A Comprehensive Guide to MD-PhD Admissions by Current Students
By Wei Ma and Gustavo Pacheco
If you are reading this post, you might be just as confused as we were two years ago. Truth is, the MD-PhD community is a far smaller group compared to our MD-only counterpart, and its information on the internet are often sparse, outdated, and unreliable.
We wrote this comprehensive FAQ to help remove some of the mystery and confusion surrounding the MD-PhD admissions process. We hope this guide addresses the most burning questions you may have. Please send us additional questions or feedback at email@example.com so we can continue to improve this guide. We wish you the best of luck!
This FAQ is divided into sections: General Application Concerns, Pre-Med/College Stage, Gap Year, Writing your AMCAS Application, Interviews, and a brief word on our journey to the MSTP.
FAQ: General Application Concerns
Is my GPA/MCAT good enough for X Medical School’s MD/PhD program?
TL;DR: Use the GPA/MCAT data available from individual medical schools to gauge your “fit” for a respective MD/PhD program, with some adjustments.
Generally speaking, applicants to MD/PhD programs are self-selected because of their strong background in research. However, it is generally a good metric to compare your own grades and scores with the readily available MD-only admissions data published by the medical school of the programs of your interest.
Many medical schools will openly publish their MD-admissions data on Mean GPA/MCAT to their website (eg. University of Virginia School of Medicine). However, we have found that using the Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) interface from the AAMC consolidates the MD-admissions information from all US medical schools into a user-friendly interface. Additionally, US medical schools are required to update the Median GPA/MCAT information sent to the MSAR each year to maintain good standing with the AAMC. Therefore, it is the most up to date information available. Lastly, although the MSAR is a subscription service, your pre-health advising offices of may provide free subscriptions to their students.
To further gauge your level of “fit” for a given MD/PhD program we suggest that applicants consider the following:
If the MD-admissions for a given medical school shows that the median GPA is 3.6 and median MCAT is 515, then a combination of 3.5/514 or slightly above or below (within a range of 0.05 GPA points or a range of 1 MCAT point) would be considered an “OK/fine fit.” An increase of 0.2 in GPA and increase in MCAT of 2 points (eg. 3.7/517) and you would be a “GOOD fit.” An addition of another 0.2 GPA/2 MCAT points (eg. 4.0/516) would be a “COMPETITIVE fit.”
Please note, AAMC has their own way of calculating overall GPA and Biology-Chemistry-Physics-Math (BCPM) GPA. Therefore, the maximum GPA will be a 4.0, even if your school uses a different scale on transcripts. Overall, GPA and MCAT scores are only the minimum metrics for admissions committees to further review your application (for more discussion see the end of the post).
My undergraduate GPA is lower than the programs’ metrics. How do MD/PhD admissions committees view this?
TL;DR: Admissions committees prefer to see growth. Despite a low-GPA; if there is an upward GPA trend across terms, this should be highlighted and explained in essays, letters, and interviews.
MD/PhD committees (and most reasonable human beings) know that the first couple of undergraduate academic terms can be a challenging transition for many students. Students with a few B’s and C’s in pre-med courses (eg. General/Organic Chemistry, Calculus, Physics, etc.) have been admitted to MD/PhD programs. Additionally, committees understand that difficult situations outside of a student’s control can influence their performance (eg. financial difficulties, family emergencies, etc.)
We urge applicants to be transparent in explaining any poor academic terms in the written portions of their application, such as your personal essays, without being whiny. Additionally, inclusion of these challenges in undergraduate committee letters or trusted reference letters is another appropriate location for sharing this information. However, this does not mean listing an explanation for each individual poor grade.
Crafting a cohesive story of why some academic terms were less than stellar is helpful to committees. In your explanation you should include:
- Description of challenge
- Impact of challenge on academic performance or other circumstances
- Changes taken to overcome challenge
- Subsequent success
Sharing such information allows admissions committees to gain further insight into the applicant behind the numbers. It may feel uncomfortable to share such sensitive information. However, we are ultimately applying for training as physician-scientists and must show our emotional intelligence in addition to our scientific acumen. Putting ourselves in these vulnerable positions allows committees to see our emotional depth and tenacity, essential components of a well-rounded physician.
