MD PhD Essay: The 2020 Ultimate Guide

Updated: July 1, 2020

MD-PhD programs combine medical school training with the demands of scientific research. Graduates of these hybrid programs can pursue a variety of career paths, but the ultimate goal of MD PhD programs is to train physician-scientists. The MD PhD program is a long and difficult process, lasting between seven to eight years. On top of your personal statement and AMCAS Work and Activities section, you will have to submit two additional essays through AMCAS: The Significant Research Experience Essay and the MD PhD Essay. Many applicants find the MD PhD essay quite challenging since it lacks the definitive expectations of the research experience essay. So in today's blog, you'll learn exactly how to write a strong MD PhD essay.

Here's what we're going to cover:

What is the MD PhD Essay and What is its Purpose?

What to Include in your MD PhD Essay

How to Structure your MD PhD Essay

MD PhD Essay Examples

FAQs

What is the MD PhD Essay and What is its Purpose?

MD PhD admissions offices seek to ensure that the students they admit are ready to commit to many years of rigorous training and study. If you want to apply to MD PhD vs MD programs, keep in mind that there is more work involved in the application process as you'll have two additional essays to complete. The MD PhD essay is a unique component of the application process and it's where you'll discuss your reasons behind pursuing the joint program. To understand what admissions committees are looking for in this essay, you need to first understand what kind of professionals they are hoping to train. A physician-scientist values medical research and progress above other elements of the medical profession. They will most likely spend their time in clinical settings, but mainly in relation to their research. Due to the large emphasis on research, clinical care is not their primary role. Research, discovery, and the application of new knowledge is their main interest. With this said, their research still directly involves clinical work and patient well-being, otherwise, they could have simply pursued a PhD. This intricate balance between research and medicine must be demonstrated in your MD PhD essay, with a larger emphasis on research.

Your MD PhD essay must show that you wouldn’t be satisfied with a career that didn't involve both medical research and clinical practice. You must demonstrate that pursuing just one or the other is not right for you. Your essay should not make you appear indecisive, as if you cannot choose between MD and PhD programs. Instead, you must show that you will be most fulfilled working as a physician-scientist. Overall, your essay must answer the question “Why did you choose the combined MD PhD program?”

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What to Include in your MD PhD Essay

Research experience

Your MD PhD essay should tell the story of how you became involved in scientific research and how you want to apply this research to medical practice. Your personal statement, research essay, and your MD PhD essay may sometimes touch upon the same experiences, but you will want to approach each of them from different angles. While your personal statement typically focuses on how you came to medicine in general, your MD PhD essay should answer how your interests and qualifications combine science and medical practice. Have a look at our blog if you're looking for medical school personal statement examples. Admissions committees are looking for certain qualities and experiences in their applicants. Every scientist should possess creativity and curiosity. Maturity and critical thinking are also essential, as MD PhD applicants will have to face unexpected problems and challenges during training and throughout their careers. Other valuable qualities include grit, initiative, academic prowess, and of course, a love of research. If you don't like research, then the joint program is definitely not for you! Many MD PhD programs aim to prepare future leaders of research initiatives and projects. Your essay does not need to dive into the fine details of your research experiences but you should highlight 2-3 experiences that were significant while discussing what you learned from them. Demonstrating perseverance is also key since the scientific method is often a repetitive and frustrating process. It’s perfectly acceptable to highlight any setbacks you experienced during the research process as long as you can speak to how you overcame these challenges and what you learned in doing so.

Medical experience

Remember, your MD PhD essay is a tough balancing act. While it is important to describe your solid research background throughout your application, if all your application components focus only on research, you may have a problem. This would be great for someone who wants to pursue a PhD, but research only experience is not suitable if you want to pursue a combined program. Your MD PhD essay must show a crossover between your scientific research and the experiences you have had working with patients and physicians. For example, you could show that your research is inspired by clinical experience or you could discuss a significant patient interaction during your experience working in a clinical setting. Your interest in MD PhD programs may also be inspired by your concern for the medical issues facing your community, your country, or the world.

Why you are pursuing the joint program

The MD PhD essay is the only component of your application process which directly questions your passion for the combination of the two fields. Make sure that your MD PhD essay and Significant Research Experience Essay are not the same. You have a small amount of space to express your desire to become a physician-scientist, so do not waste it by repeating the same information in all your application components. The Significant Research Experience Essay is where you’ll include all the details of your research experience such as your exact duties, results, and where and with whom you conducted your research. Use your MD PhD essay to show a larger picture. Admissions offices want to see evidence of problem-solving, maturity, independence, and your level of involvement in a project. Think about how your research experiences foster your scientific curiosity. The MD PhD essay is your chance to show admissions committees the important steps of your journey to the MD PhD program. This is your chance to describe components of your experiences and plans, which might not be evident from your other application materials.

