minnesota to signify exhaustion, weariness, resignation, and overwhelm. As I look back at all that I have done in my first 4 years as a MD/PhD student, this is the word that comes to mind. Yet, as I live day-to-day, it doesn’t seem that bad. In fact, I LOVE what I do, and I am so excited for what’s to come!
You may have noticed that my blog posts have severely dropped off as I’ve progressed through this program. Why? It’s hard to write about things that are so drawn out! I started this blog to help undergraduates survive the med school application process and learn about MD/PhD programs. I’ve written a decent amount about my med school application process, but this was so long ago I dare not write much about it anymore! As for sharing about MD/PhD programs, I feel that I have settled into a routine over the past 4 years such that I don’t really have that many new and exciting things to talk about.
I could tell you all about the failed experiments or few successful ones (I ran a gel today! Just like yesterday!) But I don’t because I’d rather wait to tell you the full story of my research that gets published (whenever it does). Furthermore, classes and teaching are such a normal part of my life that they don’t really stand out as something to write about (beyond how to do well in anatomy). I have done a few other pretty cool things that I’ve wanted to tell people about (like some mentioned below), but I’ve had enough other things to rush off and do immediately after that I haven’t committed time to do them justice.
I really want to share what I’m doing and connect with others to learn about the cool things they’re doing as well. I’m glad that new people continue to find my blog and value its resources. It really warms my heart to hear that my writing has been of help! I promise I will continue to write when I can. 🙂
So, to make up for a year of silence, here’s some of the cool things I’ve been up to during the past year:
I planned a conference!
I didn’t realize how much time this took up until the conference was over and I was back to doing deep cleans and organizing in lab. I wondered to myself, “Why haven’t I been doing this? How did I let it get this bad?” And I realized that I’d normally be sending emails during that time!
Of course, I didn’t do it alone. In April 2016, my good friend and fellow MD/PhD student at UIUC, Mariam Camacho, and myself were elected the Events Chairs for the American Physician Scientists Association (APSA). APSA is a national trainee-run organization for physician-scientist trainees that holds an annual meeting with the Association of American Physicians and American Society for Clinical Investigation each spring. It was our job to oversee the planning from the APSA side of things, including inviting speakers, coordinating the planning of panels, and taking care of all of the nitty gritty details that are required for planning a conference. I am happy to say it was a success!
There were many other great people that helped us with this endeavor including Alex Adami, Jillian Liu, Allyson Palmer, Lillian Zhang, Jason Siu, Michelle Caunca, Teddy Mamo, Jeremie Lever, and the staff at McKenna Management. We couldn’t have done it alone!
APSA is a wonderful organization for physician-scientist trainees! If you’re a trainee (whether in medical school or undergraduate) and you’re interested in becoming a physician-scientist, check them out!
I finished my first year of medical school!
And it only took 4 years!!! As my peers who started medical school with me were graduating and preparing for residency, I was taking my last exams of my first year of medical school. We have a unique MD/PhD program at UIUC where we gradually integrate the first year of medical school curriculum into our PhD training as to not greatly hinder our research time. To help you better understand how this works, I’ve listed my schedule for M1 courses:
Brain, Behavior, and Human Development
Cell and Tissue Biology I
Cell and Tissue Biology II
Foundations of Clinical Medicine I
Foundations of Clinical Medicine I
Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology
I presented my research and traveled across the country
Literally. In November, I gave a talk at the AASLD Liver Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.
At the End of March, I flew to the other side of the country and presented a poster at the American College of Physicians (ACP) Internal Medicine Meeting in San Diego.
In May, I went to Washington, DC to advocate with the ACP as I have done in 2014 and 2016.
I was elected to the ACP Council of Student Members (CSM) this year, so I just was in Philadelphia for a CSM meeting. As the Vice President for APSA this year, I spent a weekend in Atlanta this summer for our annual leadership retreat. I also visited my college roommate in Montana over spring break. I’m ready to take a break from flying. 😫 However, I am so thankful for these opportunities to travel the country, connect with others, share my research, and help organizations more effectively help other trainees and patients!
I earned a teaching certificate
My graduate department requires that all PhD students teach. I’ve gone beyond the teaching requirements to teach 4 semesters. Since i had spent that much time in the classroom, I thought I might as well attend a few more workshops and reflect on my teaching skills so that I could earn a certificate. I’m a little biased, but I really do believe taking this extra time to focus on my didactic skills has made me a much better teacher.