Hopefully, you have been able to overcome your challenges and can highlight how your GPA has improved in your essays. Overall, an improvement in GPA over your 4 years of college will be seen favorably by admissions committees. Most admissions committees expect that 3rd and 4th-year undergraduate courses will be more specialized and challenging, closer to graduate-level coursework. Therefore, showing a higher GPA in later academic terms can bolster an argument of growth. Try to calculate GPAs for each academic term or year and highlight consistent upward trends in essays and interviews with faculty. Both Wei and Gustavo saw upward trends in their GPAs in their 3rd and 4th years compared to their 1st and 2nd years.
Seriously, I really screwed up my GPA and it’s beyond salvageable. How can I improve my chance of admission?
TL;DR — Even with a low GPA, you still have a chance at admission. However, the path forward may require a couple extra steps, such as obtaining a competitive MCAT score or taking additional courses.
Your GPA and academic transcript are only one part of the application reviewed, when you are considered for an interview. The MCAT and GPA are used as rough markers to immediately separate applicants who should immediately be offered an opportunity to interview. In our personal experiences, we have seen several ways that applicants can overcome their low GPA: 1) obtain a competitive MCAT score, or 2) take additional graduate or college science courses.
TL;DR: For students with low GPAs, performing well on the MCAT could provide a critical boost to your application for securing an interview.
Not all GPAs are created equal. In other words, a 3.5 GPA from institution X is not the same as a 3.5 GPA from institution Y. Admissions committees understand that there are clear differences in the academic rigor of courses within and between institutions. Therefore, the MCAT can be an excellent way for applicants with low GPAs to demonstrate their academic aptitude.
At the end of the day, the MCAT is only a standardized test and does not completely reflect the abilities of a given student. However, it does provide a more standardized measure to compare students. For example, student A with a 3.0 GPA and a 507 MCAT may not be within the range of consideration for an interview of X School of Medicine based on median GPA/MCAT. However, student B with a 3.0 GPA and a 517 MCAT could be considered for an interview offer at X School of Medicine based on their MCAT score alone. Ultimately, once a student is offered an interview, they are generally reviewed by admissions committees without their GPAs and test scores. Their essays and performance in the interview setting becomes the most important factors. Admissions committees are often blinded to GPA/MCAT in the final review for admission.
On a personal note, Gustavo had a relatively low GPA upon graduation from college and took one gap year to ensure a strong MCAT performance prior to submission of his MD/PhD applications.
Master’s or Certificate Degree Programs
TL;DR: Certificate or master’s degree programs can help students complete the necessary coursework for MD/PhD admission or complete additional science coursework to demonstrate their aptitude for science.
In recent years, there has been an expansion of master’s and certificate degree programs to complete or enhance applications of pre-medical students. Career change programs were designed for students who have completed less than 50% of the required pre-medical coursework. For example, Student A completed a BA in Art History in college and did not take any of the required pre-medical coursework. One year after graduating from college, they started volunteering in a local free clinic and discovered a passion for medicine. Therefore, they decided to pursue a master’s or certificate program for them to complete their pre-medical coursework.
We have also seen some success in recent years with an alternative use of career change programs. Some undergraduate pre-medical students may recognize that they are not performing well in their pre-medical courses prior to completion of 50% of the required coursework. These students could decide to complete their Bachelor’s degree in a non-basic science field and wait to complete their pre-medical coursework following graduation from college. This will allow poor performing students to be eligible for career change programs.
This alternative could be desirable for students struggling with challenges that are outside of their control (eg. family loss, mental health crises, financial troubles, etc.) Once the challenges are more stably controlled, we recommend for the student to apply to enter a career change program to complete the remainder of the pre-medical coursework.
In addition to career change programs, academic enhancement programs have developed recently. These programs are designed for students who have completed more than 50% of the pre-medical coursework in college and did not perform well. Such programs also provide graduates with a certificate or master’s and the opportunity to demonstrate their aptitude for basic science through a curriculum of basic science courses.
