Just like there exists a secret population of people who somehow keep Long-John Silvers in business (seriously, have you ever met anyone who’s eaten there?), there also exists a secret population of people who pursue two doctorate degrees called the “MD/PhD.”
While there are no definitions to be found on Urban Dictionary, some people colloquially refer to us as “MuDPhuDs,” a rather aesthetically displeasing nickname that lacks any sort of creativity and wit that I personally think is a terrible name. Nevertheless, we exist. But what exactly are we, who are we, why did we sign up for 8 more years of school after college (not including residency)?
For starters, an MD/PhD is a dual degree program that involves 4 years of medical school (the MD part) and four years of a PhD (usually in the life sciences), culminating in an 8 year marathon of being tossed around different departments of grad school like a hot potato.
Most programs, like the one I’m in, split up the two degrees in a “2-4-2” fashion. Meaning that you do two years of medical school, a full four-year PhD, and then the last two years of medical school. The reason it’s done this way is because medical school is commonly split up into the “preclinical years” which is a lot of basic science lectures that are essentially aimed at preparing students for the first board exam called “Step 1.” The exam is usually taken after the second year of medical school and precedes the “clinical years” of medical school which is when we actually learn how to be a doctor by working in the hospital on clinical rotations. So it seems fitting that one would learn a bunch of science mostly relevant for a standardized exam and do a PhD before going back and actually learning how to do medicine. There are some programs who do 4-4 (in either order) and even 1-4-3 or 3-4-1, but 2-4-2 is definitely the most common.
But why though? The program was initially set up and formalized by the National Health Institute (NIH) to groom a new generation of physician-scientists. Someone who is capable of bridging the often broad gap of bench to bedside (I.e. brining therapies from a lab to being prescribed to a real person). Most people pursuing an MD/PhD degree have specific research goals that are linked to their areas of clinical work.
For example, I will likely do a residency in neurology, focusing on disorders that affect normal cognitive functioning and my research in the laboratory will follow suit! Specifically, I could specialize in diagnosing and treating Alzheimer’s in a neurology clinic and work in a neuroscience department on various models (mice, monkeys, cells, etc.) of Alzheimer’s disease with the aim of understanding disease progression and the generation of new potential therapies.
Having both perspectives from the clinic with real patients and the lab helps us understand the human condition on a deeper level. With a new era of personalized medicine being ushered in, researchers will have to take into account the values of patients (for example some patients may not like needles and all but refuse to take medications that require needles) while clinicians must be literate about the progression of disease before it becomes clinically relevant (i.e. prevention of adverse health outcomes). The MD/PhD dual degree program is aimed at creating physician scientists capable of both.