August 15th, 2019

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One of the first questions I get asked by many people when I tell them that I am an MD/PhD candidate is “Why?” Usually I reply with some flippant answer about stacking degrees next to my name or avoiding a job, which gets some chuckles. However, for anyone considering whether to pursue the degree, this is just part of the story.

Many authors more eloquent than me have written about the increasing need for physician-scientists. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has put together a helpful graphic showing the pathway of a physician-scientist, whether through a dual MD/PhD degree or a solo MD. While you do not necessarily need a PhD degree in order to conduct research as a physician, you do need an MD to see patients, and the dual degree offers a number of benefits beyond either individual degree. For me the MD/PhD degree is a marriage of the humanistic and technical parts of medicine and allows me to help patients both in the future and in the present. I’m hoping it will allow me to explore topics at the intersection of medicine and technology where historically there has been a disconnect in expertise.

The sheer complexity of the human body, and its variability between individuals, makes a medical and clinical perspective very useful when designing new therapies or diagnostics. In my field of biomedical engineering, in tackling these challenges it is often easy to reduce patients to “subjects” or “users”. We are sometimes guilty of fitting a patient to a solution rather than fitting a solution to a patient. And even when a solution is designed for a problem, oftentimes there are practical and logistical considerations that prevent the solution from being usable. This is mostly just the nature of biomedical research, and not necessarily a bad thing. As an aspiring physician-scientist my goal is to keep my research grounded, and at the same time derive inspiration for it from my interactions with patients, each of whom has their individual needs and desires.

In addition, physicians have also increasingly taken on a role as educators of technology. We are asked to provide advice on everything from vaccines, a topic which we are intimately familiar with, to robotic surgery, a topic which we are perhaps less familiar with. It doesn’t help that there is a whirlwind of information, and sometimes misinformation, available online and through various media that can cloud public perception and lead to patients ignoring or distrusting the advice of their doctors.

To be sufficiently prepared to explain recommendations to patients and advise scientists alike, physicians should be intimately familiar with reading and evaluating peer-reviewed research, including basic science and translational research. For example, recently I saw a headline on social media about scientists keeping brains alive after death, and the ensuing predictable comments about Frankenstein. Physicians are tasked with seeing past the media advertisement, understanding more precisely what exactly is being done, and explaining such to interested parties. This is an often overlooked benefit of PhD training that extends beyond a specific field.

One of the biggest concerns for many people is the length, or perceived length of the program. Because an MD/PhD degree involves two complete degrees, the length of study is usually around 8 years. As I wrap up my first year however, I have to say that the time goes by extremely quickly as you study and conduct research. In addition, most combined degree programs offer some level of tuition support, often a full tuition waiver for medical school as well as a graduate stipend for the duration of your enrollment. These factors allow you to graduate medical school without needing to repay debts, and are also enough to support a modest lifestyle. If you are passionate about biomedical research and are interested in exploring your options feel free to reach out to me or another current or former student. I’m looking forward to the journey ahead.

Andrew Wang
I meant it when I encouraged you to reach out to me! Find me on Twitter at @acuteWangle