The percent of pre-medical coursework completed during the undergraduate years will determine if a student should pursue a career change or academic enhancement program. Generally, career change programs are looked upon more favorably by admissions committees than academic enhancement programs. Please follow this link to search through both types of programs. Both types of programs can be expensive with tuitions and room/board >$60,000. There are some limited internal scholarships available for these programs. However, most students will take loans to complete them. Additionally, both private and public institutions offer these programs. Therefore, you may qualify for in-state tuition at a program close to home for you.
How many hours of research do I need to successfully apply to MD/PhD programs?
TL;DR: There is no magic number of research hours to obtain admission. However, approx. 3000 hours would be enough to establish a solid understanding of your research and master some experimental techniques.
This is a common question because there is a slot to estimate the number of hours you have done research on your AAMC application or in secondary applications to individual medical schools. Unfortunately, there is no magic number of hours you need to hit for acceptance.
Generally, one to two years of full time research is competitive for most programs. In our personal experiences, those who successfully obtained interview slots completed between 3000 to 7000 hours. For Wei, he conducted research for one college academic year, two summers in college, and two post-baccalaureate years. That accumulated to approximately 5500 hours. For Gustavo, he started conducting biomedical research in the summer after his second year of high school and continued conducting biomedical research in a full-time capacity for all summers of high school and college in addition to part-time research during all of his academic terms, and one full-time post-baccalaureate fellowship year. In sum, Gustavo completed approximately 6000 hours of research upon entrance to the MD/PhD program.
Approximately 50% of successful MD/PhD applicants do not take additional post-baccalaureate research years. However, these applicants have sustained and productive research experiences during their undergraduate curriculum. Some helpful markers to determine if your undergraduate research alone is sufficient:
- Inclusion of individual research in a peer-reviewed publication from the lab
- Presentation of work in a non-undergraduate or non-summer specific symposium
- Reasonable level of comfort in explaining your work to research colleagues
Ultimately, the goal of the research hours is to ensure that the applicant is comfortable explaining their work to other scientists. You will be challenged to explain the details of your work, putting in the hours to know your projects inside and out is essential.
What kind of research should I do in college or post-baccalaureate year?
TL;DR: The specific area of research does not matter. You should pursue a topic that excites you and helps you demonstrate a passion for inquiry.
The best kind of research to do is work that excites you! You are ultimately trying to prove to MD/PhD admissions committees that you are a committed and competent research scientist. It is far more important for you to like the research and know your project well. At times the topic of research may drive you to put in the time and effort to delve further in the research. Other times, your fondness of the PI or the research environment may encourage your line of inquiry. Few people continue the same field of work pre-MD/PhD into PhD research. Therefore, it is not expected for you to continue the same topic of study once in the MD/PhD program.
Of special note, while most MD/PhD applicants conduct research in a basic science field; some students may be drawn to research in the social sciences or humanities for the PhD. An incredibly small number of MD/PhD programs support a PhD outside of the basic sciences. Generally, the MD/PhD programs that support a PhD in the humanities or social sciences are limited to the top-tiered programs. We are not experts in these areas of investigation and suggest applicants from social science or humanities research backgrounds to investigate which MD/PhD programs support a PhD in the social sciences or humanities. Ultimately, it may be helpful to pursue a unique area of research to help your work and passion stand out!
With which PI should I do my research? Will working with someone famous help?
TL;DR — Search for small to medium sized labs where you can grow as a scientist and have a personal relationship with the PI.
Ultimately, having a personally positive research experience where you have a close relationship with the PI and an intimate knowledge of the research project is paramount. This will help you receive a letter of recommendation that is deeply personal and honest with specific anecdotes of your performance in the lab to MD/PhD committees. Unfortunately, most famous scientists have very large and hierarchically divided labs to ensure their extensive resources are not wasted. Therefore, we encourage pre-MD/PhD students to search for small to medium sized labs where you can meet regularly with the PI and receive carefully tailored mentorship that will help you grow.
Should I take a gap or post-baccalaureate year?
TL;DR: Do you have the research and academic requirements for successful admission? Can you be fully committed to 8 years of rigorous physician-scientist training? If not, consider taking a year or two before applying and entering an MD/PhD program.
This is a highly individualized question. There are a number of components critical to the research components of your MD/PhD application. We encourage applicants to ask themselves:
- Do I have enough experience to decide that research is something that I enjoy?