I have been a teaching assistant for an anatomy & physiology lab for 3 years. The fall semester, which I teach, covers histology, bones, muscles, and the nervous system. The first time I taught this class, I was overwhelmed with how much there was to know! Shout out to all of my students who have worked their butts off to take on this class while carrying a heavy undergraduate workload. The second time, I was taking my medical school anatomy class at the same time and was starting to pick up on a lot more things and was a much better teacher. The third time, having completed M1 anatomy and in the process of my teaching certificate, was even better. This was a particularly fun semester to teach because my classroom had the same cadaver that I had dissected the previous year!
Between having a much more in depth understanding of anatomy and attending teaching workshops, I feel that I have really grown as a teacher. As a result, I was given an excellent teaching rating by my students for the first time for this class (I also earned one when TAing a microbiology lab). Teaching does take quite a bit of time away from my research, so I’m done for it for now.
I’ve missed out on a lot
I think it’s important to point out that while I have been able to do a lot of great things that I am incredibly excited about, I have also missed out on a lot. For example, I’ve only made it back home to see family a few times in the past year. My niece was born in July 2016 and I’ve seen her at 2 weeks, 6 months, and 11 months. I’ve been able to facetime a few times, but it’s just not the same.
I’ve missed weddings. And birthdays. And home Gopher football games (an important part of my undergrad). So I’d like to thank all of my family and friends for dealing with me and being ever so patient with me when you don’t hear from me for extended periods. I’ve had to let a lot of friendships fade out over the past few years, but I promise you all still mean so much to me! I’d especially like to thank my partner for dealing with my craziness and considering working together at a coffee shop a “date.”
Now that I’ve covered quite a bit, I’m going to get back to everything else. I have a paper to write, events to plan, websites to design, policies proposals to draft, personal statements to write, experiments to plan, and so much more! As always, feel free to contact me, I’ll try to respond as soon as I can. But no guarantees when that’ll be… Here goes year 5!!!
So, in my little absence from blogging, I went out and got my masters degree. Cool, right? While I was officially notified that I would be awarded my degree in May and technically “graduated” in August, I didn’t get this fancy piece of paper until mid-September when I finally let everyone know. Alas, my absence from blogging made posting this a little bit less of a priority, but I’m hoping that by writing this now, I will be able to get myself back into that whole writing-for-fun (fun? yes fun) thing.
Anyways, I thought I’d explain a bit about how I earned this degree:
First of all, you may be wondering why get a masters if I’m getting a Ph.D. Yes, some people get masters before they apply to a Ph.D. program, but I’m already signed up for the long run. Fortunately, my department thinks it’s nice to award their students masters degrees after completion of the course requirements, recommendation by the advisor to continue as a Ph.D. candidate, and successful completion of written and oral Ph.D. candidacy qualification exams. The course requirements are usually completed by the time of the qualification exam in the spring of the second year.
Even though I switched labs after 8 months, which put me behind in my research, I still was able to complete this exam on time. The research aspect is important because our qual exam involves writing a research proposal based on our current work (which requires generating a sufficient amount of data) and orally defending said proposal. Fortunately, just before writing my proposal, I helped my prof write a larger NIH research proposal on my project, which I then was able to take parts of (aka the parts that I primarily wrote) and incorporate them into my proposal. It was a great experience to become more familiar with proposal writing, which helped me write mine (grad students, if you ever get a chance to do this, definitely do it!) I gave myself a month to devote myself to writing my proposal and finishing up some experiments to use as preliminary data and was pretty satisfied with the result.
Next came the oral exam. Mine was scheduled nearly a month after the deadline for the written portion. Since I felt guilty doing science and not studying, I spent most of that month sitting at home and reading every paper somewhat related to my research that I could get my hands on (and playing with my new cat, Smeagol). Let’s just say my useless science knowledge expanded exponentially during that time (sure I can draw a steroid-based bile acid in 3D and do the electron pushing for the synthesis of bile acids from cholesterol now, but that doesn’t have any relevance to my research other than that I study the biological functions of fully synthesized bile acids…) Nonetheless, my relentless studying paid off. My oral exam consisting of me and three professors in a small room with a chalkboard (no prepared presentations allowed!) went rather swimmingly. Well, other than their concern that my proposal was a bit (a lot) ambitious even though I essentially cut my prof’s proposal in 1/3…
Even though my proposal was well written and my oral exam went well, my (and my advisor’s) ambition earned me a rewrite on my proposal to make it more simple and less time consuming (so that I’d get to graduate at some point). Unfortunately, being able to write a non-ambitious proposal is a skill that must be acquired through writing lots of proposals. Since I was planning on adapting this fake qualifying exam proposal into my own actual fellowship proposal that summer, I took this rewrite as an opportunity to get even more feedback on my proposal and make it the best it can be. I turned in my rewritten proposal in May and soon found out that it had been approved. Thus, the awarding of my degree and my current status as a Ph.D. candidate. 🙂