“What do I need to get in?” This is a question commonly asked by many premedical students, including M.D./Ph.D applicants. When we started the application process, several of us had interacted with current M.D./Ph.D students or faculty possessing both degrees. To us lowly undergraduates, they seemed like gods at the time—insurmountable mountains of knowledge, mysterious and mythical, possessing a level of motivation, experience, and smarts that could only be characteristic of the most advanced form of human intelligence. How in the world could puny peons like us possibly compare to these unearthly beings? So the thinking went…
Now that we have gone through the process, we have learned a simple axiom: you can either be intimidated or you can do the intimidating. First, it should be emphasized that no single criterion will get you in—it is truly the whole package. M.D./Ph.D. programs seek highly qualified individuals with a genuine passion for science and medicine. They look for maturity, dedication to research, and evidence that you have thought through the reasons you want to pursue this difficult pathway. Admissions committees know that M.D./Ph.D. programs aren’t for everyone. It takes certain characteristics to become a successful physician-scientist. They are very conscious of students who show even the slightest bit of doubt about commitment to research, as attempts are made to screen out for students looking for the “free M.D.”
A certain level of academic achievement is necessary to be a successful applicant. Factors such as breadth and strength of college coursework, grades, and grade point average (GPA) provide a measure of work ethic and the ability to be a successful student in future studies. While there are usually no specific cut-offs for many school’s admissions, it becomes increasingly difficult to get into programs with lower GPAs. Generally speaking, you should aim for at least a 3.5 average, with a higher GPA depending on other parts of your application (i.e. MCAT scores). This, of course, is not a steadfast requirement and there are probably applicants admitted with lower averages. Improvement over time, post baccalaureate/graduate coursework, and other post-undergraduate education is also taken into account and encouraged for students lower GPAs.
Standardized Test Scores
Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) scores are usually required and the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is optional. Average MCAT scores tend to be higher for M.D./Ph.D. applicants/students than the M.D.-only medical applicant/student. At several top programs, MSTPs have average total MCAT scores in the 35-36 range. However, students fall both above and below this score. High scores on the physical and biological sciences sections are probably emphasized more than those on the verbal or writing. Again, there are no steadfast cut-offs here and a weakness in one area can be counterbalanced by strengths in others.
Choice of Major and Coursework
There is no specific college major requirement for M.D./Ph.D. applicants, although most tend to have a solid scientific background. The basic course requirements parallel those of regular medical school admissions (i.e. biology, general and organic chemistry, physics, calculus, English, etc) with more emphasis on the sciences. Courses taken in the quantitative basic sciences (i.e. biochemistry, thermodynamics, calculus-based physics, differential equations) are recommended, although not necessary. Graduate-level courses in macromolecular structure, genetics, biophysics, and other subjects may be helpful in showing academic rigor and preparing you for future graduate study.
The M.D./Ph.D. admissions committees are looking for high-octane students that are extremely motivated to pursue a career in research. Successful M.D./Ph.D. applicants usually have provided evidence of sustained scientific-based laboratory investigation. Most have at least two years of research experience, often with a leading role on a self-directed long-term project. This means more than simply working with a postdoctoral fellow or graduate student. The level of autonomy given to you in the lab is very important. You may have participated in several summer projects. Alternatively, you may have worked continuously for multiple years. Some of us contributed to a variety of small projects, while others worked on one or two large ones. There is no set formula. You must show a contribution of intellectual creativity in designing and running experiments, analyzing the data, forming conclusions based on the results, and presenting the work in some fashion. In other words, you must have learned and practiced the scientific process.
Communication is a critical skill in the scientific world. Attendance at conferences, poster sessions, and seminars can help demonstrate your interest, while also expanding your knowledge base. Often, applicants have written some abstracts and have presented at professional or student research conferences. Research publications can be a big plus, especially if you are the first or second author. There will always be an occasional applicant or two with a paper in Nature or Science. However, the vast majority of applicants do not have publications, as it is uncommon for undergraduates to have sufficient time or opportunity to contribute a significant body of scientific work. Communication extends beyond the written word, however, and you must be able to clearly and concisely describe your research verbally. Formal presentations given at conferences and informal practice with your advisor or other lab members can help prepare you for interviews.
While grades, test scores, and research experience comprise a hefty portion of the admissions committee criteria, they often are not sufficient to differentiate between highly qualified applicants. This may sound surprising, but the committees are keenly aware that there is more to life than academics. Therefore, they look for clinical experience, volunteer work, community service, athletics, unusual talents, and other activities or qualities that can demonstrate multidimensionality. M.D./Ph.D. education is a long process, so committees want to make sure you have found the balance between academics and other aspects of your life.
Despite the stereotyped image of science as dry and boring, qualities like creativity, curiosity, and passion about research are necessary attributes of a successful scientist, and thus are sought by M.D./Ph.D. admissions committees. They expect a certain level of maturity and confidence. You must be able to handle uncertainty, as this is part of science. A demonstrated ability to overcome obstacles is golden. Often, this can be described in your letters of recommendation. Whatever your background, it is vitally important for you to be able to convey your independence, creativity, and passion by showing an interest in your own work and that of others
In summary, M.D./Ph.D. admissions committees seek highly qualified individuals with outstanding potential for a career in medicine and biomedical research. However, don’t be intimidated by the hype! Besides academic qualifications and research experience, it is really your ability to convey your innate curiosity and drive that will determine whether and where you are admitted. In other words, half of it is what you’ve already accomplished; the other half is still up to you.
Women and Underrepresented Minorities
Diversity is highly prized in the medical and scientific professions. Input from a broad range of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences can facilitate scientific advances and enhance both medical education and patient care. Women and minorities are traditionally underrepresented in M.D./Ph.D. programs, for various reasons, including past discrimination, lack of opportunity, and other societal factors. Women face an especially tough battle in pursuing the M.D./Ph.D. career track, as the long duration of the programs may interfere with family planning. However, there are many examples of both men and women who successfully complete these programs while simultaneously handling marriage and child rearing.
A major initiative of the NIH is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities and women in science and medicine. Therefore, MSTPs actively seek to recruit qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Several NIH-supported programs (i.e. MARC, MBRS: visit www.nih.gov) allow minority students to conduct research during the high school and college years. This has effectively increased the pool of qualified minority students by preparing them for future graduate study. Women and minorities are highly encouraged to apply for MSTPs and non-MSTP M.D./Ph.D. programs.