- Is a 4-year PhD something that I would benefit from?
- Do I have the minimum research credentials (eg. research time, project knowledge, presentation practice etc.) to be competitive?
If any of the answers to the above questions are no, we would encourage you to consider a post-baccalaureate year or two to conduct research.
Additionally, if your undergraduate academic transcript has a fair share of blemishes, we would encourage you to consider pursuing some graduate coursework. Please see our FAQ : I really screwed up my GPA, do I still have a chance? Should I just cut my losses and give up on admission?
In addition to the purely academic reasons of research, we are not just students. We have aspirations and challenges outside of academics. Therefore, it’s completely fine to take a year or two to travel, address family emergencies, or explore a different industry. Once you start the MD/PhD, you will be on a fast-track for 8 years. It’s best to take care of any needs for your time before committing to the program.
FAQ: Questions During the Pre-Med/College Stage
Does it help if I went to a prestigious undergraduate institution?
TL;DR: Regardless of where you go to college, you will need to prove that you deserve an MD/PhD position. The prestige will not get you very far in the process if you have not put in the hard work.
Going to a prestigious undergraduate institution is a double edged sword. It’s great that you did well in high school, but you still need to perform well in college. For example, 40% of the entering undergraduate class at Johns Hopkins University begins as pre-medical students. Many of your classmates have the same dream as you to enter into an MD/PhD program. Therefore, you will need to find a way to stand out among the monolith of MD/PhD hopefuls at your school. Admissions committees will be highly critical of how you spend your time and the resources of the institution. They’ll be looking to see how you maximized the nearly limitless resources at your college.
Attending a less-renown college does not harm your chances! Admissions committees will look to your GPA/MCAT, letters of recommendation and activities to better understand the opportunities available to you. What you do in college and in your post-baccalaureate years is far more important than the prestige of your school. People who apply to MD/PhD programs are self-selective in many ways. You will be amazed by the quality of applicants that you will meet during your applicant cycle and the caliber of your classmates! At one of Wei’s interviews, he was the only applicant out of the eight who did not attend Harvard or Yale.
If you happen to be in high school and reading this, then go to the school that will fit YOUR DREAMS, not the school you think will impress people with its name.
How much community volunteering do I need?
TL;DR: Community volunteering should be for the benefit of others. You should do as much as you can manage without sacrificing quality and sanity.
Feel free to do as much community volunteering as you would like! There is no minimum amount to demonstrate that you are a thoughtful human being. Wei never volunteered because he invested his time in research. Gustavo spent some free time volunteering on public health projects and Latinx cultural organizations in college, but did not volunteer during his post-baccalaureate year.
Volunteering should come from a desire to help another person, it is not a checklist. If you spread your time across 5 or more different projects (including research, paid work, and classes) simply to check boxes, it will show. The quality of your work will deteriorate. If you cannot easily list 3–5 tasks or responsibilities that you faithfully complete on a project, then you need to let that project go. It is better to provide quality work to 1–2 projects.
There is more to life than getting into graduate school. If you have to sacrifice time to enjoy the memorable moments of college or post-college life, then do it!
FAQ: Gap Year (if you take one or two… or more)
What are some research positions that we can complete in gap/post-baccalaureate years?
TL;DR: Prioritize finding a paid post-baccalaureate position that has an overseeing post-bac administration.
We strongly recommend engaging in PAID research experiences within an overseeing office for post-baccalaureate students . For example, both Wei and Gustavo were a part of the Post-baccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award program at the NIH. These were PAID positions, there is a monthly stipend and salary. Additionally, students can take 1–2 courses each year to help them in their research or complete some coursework. These positions are similar to what graduate school is like. A starting list of these programs can be found at this link. Most US medical schools have developed research experience programs similar to the NIH program. Some large pharmaceutical companies have also developed research experience programs, such as Novartis.
We encourage students to seek opportunities where there is an overseeing post-baccalaureate program at the institution. These organizing programs provide helpful programming for graduate school applicants, such as graduate school fairs or application seminars. Uncomfortable situations of harassment or hostility can arise in the lab. The post-bac program administration helps post-bac students navigate difficult situations and step in if necessary to advocate for the post-bac student.