What to avoid

Avoid including cliché topics or phrases in your essay. Many applicants indeed have similar stories of how they became interested in the medical profession. While these reasons may be common, your experiences are unique. Your essay must stand out and leave a lasting positive impression on the reader. Similarly, do not include grand statements linking your choice to enter the MD PhD program to destiny. These will only come across as dramatic, which isn't what you want to convey.

Remember not to describe any negative experiences and their effect on your decision to apply to MD PhD programs. For example, don't discuss how you believe that the academic job market does not look promising for a PhD graduate. Discussing failures in research however, is different, and can be a great way to demonstrate resilience. Frustrating experiences in research are common, so rather than describing the negative aspect of your failures in research, try to describe how this experience positively affected your journey.

Another thing you must avoid in your MD PhD essay is listing accomplishments and skills that are already found in your CV. Your personal statement is not meant to be a reiteration of your CV, instead, it should be your story – one that you will share with the admissions committees. Take them on a journey, in chronological order, highlighting the significant experiences that have led you to want to pursue both medicine and research. With each experience, you must reflect on what you've learned and you need to provide evidence to support any statements. It's not enough to simply state “I demonstrated compassion volunteering at a homeless shelter”. You must show the admissions committees how you demonstrated compassion. For example, you could discuss a specific interaction you had, or a specific project you worked on that demonstrates your ability to show compassion.

Check out our video for some more tips on how to write the MD PhD essay:

How to Structure your MD PhD essay

If you’re applying to MD PhD programs through AMCAS, the MD PhD essay must be no longer than 3000 characters, typically, one page in length. Your essay must be well structured and it's important to avoid any fluff or unnecessarily descriptive language. It must be succinct while containing all the necessary information to make a complete impression of your candidacy. Overall, it should follow the structure of an academic essay and should contain an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.

Introduction

Successful essays will have a powerful introduction, which will introduce the reader to the main message of the letter – your motivation for pursuing the joint program. The opening sentence, in particular, can make or break your entire essay. If it isn’t captivating, unique, and interesting, you risk losing the reader’s attention, which could result in your essay blending in with the thousands of other essays. To create a unique opening sentence, considering beginning your essay with a personal anecdote. Essentially, you could narrate a personal experience or story that introduces the topic – this is a very common technique in personal essays and it's very effective. For example, you could talk about a time you were ill, an exciting moment during your research, an encounter with the medical system, or even a story of a loved one who was ill or passed away. If you had a specific experience or revelatory “aha” moment, where all of a sudden you just knew you wanted to become a physician-scientist, then this can be a great way to open your essay.

Body paragraphs

The body of your essay has to reveal how your experiences in research and clinical medicine have prepared you for a career as a physician-scientist. Essentially, this is where you provide evidence to the admissions committee to justify your reasons for pursuing the joint program. It’s important that you demonstrate not only your suitability for both research and medicine but that you've taken the steps necessary to test drive your future career. Try to include two or three experiences that demonstrate your expertise as a researcher and future physician. Remember to always focus on quality, rather than quantity. When deciding which experiences to include, pick the experiences that were most transformative in your journey towards medicine and research. For example, you could highlight a patient interaction that influenced your research interests or a research or lab experience that pushed you towards considering the combined program. If your research made you realize the wider implications of your profession and its relationship to medical practice, it's a great experience to include. It is wise to remember the AAMC’s core competencies when describing your clinical and research experiences. These competencies may help you find connections between your desire to practice both science and medicine.

Conclusion

A strong MD PhD essay conclusion should include a creative reiteration of why you want to pursue training in both medicine and research. Do not make your conclusion into a dry summary of your essay. Rather, it should discuss how your research experience and clinical experience complement each other and should tie together the overall theme of your essay. Your final sentence should leave the reader with a lasting impression that you are a suitable candidate for their MD PhD program.

Revise

Once you’ve constructed your essay, be prepared for multiple rounds of revisions and re-edits, ideally, with the help of a medical school advisor. Never underestimate the importance of revision in getting your essay just right. Enlisting the help of a professional who knows exactly what admissions committees are looking for can help you create a powerful essay that will stand out. Family and friends are a good start with your essay, but for a truly unbiased review, it's best to consult a professional with years of experience. Writing your MD PhD essay is a challenge, but do not lose sight of the message you are trying to get across. It is important to keep in mind that the experiences you include in your MD PhD essay must reinforce your desire and need to become a physician-scientist – this is the central purpose of your statement.

