Becoming a physician can lead to a full and rewarding career. But for medical students who also want to conduct groundbreaking research, work in bioengineering or effect policy changes, pursuing an MD/PhD creates more opportunities than an MD alone.
That's why UCLA offers a Medical Science Training Program (MSTP) to prepare students for careers in the biomedical sciences.
After completing the first two years of medical school at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, MSTP students spend three to five years at either UCLA or the California Institute of Technology, working towards PhDs in biomedical research, engineering or related fields. Then they complete the third and fourth years of medical school.
Here, current MSTP student Parinaz Abiri discusses her experience pursuing an MD/PhD.
Dual degrees, dual perspectives
Parinaz has already completed two years of medical school and one year of UCLA's bioengineering PhD program.
"The two degrees are so complementary," she explains. "One involves design and discovery; the other involves the practice and application of that work."
Parinaz remembers when she first felt truly passionate about choosing to pursue both degrees. "I met a young cystic fibrosis patient and his parents," she recalls. "Seeing the challenges a family like that faces provides a far greater incentive to go back to the lab and try to do something than just looking at data or reading about a disease."
She is currently working on several biomedical devices, both in her graduate research and through her start-up. "I already feel the strength of having both the perspective of a physician and that of an engineer when it comes to developing the right devices for the right groups of people," she says. "First-hand clinical experience helps me better understand current needs for patient care. With the right research and development that care can hopefully extend to improve thousands of lives."
Challenges and opportunities
As an MSTP student, Parinaz says one of her greatest challenges is embracing two very different styles of thinking.
"The human body is amazingly complex; most of it, we still can't understand or predict," she says. "Medicine requires a detailed understanding of this system and the ability to make on-the-spot, life-and-death decisions based on limited information. With a PhD, we learn how to innovate and problem-solve. The process is more measured, gradual, experiment-based and deeply thought out. Sometimes the two ways of thinking can clash."
Parinaz says this dichotomy is also a strength. "The problem-solving skills we develop with PhD training help us gain a better perspective when diagnosing patients," she says, "and the improvised decision-making in medicine can help introduce new ideas into research projects."
While Parinaz admits it's "a little scary" to think about returning to medical school after such a long break, UCLA helps to ease the transition for MSTP students. "Towards the end of our PhD," she says, "we begin a few months of preceptorship and go through a medical school crash course."
Insights for future students
Before deciding to enter MSTP, Parinaz spoke to students in the program but says the most valuable advice came from faculty mentors. "Students can tell you what the training process is like, but mentors help you figure out what the end of the tunnel looks like," she says. "You can see the outcome of the MD/PhD route in their different career paths and ultimately decide if it's right for you."
Her best advice for future MSTP students: "Don't worry about how long it takes or how hard it might be. Life is long enough that a few extra years of school won't make a difference, but it's also short enough that you should do what you enjoy and make the greatest impact on this world."
By Taylor Mallory Holland