There are also PAID research technician positions. We would discourage applicants from these positions unless you have a previous relationship with the lab. You are financially supported directly by the PI of a lab and often do not have your own project. You will conduct routine maintenance of the laboratory supplies.
There are also UNPAID research positions or volunteering. These are okay if you do not need the money, but will have a project in the lab and your supply needs will be supported by the PI.
Alternatively, you can seek employment outside of the research realm. You can work in consulting, finance, the restaurant industry, or whatever else that can help you gain experience and money. As long as you can eloquently explain how your work helped you towards a career as a physician-scientist, you should be okay.
Tips for your AMCAS Application
How should I write my “MD” and “MD/PhD” essays?
TL;DR: MD and MD/PhD essays should paint a clear picture of your motivations for becoming a physician and a physician-scientist.
Your MD and MD/PhD essays should be able to stand independently. In some cases, the MD committee will consider you for an interview independently from the MD/PhD committee. However, the two bodies of work should be linked thematically.
In your MD essay, focus on addressing why you want to be a PHYSICIAN. What initiated your motivation and what are your goals in the future? Your research essay should address why and how you decided to enter and pursue research. You should explain how you will complement your clinical training with your scientific training.
To link the MD and MD/PhD essays, use a common theme or a thread. For example, you can hint at how past work experiences have driven you to choose the MD, then refer to that experience again in the MD-PhD essay, but now focus on how that experience shaped your outlook.
We suggest avoiding cliche topics, even though we recognize that a lot of us enter into this field for the same reasons: sick loved ones, intellectual engagement, etc. While your reason for entering the field may be similar to countless other applicants, your story for entering the field is unique. The admissions office reads hundreds, if not thousands, of applications each week. You want to stand out. The details of your story or style of writing may stay with the reader even if the conclusions are not particularly unique. These differences could ultimately bring your application into the “interview pile.”
How should I write my “Significant Research Experience” essay?
TL;DR: Focus on the technical and scientific aspects of your research experiences in this section.
There is not a definite expectation for this section. We will provide some general guidelines that may help you organize your essay.
You should consider including an overview section in the beginning. This should be like an abstract that summarizes what kind of work you enjoyed or problems that intrigued you to help orient your readers. This will be the most challenging portion to write within 5–7 sentences.
You should then provide further details of each of your significant research experiences with details in chronological order. They are trying to understand if you can write like a scientist. In other words, does this look like an abridged results section? This should address the question or problem that your work sought to address and what you found. This should be comprehensible to somebody from a basic science, social science, or humanities background, depending on the field of research. For example, if you do work on basement membrane invasion. This should be comprehensible to a virologist who works on membrane trafficking. If you work on maternal health outcomes, this should be comprehensible to an economist who works on private insurance policies.
Use returns and hashtags like:
##### Undergraduate Experience #####
to help define your sections and orient your readers. Include the time/date and location along with mentors. Include shortened citations of your own published work if needed (in numbered brackets, then a bibliography at the end).
Here is an example of what Wei did:
### Overview ###
[insert paragraph here to summarize your work]
### Undergraduate Experience ###
Colby College, Fall 2013- Spring 2016
Mentor: Dr. XXX
Project Title: [Project title here]
[Citation of published work (1)]
### Works Cited ####
How could I perfect my essays?
TL;DR: SHARE YOUR ESSAYS AROUND! However, limit the number of people that see them to 2–3 people to prevent significant dilution of your voice.
There is a happy balance between not sharing your essays at all and sharing your essays to so many people that their subsequent changes completely dilute anything you have written. In general, each essay should be reviewed by at least one other person who will take the time to go line by line, sentence by sentence, to make sure it reads well and makes sense. If a person seems burdened with too much work at the time, they will likely not put in the time you need.
Each essay will be read by a different committee. Therefore, we encourage you to select people from different backgrounds. This includes people who may not be in the medical field. This is especially important because you want to convince a wide audience that you are fit and motivated to become a physician-scientist. Ask them for feedback on ideas, structure, and the overall picture. At a minimum these folks should be well-educated and can write well.
The MD essay are reviewed best by people from a humanities background. Most of the people on the MD admissions committees do not from a strictly basic science background. This essay should be the most personal essay that demonstrates your unique personality.