MD PhD Essay Examples

Example #1:

Amidst crying babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), I asked my current mentor, “How do physicians and scientists approach a disease differently?” [Name of doctor] with over 30 years of experience in her neonatal practice and perinatal brain research, replied, “A physician looks at disease top-down while a scientist looks at disease bottom-up.” Her answer resonated with me because at that moment I realized the value of converging physician and scientists’ interpretations of disease. My goal as a physician-scientist will be to draw connections between physiopathology of disease and molecular properties of drug candidates in order to characterize its efficacy and mechanism of action in the process of drug development.

My research experience led me toward a career as a physician-scientist as I began to draw connections between the properties of therapeutic proteins in the body and the impact it could have on patients. In [name of doctor] 's lab, I found intercellular adhesion molecule-5 could serve as a diagnostic tool for HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders since its presence in serum meant brain damage. While in [name of doctor]'s lab, my experiments showed overexpression of sigma-1 receptor protein (S1R) in cancer cells causes them to proliferate. PKC inhibitor that suppresses S1R signals to cell could mean a treatment strategy for cancer patients.

As a research assistant in [name of doctor] ’s lab, researching inter-alpha inhibitor protein (IAIP) as a drug candidate for neonatal hypoxia ischemia encephalopathy (HIE), I visited the NICU where I witnessed the distress of both the premature babies and their families. Working in the lab, I was not fully aware of the human impact of HIE but speaking with physicians I began to understand the need for developing a new therapeutic strategy for HIE as the current treatment—hypoxia is only partially protective. It was here I realized a physician-scientist sits in an advantageous position to explore new therapeutic options that being a researcher, or a physician alone could not.

By working in the lab and hospital, I considered the perspectives of both physicians and scientists as I investigated IAIP’s neuroprotective mechanism. From a physician’s point of view, I understood HIE-associated brain injury is caused by inflammation after energy deprivation. From a scientist’s view, IAIP protects the cell by suppressing pro-inflammatory cytokine production. IAIP’s mechanism can be hypothesized and tested by exploring how IAIP’s molecular properties influences HIE’s pathology, so I am currently performing histological and cell culture studies to understand IAIP’s mechanism in tissue and cell.

My intention is to be a physician-scientist because the overlap of the two professions brings out the best of medicine—translation of bench research into medical devices and drugs that can be used in the clinical arena for patient care.

What makes this essay great:

  • The essay begins with a personal anecdote, which instantly captivates the reader's attention and transports them into the NICU with the student.
  • The student describes their revelations at each point in their story, in particular, where their initial interest in medicine and research began, and when they understood the intricate interconnection between both fields.
  • The student demonstrates their curiosity into the mechanisms behind disease, and it's interesting to see how they investigate complex issues from both a physician and scientist point of view.
  • The student utilizes excellent transitional sentences allowing for the essay to flow well and the body paragraphs are well constructed. Through strong examples and evidence, the student supports their statements and discussions effectively, ie, showing instead of telling.

Example #2:

Each morning, I enter the lab, slip into my gloves, and the world outside melts away. Six years ago, I began my academic career as a summer student at the Center for Cancer Research and Cell Biology. The unparalleled experience during my summer internship fueled by interest and curiosity has helped me understand who I am and what I want to do for the rest of my life. I was paired with a postdoctoral fellow who taught me fundamental laboratory skills as I focused on validating targets of the Ubiquitin Proteasome System in CML using qRT-PCR. As a result of my tireless daily contribution, I had an opportunity to present my work through a poster and was invited by the department chair to complete my thesis in his lab. For the first time, I had imagined the academic possibilities available outside of my comfort zone and was captivated! This captivation led to my completion of a thesis in which I expanded my laboratory skills and honed my scientific thinking, speaking, and writing. I graduated at the top of my class in Biomedical Science and went on to complete my medical prerequisites.

During my studies, I realized that science was now a part of me and that I missed life in lab. My constant desire to expand the scientific knowledge pushed me to pursue a master’s degree in translational medical research. While my bachelor’s thesis established a solid scientific foundation, my master’s was centered on scientific perseverance and ownership of that process. Every step—from preparing buffers to testing tumor cell lines to cutting, staining, and imaging sections—was performed with my hands. I achieved a new level of autonomy in the lab designing and performing experiments to answer my scientific questions.

A pivotal moment came when we knocked out a gene in a mouse model of carcinoma thought to be “pro-metastatic” based on our in-vitro data. We unexpectedly observed an increase in metastases and decreased survival, suggesting a more complex role for the gene than previously thought. From this specific experience, I learned to appreciate how much we do not know. Additionally, the exhilarating thought of my contribution to science has always driven me to ask for more as I have witnessed excellent collaborations and different projects during my research years. Science was no longer outside of my comfort zone—and I was eager to experience more. Recently, I have had the opportunity to build on this foundation and work independently on projects focused on lymphoid malignancies.

