Finding the Right MD/PhD Curriculum

Friday, January 9th, 2009

The MD/PhD program has a unique mission and goal in training physician-scientists.  It’s important to remember that an MSTP student is not simply a medical student who happens to be getting a PhD for extra-credit.  It’s important to consider how the programs you’re considering integrate the MD and the PhD program.  Traditional medical curriculum is not well designed to deliver a streamlined educational curriculum.  The culture of science and medicine are quite different, and the range of philosophies between programs varies quite significantly. At this point in the year, many students are beginning to receive offers from several programs.  Evaluating the specifics of the curriculum should be an important part of your decision making process.  Students need to recognize which programs accelerate the coursework process and which programs contain significant redundancies between the PhD and MD programs.

For example, the Colorado program explains quite eloquently how their mission is different than a regular MD [my emphasis]:

“During Phase I [first calendar year of the program], MSTP students take courses administered by all of the UC Denver basic science graduate training programs, fulfilling the core course requirements of these graduate programs, as well as those of the medical school. For example, in Phase I, students take the core graduate course required by all programs and some program-specific elective courses. The graduate core course is literature-based, hypothesis-driven, and focused on biological mechanisms. The students are required to present research papers in a critical manner, and thus, they begin to read the original scientific literature from the outset. Additionally, rather than testing students for their ability simply to memorize facts, students are tested for their ability to think critically and creatively. For example, students are often asked to interpret a set of experimental data, to propose a hypothesis based on their interpretation, and to design well-controlled experiment(s) that rigorously and directly test their proposed hypothesis.” (more…)

Will USMLE changes affect the MD/Phd? How?

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Medical students and MD/PhD applicants have likely heard the rumors: the USMLE program sequence will be changing.  This news quickly draws the attention of those starting down the regimen of a MD/PhD program.  Most MD/PhD students currently take 2 years of medical school basic science and the USMLE step 1 exam before heading down the PhD road.  So, what changes are planned and how will these mandates change the order of the MD/PhD program as we know it?

First, the United States Medical Licensing Examination board (USMLE) has been holding hearings and writing the new principles that will guide a new exam structure since 2005.  The process is slow and the future changes still need to be defined, communicated with and approved by medical schools, state medical boards, and national medical boards.  In short, we don’t know the exact language of the changes, but we can guess what the

When will the changes happen?  The earliest year the exam would be affected would be 2011.  The USMLE board expressed the importance of providing a grace period to allow for students who have passed Step 1 to take Step 2.  This means that whatever system is in place when you begin your program, that’s the program that you’ll follow thanks to likely grandfathering clauses.

What’s changing? The full statement of principles are outlined on the USMLE website.  It’s important to note a couple things: clinical skills and basic science knowledge will be tested at the same time, so MSTP students will need some of the third year curriculum to take the test.  And they’ll need to take the exam at least 9 months before they plan to start their residency program.

One change will surely drive changes in the medical school curriculum, and favor MD PhD students.  The board’s recommendations stated:

CEUP [board] recommends that USMLE emphasize the importance of the scientific foundations of medicine in all components of the assessment process. The assessment of these foundations should occur within a clinical context or framework, to the greatest extent possible.

The hope is that this new emphasis on the exam will change the way that physicians are trained–to think more like scientists!

Read the principles of the new changes