The MD/PhD essay should be reviewed by a physician-scientist or physician, if possible. Being in a research institution helps you make connections with a wide array of people. It may be uncomfortable to meet new people. However, it certainly helps.
The Significant Research Experience essays should be reviewed by your own PI and a PI not familiar with your work. This will ensure that the level of detail translates well across areas of research.
How far back should I go into the activities/experience section?
TL;DR: I think most of us want to forget our awkward high school days. Leave high school experiences out.
You should include ONLY college and post-college activities. In rare instances, you may include a high-school activity if it is directly related to medicine, science, or research that extended into college. However, we do not suggest inclusion because it is too distant to make an impact.
How to choose the “significant” experiences?
TL;DR: Select experiences that are unique and will help you stand apart from other applicants.
Choose the experiences that highlight who you are and why you will be an outstanding physician-scientist. This may include sustained research experiences, volunteerism, teaching, or even hobbies.
Hobbies are critical to help you stand out. Especially if you have the space. Let the admission committee know that you are more than a research robot and have fun ways to de-stress and cope. Showcase how you are unique!
What kind of activities should I include?
TL;DR: Anything that took up a significant amount of your energy, time, or concentration outside of classes should go here.
Include everything that may help define who you are. This includes hobbies, skills, employment, volunteering, research poster presentations and talks. There will be a drop list of items you can choose from!
Wei had a section for all the awards, then another that includes all the computational and lab skills, and another for talks and presentations. This really worked well to organize his miscellaneous achievements!
Gustavo had sections for each student organization that he invested a significant amount of time in. He had a separate section for each college research experience, a section for grants/awards, and a separate section for publications and associated presentations.
Include all publications under a single activity section in a well-formatted bibliography. It is okay if you only played a minor role in the paper, as long as your name is on it. Make sure you understand the papers you list. They become fair game during the interviews.
Faculty and students that you interview with might ask you specific questions about the paper. In our experience, no one will ask you an esoteric question in the field and expect you to know the answer. If you are asked a question at any time during the interview for which you do not know the answer, say, “I do not know.” Follow-up immediately with how you might address the problem (further experiments, suggested readings, etc.)
But my significant experience overlaps with my research experience essay!
TL;DR — Chill. You can have research experiences as significant experiences.
That is okay! You can choose a research experience as a significant experience. However, we suggest a max overlap of 2 out of 3.
DO NOT copy and paste! DO NOT waste precious letter spaces with redundancy. Use the “Significant Research Experience” section to highlight technical and scientific parts of the research (e.g. “we used scRNA-seq followed by non-negative matrix factorization to define subcluster cell lineage”). Use the “Most Meaningful Experience” section to talk about how those research experiences helped you grow. In other words, how did your research experience impact your thinking, your choice of future research field, your connection to patients, your understanding of the scientific process, or just how to be a better human being.
How many Letters of Recommendation (LOR) do I need?
TL;DR — No less than 4 and no more than 7.
No more than 7. There is a limit on the amount of time that the admissions committee can spend reviewing an individual application. Do not make them hate your application by overwhelming them with letters.
There are caps for certain programs, for example at the time of our application Johns Hopkins University only accepted 7 or fewer. This can be bypassed if your school has a pre-medical advising office that writes a committee letter (which is a letter that summarizes ALL of your Letters of Recommendation).
Wei had 9 LOR when he applied but he had a committee to summarize them into one LOR. Gustavo had 5 letters of recommendation [1 humanities faculty member, 2 basic science faculty members. 2 research mentors] and 1 committee letter.
If your school does not have a committee, we suggest that you have no more than 6–7 LOR. Include at least one humanities or social science faculty member LOR. We suggest that you include every research mentor you have in your LOR packet, unless you do not refer to them in your experience section.
If you had a bad experience with someone and did not want to include them at all, that is okay. Just realize that you may be asked to address a gap in your timeline if it consumed a significant portion of your time. If you have had extensive lab experiences and had many mentors, and sending them all will set you over the 7 letter limit, then select the few that you know will be excellent letters based on your previous interactions and relationships, but keep the unused letters saved in case the committees ask for them.
Tips for your Interview
What should I do to prepare for the interview?