Since that initial internship six years ago, my mind has been irreversibly stretched. I have found my inspiration to continue my contribution to science as the laboratory experiences have taught me how to be an independent scientist, how to create procedural methodology and contribute to a larger body of knowledge. I am eager to pursue MD/PhD training and to dedicate my life humbly facing the unknown with the hope of contributing to science which has already given me so much.

What makes this essay great:

  • This statement also begins with an interesting anecdote that creates a desire within the reader to continue further into the story. Through chronological storytelling, the statement is easy to follow and we see the student's journey in determining that both medicine and research are necessary in their life.
  • The student does a good job of highlighting accomplishments, such as their contribution to a poster, the invitation to complete their thesis, and graduating at the top of their class, without coming across as boastful.
  • The conclusion neatly ties together the main points of the entire statement while circling back around to the discussion in the opening paragraph.

FAQs

1. Can I change my research direction during my studies, or will I have to stick to the research field I identified in my personal statement and MD PhD essay?

The majority of applicants only have a general idea of what area of research they want to pursue in the future. For this reason, it is completely normal for you to change direction in your research throughout your studies. Most likely, you will have to get more research experience to realize what type of research you want to follow. In your MD PhD essay, the admissions committees will value the quality of your research experience, rather than the field. They want to see your ability to ask the right questions, design experiments, conduct analysis, and so on. This will show your scientific skills and qualifications, which can be transferred to any field.

2. Do I have a chance of getting accepted into MD PhD programs if I have limited research experience?

Research experience is essential when applying to MD PhD programs. Admissions committees want to select students who have a history of conducting meaningful academic research and have the potential to progress knowledge in the medical profession. It is normal for applicants to be uncertain of what research project they want to pursue in the future, but you must have some background in scientific study. If you have zero research experience, it's best to wait until you can gain some relevant experience before applying. You can, on the other hand, make a positive impression in your MD PhD essay if you convey a strong interest and experience in a research project – even if you have only one experience to reference. Your progress and commitment to a specific research area can make you stand out as long term dedication will always impress admissions committees. It is not necessary to be involved in dozens of research projects or make any groundbreaking scientific discoveries to enter the MD PhD program. Be sure to include and highlight your significant experiences in research throughout your application. Always focus on what you have learned and accomplished and don't be afraid to discuss your setbacks in addition to your accomplishments.

3. Should my research and my clinical experience be in the same field?

It’s great if you have research and clinical experiences that are related - this way you could write about how you worked with patients who had problems related to your scientific research and how you enjoyed helping them in a clinical setting. You can emphasize that you know from experience how fundamental research could be in providing a cure or treating a disease. However, you do not need to have clinical experience related to your research experience and interests. You can create a strong MD PhD essay by describing the research you plan to do in the context of a larger problem you want to solve and not just a question you want to explore. If you are looking to do research where you haven't worked with a related patient population, it could still be good to discuss the broader picture of why you think that research is important and how it might help communities in the future.

4. Do I need to have publications to apply to MD PhD programs?

Publications are not necessary, especially if you are applying directly out of your undergrad degree. Admissions committees and program directors are aware of how difficult it is to contribute to publication at such an early stage in your education. If you do have publications to include in your application – please do! Publications can certainly give you a competitive edge as not every applicant will have this experience. Keep in mind that you must have an in-depth understanding of the research you participate in because you will likely be asked about it during your interviews, regardless of your level of contribution.

5. Are letters of reference important for MD PhD applications?

Absolutely. Admissions committees value outside perspectives on whether or not you will be suitable for their joint program. Research related references are especially important. Try to form good relationships with your research mentors, professors, directors, and principal investigators. Make sure you select referees that know you well. They should be able to give a detailed account of your research involvement and your strengths as a researcher and critical thinker. They should also be able to emphasize your maturity, reliability, and any other strength unique to you.

6. Can I apply to MD and MD PhD programs at the same time?

Yes, you can. You'll be able to indicate which schools and which programs you’re applying to in your AMCAS application. Many schools that reject you for MD PhD programs will still consider you for the regular MD stream. 

7. Is a career as a physician-scientist my only option if I graduate from the MD PhD program?

Not necessarily, however, it is important to think about your future career plans when you apply to any professional program. The MD PhD training is very costly in terms of time and money for you and the institution that admits you, so try to reflect on whether your goals coincide with the goals of the MD PhD program you want to attend. Becoming a full-time physician and tending to patients are amazing goals, but they do not require a PhD in addition to an MD. If you want to become a physician-scientist, then you should plan to spend most of your time and efforts on research and less time in clinical practice. If you want to become a physician who works on making discoveries in the medical field, then the MD PhD program may be for you. Career-wise, most MD PhD graduates end up in careers that combine patient care and research. Many end up at academic medical centers, research institutions, or in the pharmaceutical/biotech industry. A large number of MD PhD graduates end up in academia as well.

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