by David Flynn
Interest in dual degrees among U.S. medical students has increased considerably during the last decade. Students can now supplement their medical education by pursuing graduate or professional degrees in nearly any discipline, including public health, bioethics, business administration, law, the humanities, and the basic sciences. Pre-medical students should be aware of the different educational opportunities available, as interest in a particular program may influence the medical schools to which they apply and require additional standardized testing, application essays, and recommendation letters.
Obtaining a second degree requires a substantial investment of time, money, or both, but can be incredibly rewarding and provide the training and credentials leading to a specialized role within medicine as a physician-scientist, physician-executive, or global health leader, in addition to many other possibilities.
In this article, I will first discuss several of the most popular dual-degree programs. Following this overview, I will address some of the critical questions students should consider before applying for or beginning a dual degree program.
MD/PhD: The physician-scientist
MD/PhD programs are among the oldest and most well established of the dual degree programs. The vast majority of medical schools offer an MD/PhD of some variety. The purpose of MD/PhD is to provide training in both clinical medicine and the basic sciences, creating physician-scientists who spend the majority of their time conducting research as faculty members at academic medical centers or research institutions.
MD/PhD students typically spend between six and eight years completing their education, which is followed by standard residency training. Most programs provide full tuition and a stipend of approximately $25,000/year, making positions highly desirable and very competitive.
Students typically apply for admission to both the MD and PhD programs simultaneously, which entails additional essays, interviews, and recommendation letters. However, many programs allow currently enrolled medical students to apply for entry into their school’s MD/PhD program if additional funding is available. Though competitive applicants must have excellent MCAT scores and GPAs, quality and quantity of research experience is critically important for admission to any program. Although many programs only require students to take the MCAT, some also require the GRE, so prospective students should research admission requirements of all schools they may apply to well in advance.
Most students spend the first two years as medical students taking the standard pre-clinical courses. When their MD-only classmates enter the wards and begin clinical training, MD/PhD students break away and enter the laboratory, where will they will spend the next two to four years conducting research and eventually write and defend a PhD thesis. After completion of the thesis, students return to the hospital where they will finish their medical education by completing their clinical clerkships and electives.
MD/MPH: The global physician
The MD/MPH is probably the most popular of the combined degree programs. The MPH coursework provides focused training in epidemiology, biostatistics, community health, and health policy, which prepares graduates to approach healthcare from the population level. The MD/MPH is particularly useful for students interested in preventative health, global health, or healthcare policy.
Most MD/MPH programs take five years to complete, but some programs allow students to take all of the required coursework for both degrees within four years. While some of the more prestigious MPH programs have generous scholarship opportunities, most students should anticipate an equivalent of five years tuition to complete both degrees, even if pursuing a four year program. For most programs, students can apply during the first, second, or third year of medical school, but those pursuing four-year programs typically must apply at the beginning of medical school. The MCAT is often accepted in place of the GRE.
MD/MBA: The physician-executive
The number of MD-MBA programs has grown exponentially during the previous two decades, from five in 1993 to more than 50 today. With the enormous focus on healthcare reform and the business of healthcare, demand for physicians with focused training in healthcare management and business administration will likely continue to increase.
MD/MBA programs are usually five years in length. Students typically apply for admission to business school during the first or second year of medical school, though students can often apply to both concurrently. The GMAT is generally required for admission to the business school, though this may change in the near future as some business schools have recently starting accepting the GRE in place of the GMAT. The structures of MD/MBA programs are variable, but in most programs students devote the majority of the first through third years to medical school, the fourth year to business school, and the fifth year completing requirements from both schools.
Graduates of MD/MBA programs can find careers in hospital administration, academic medicine, healthcare consulting, entrepreneurship, industry (pharmaceuticals, biotech, medical devices), managing private practices, or leading healthcare organizations.
MD/JD: The physician-attorney
There are many MD/JD programs throughout the country, most of which require seven years to complete. However, few students tend to participate in these, largely because of the time required to complete both degrees and the enormous cost of attendance. Students typically apply to both the medical and law schools concurrently, requiring the applicant to have taken the MCAT and LSAT.
In general, admitted students devote the first two years to medical school, years three through five to law school, and the final two years to completing their clinical training. Graduates of MD/JD programs can be found on the faculty of law and medical schools, as leaders of various medical and legal organizations, as medical malpractice attorneys, and in general medical practice.
Questions to Consider
1. Is a second degree necessary for my career goals?
Before beginning a second degree, you need to seriously consider and determine what you really want to do. Many premedical and medical students have a tendency to get blinded by ambition and the endless pursuit of prestige, seeking additional degrees simply to have “more letters after my name.” This is foolish and self-defeating. Spending additional years and thousands of dollars pursuing a degree that you will not use will not impress anybody and/or help you begin your career, particularly if you do not want to work in a capacity related to your additional degree.
On the other hand, if you know that you want to work, for example, in global health policy, then an MPH may be almost essential. Do a quick search of job openings at the CDC in global health or health policy – most require an MPH or years of equivalent experience for an application to even be considered. In this situation, the time and expense of obtaining the additional degree is easily justified.
2. Can I afford it?
Medical students are drowning in debt. Those who pursue dual degrees (with the exception of the MD/PhD) will amass even more debt than their MD-only peers. Sit down with your parents, financial aid officer, or anybody else involved in your finances and figure out exactly how much debt you will have at graduation if you pursue the extra degree. Make sure to factor in the additional year(s) of deferred earning potential that pursuing the second degree will require.
3. Is now the best time?
Remember that you do not need complete all of your formal education while in medical school. Some residency programs allow residents to work towards a master’s degree while completing their training. The program might even provide some or all of the funding required to pay for tuition. There are also many executive and part-time programs that allow working professionals (including clinicians) to complete a master’s or professional degree in their spare time. Waiting until after medical school may be particularly attractive to students who are not certain that an additional degree is required for their career goals or those unwilling to defer gainful employment for additional years.
4. Am I compromising my education by combining degrees?
Not all dual-degree programs are created equal. Make sure that you will not be compromising your education by trying to do too much or compressing a two year program into a single year. When comparing different programs, see which structure makes most sense to you. For example, I am currently an MD/MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. When I was applying to medical schools, I also looked at schools that offered four-year MD/MBA programs. Completing the degrees in a shorter time period was obviously appealing to me, but I wanted to get the “real” MBA experience, which I thought I could only enjoy by spending time as a full-time MBA student, working on a daily basis with traditional MBA students. I therefore only applied to programs that featured at least one full year of MBA coursework. However, for other students the four-year combined degree might be a better fit, depending on their personal needs and expectations.
Dual degree programs have become increasingly popular among US medical students in recent years. There are now dual degree programs to match nearly any student’s interests and schedule. While I have provided an overview of the most popular programs, there are many other options available. Though there are many benefits to pursuing a second degree during medical school, students should carefully consider the pros and cons of any program before investing the time and money required for an additional degree.
About the Author
David Flynn is an MD/MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Wharton School. He is also the founder of Prepera (www.prepera.com), a premedical tutoring and advising firm based in Philadelphia.