TL;DR — Take careful time to prepare. READ THIS SECTION COMPLETELY.
You should first begin by understanding that different schools have different interviewing structures, but generally fall into one of the following types:
1) Dedicated MD-PhD interview that spans 2–3day
2) Dedicated MD-PhD days that are tagged along with a regular MD day.
In the first scenario, you will interview with MDs, MD/PhDs, and PhDs with program directors who may hold one or more degrees. These interviews are really focused on the PhD part, they really want to know your research interests and how they tie in with your medical interests. A lot of times you may feel like you are interviewing for a PhD position, because they will ask a lot about your research interest.
In the second scenario, you will spend a day interviewing for the MD/PhD program, then another day interviewing WITH or AS a regular MD applicant. You will be subjected to interviews such as MMI (multiple mini interviews), group interviews, ethics cases etc. This is probably the most common type of interviewing we have encountered. DO NOT neglect preparation of MMIs and other MD-only activities. The MD-admissions committee almost always has to give the green light first before the MD/PhD committee can offer admission! Applicants may be offered PhD-only admission if they are rejected by the MD-admissions, but that is extremely rare. It is more likely that you may be offered MD admission without MD/PhD admission.
Overall, we suggest that you begin by reading the abstracts of the work from the people whom you will be interviewing. Do not try to read the whole paper. Reading the whole paper will not help you very much. Try to get a glimpse of their area of research by looking up their lab webpage. Jot down notes for your interview. Come up with questions to ask specifically. Take each faculty interview as an opportunity to learn about a new area of research in 30 minutes. However, DO NOT try to “pimp” your interviewer by asking esoteric questions of their field (this actually happens, and is a big no-no).
Another important thing to do is to review your own research. You should feel comfortable answering the prompt: “So tell me a bit about your research.” Your answer should be cogent and concise lasting 2 minutes at most.
Sometimes, schools might ask you to prepare a longer 5min chalk-talk or presentation in front of a panel of scientists (Wei is looking at you, Cincinnati!). These are high-stakes and often make or break your chances. They can also be very stressful and high-pressured. You may feel like you are being interrogated- and you are! Do not make the mistake of brushing it off to the last minute. Have something rehearsed and well-thought out for these types of sessions. Gustavo wrote out his speech and presented it to his fiancee every day for two weeks in advance to ensure it was memorized.
Undoubtedly, you will be asked “why program x,” and this is, in Wei’s opinion, an annoying question.
“Well I wanna be a doctor, duh?”
However, this is actually a question that is evaluated highly, so you need to have an answer for this before you go in. Think about what characteristics are attractive and unique to the program. For example, location/proximity to family, size/length/strength of the program, a particular research group that you want to work for during the PhD, or simply the weather. Honestly, every little detail matters when you are choosing an eight year program.
Should I send emails to PIs that I am interested in working with prior to my interview?
TL;DR — No. Send thank you emails after your interview though!
No, unless you are specifically invited to do so. This is not a common practice and we personally have never done so. It never hurts to show interest in someone’s research, but it will unlikely get you very far. Your time is better spent polishing your application and reading up on the programs that you are applying to. You need to nail the interviews!
Sending a thank you email to the PIs you met with during your interviews is helpful. Including a particularly enjoyable anecdote or project that they shared is a nice touch. They will report back to the MD/PhD committee. Getting back to them within 24 hours at the latest is essential! Physical letters in Gustavo’s opinion should be reserved for second look thank you’s.
How should I dress?
TL;DR — Keep it classy.
Professional dress is expected. Some schools, e.g. University of Wisconsin and University of Illinois, do not want professional dress (i.e. suits, suit jackets, ties). However, you should still dress nicely with a button up shirt, sweater, nice dresses, dress shoes etc. Do not make the mistake of showing up in shorts/T-shirts when the interviews are “informal.” Always err on the side of being more professional when you are unsure!
A final note on interviewing
TL;DR — Please be a decent human being to others. We are watching.
Please treat EVERYONE with respect, show interest, and be extremely polite. Everyone, including the students who visit you during downtime, the receptionist, even the custodial staff can put in words of recommendation or raise red flags. Therefore it is imperative that you are on your best behavior 100% of the time, including your “relaxed” time during informal dinners.
Do not bring up polarizing topics like politics, religion, abortion, etc. Also note that it is inappropriate for anyone from the school (including current students) to ask discriminatory questions (i.e. “what is your religion?” “do you plan on having children during medical school?” etc.) Remember that you are not obligated to answer any questions that you feel uncomfortable answering. Our best suggestion in situations like these is to politely change the topic or decline to answer. See the AAMC for more information.
Footnote: A Special Note on Institutional Grade Deflation
TL;DR Solution: We encourage students from undergraduate institutions with grade deflation to apply widely (eg. 30–40 primary applications).
Unfortunately for pre-medical students, some undergraduate institutions pride themselves in forcing students to undergo academic “hazing” by having most, if not all courses, taught and graded at an incredibly rigorous level. This results in Grade Deflation; a significantly depreciated GPA for all graduates from these institutions, such as Princeton University and the University of Chicago. For example, a 3.2 GPA from an undergraduate institution with grade deflation, such as Cornell University, is approximately equal to a 3.6 GPA from an institution of average rigor. The unfortunate truth is that recognition of this grade deflation is highly arbitrary. While members of some admissions committees may be well-informed of the grading practices at specific institutions, and may even want to discuss the grading trends during interviews, others are unfortunately unaware.
Through our experiences, we have seen that medical schools geographically close to undergraduate institutions with grade deflation have a better understanding of grade trends. For example, Cornell University alumni tend to encounter more favorable consideration by medical school committees in the New York city area, such as Mount Sinai, Columbia, and New York University. Unfortunately, alumni from respective grade deflated institutions may encounter some difficulties in securing admission to their respective medical graduate institution, such as the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in the case of Cornell University.
How We Got Here: Two Paths That Led Us to the Same Place
Wei Feng Ma was born in a small town in China with extremely limited educational resources. In fact, he had little interest in pursuing a college degree, and much less of a desire to obtain advanced graduate degrees. He was more worried about getting jobs to support his family. However, his outstanding high school teachers and mentors saw great promise in his natural scientific aptitude and encouraged him to seek out higher education. He was successful in obtaining significant financial support through numerous scholarships to satisfy his intellectual curiosity in microbiology at Colby College. During his first year at Colby, he was recruited to the Department of Developmental Neurovirology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as a summer intern. Over two summers he examined the potential role of Toxoplasma gondii infection in schizophrenia development. After completing his BA in Biology, he completed a two-year post-baccalaureate fellowship (IRTA) at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, where he studied reduction-oxidation biology in the cancer microenvironment using next-generation sequencing. Unbeknownst to him, he worked adjacent to Gustavo’s post-baccalaureate lab!
Gustavo Gavrel Pacheco was born in Fort Worth, TX to Mexican immigrants and spent most of his childhood in the Washington DC suburb of Bethesda, MD. He gravitated towards science at a young age by spending countless hours reading books on dinosaurs and DNA. In high school, he skipped most of his classes to go down random wikipedia article rabbit holes and interned up the street at the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where he gained his first exposure to biomedical research. He decided to pursue his interests in biology and foreign languages at the University of Chicago (UChicago) where he graduated with a BS in Biological Sciences, specializing in Cancer Biology, and minoring in Romance Languages & Literatures, specializing in 20th century French and Spanish literatures. While at UChicago, he was actively involved in studying the cell of origin of Lymphangioleiomyomatosis in the Department of Pathology. Upon his departure from UChicago, he returned to the NIH where he spent one post-baccalaureate year in the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research researching biomechanical mechanisms of 3D cell motility, next door to Wei!
Wei and Gustavo excitedly joined the University of Virginia’s Medical Scientist Training Program in 2018 to pursue their combined MD/PhD degrees. They are both now in the PhD phase of their training. They hope to make this FAQ as comprehensive as possible. They are working on follow-up posts to address specific concerns that may require detailed discussions. Please, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any suggestions for future posts!
Disclaimer: Wei Ma and Gustavo Gavrel Pacheco are completing their MD/PhDs through the Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of Virginia. The views expressed herein are solely their personal professional and academic opinions and not the institutional opinions of the National Institutes of Health, University of Virginia, or any other organizations included in their writings.