Late in the game but have been having a lot of self doubt b/c I don't have a focus on basic science. Realistically, what are my chances for MD-PhD?

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2+ Year Member
Feb 27, 2017
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Hi all,
Just got my MCAT score back today and wanted to see if anyone could give some input on whether I should apply MD-PhD or if it's a lost cause? I'm feeling a lot of self-doubt because I don't have a lot of wet lab experience and it's making me hit a mental roadblock as I write my "why" MD/PhD and significant research experience essay. I plan to apply MD-PhD only.

Background: Immigrated to the US as a refugee from Eastern Europe (Soviet Union region) due to religious persecution (am currently a US citizen). First in my family to graduate, qualified as low income for most of my childhood, speak Russian. Went to community college, then a University of California (UC) school and studied nutritional biology.

Community CollegeUCCombined (Total)Combined (Science)

MCAT: 514 (131/128/128/127)

Research (~1950 hr total): I worked in a lab that had a core facility and did research. I started off doing metabolomics research for an NIH grant related to T2D (214 hr) but did not learn much. It was a really good example of how research should not be done and I had a falling out with the grad student running the project. I was asked to work in their core facility (150 hr) prepping samples and running instruments and learned a lot about GCMS and HPLC. I currently work in clinical research focused on the first 1000 days of life, breast milk, and the microbiome (151 hr volunteering, 1900 hr paid) and am involved in both study design and execution (primarily funded by companies such as Clorox). This involves drafting and submitting IRB protocols, meeting with study participants, training and mentoring interns, analyzing data, creating graphs/figures, working on papers and includes experience applying for an NIH grant. I am also working on a presentation to secure funding for the International Milk Genomics Consortium. I have worked on one poster (but did not present) and assisted with data analysis for a presentation at a conference (did not attend). By next year, I'll hopefully have 2-3 pubs (potentially second author) (one currently in progress). The only caveat to my position is that we don't do a lot of wet lab work and method development, most of which was done before I began working here and influenced the studies we currently run in humans. I also recently took over our lab manager role but it's been relatively straight forward since we do not do a lot of wet lab work. I'm interested in neonatal research, the microbiome and use of probiotics in preemies, and milk expression in mother's of premature infants, but it's been difficult finding labs focused on this type of research.

Clinical volunteering (210 hr total): Operating room (70 hr), Radiology department in the ER (140 hr), am working on an app to volunteer in the ER of another hospital

Shadowing (16 hr total :( ): Attending in radiology (8 hr), Chief of NICU (8 hr), any tips on how to find physicians to shadow? I don't have any connections and I've been emailing and cold calling offices and haven't had any response.

Nonclinical volunteering (353 hr total): Working with the homeless community (48 hr), working at the nursery at my church (105 hr), playing guitar/leading worship in a youth band at my church (200 hr)

Misc: Anatomy (w/ prosections/cadavers) lab aide (140 hr), biochemistry lab tutor (90 hr), chemistry club president at my community college, manager of a retail store

I know most applicants are approaching this from a basic science POV, but I'm more interested in staying in clinical research. Because of this, I know the big question I'll get is "Why the PhD since MD's can do research?". My whole reasoning for pursuing a PhD is that it will teach me to ask questions I won't think of as an MD or PhD alone, especially since with a dual degree you have your foot in the clinic and a direct line to the most up-to-date research in your field. Not only that, but you have the credentials to both generate and question consensus knowledge. My ultimate goal is to lead my own research team and design/execute studies which I think will be highly unlikely as an MD alone. But I don't know if this reasoning is strong enough to actually get me accepted and it makes it especially difficult to come up with a school list. So far, I've taken the approach of looking at schools that have NICU's doing research I'm interested in, but compared to other applicants, I feel like I'm in over my head.

I'm set on applying this cycle because I qualified for the FAP and need to utilize it.

Thank you for taking the time to read this! Please let me know if you have any advice!
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Feb 26, 2019
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It's not.
I think I'm in the same reasoning as OP. I want the training to be able to ask/answer the important science questions, and run my own lab. But it sounds like they're looking for more, could you elaborate? Are they looking for applicants that already know which specific to-the-point problems they want to deal with in their field of research? Sorry if I come off as bit naive

Edit: grammar, clarification
Last edited:


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You aren't a finished product yet. Although you are most likely to change, your best bet to to sell/advertise yourself as an emerging scientist with a particular theme... for example, oxidative stress in cancer, cell signaling regulation in diabetes, etc. This is a better strategy, particularly for those of you who are doing research post-bacs. Once in the program, you can pivot to another field. If you had limited opportunities, then be more open about the specifics of your field.

The MD/PhD essay is about your journey to seeking training as a scientist and as a physician. It doesn't matter who got into you first, the point is that you need to make a case that you need both.


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I know most applicants are approaching this from a basic science POV, but I'm more interested in staying in clinical research.

I want the training to be able to ask/answer the important science questions, and run my own lab.

KarKar asked about doing MD/PhD to be a clinical researcher. Basically and generally, that is not the goal of the MD/PhD programs. FreeGibbs wants to run their own lab to ask/answer important science questions. Basically and generally, that is the goal of the MD/PhD programs.


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You shouldn't feel the need to be completely forthcoming with your exact research plans in your application. It's debatable whether MD/PhD is a good pathway if you want to end up becoming a clinical researcher, but plenty of MD/PhDs who did basic science during PhD transition to clinical research after PhD.

The application itself is more about selling a plausible career development narrative that would convince a panel of selectors who have a mix of background (MDs, MDPhDs and PhDs) who typically sit in basic science departments that they should take you. You should free to make up a story that makes sense, even if that story is NOT your actual plan, as long as you can interview intelligently about the plan. Once you get in, you can just say you changed your mind and do whatever you want.

Taking a step back though, there are major issues in having very specific a priori research agenda at the start of your academic career: generally speaking at NO POINT in your career you can just pick and choose very precisely what you want to do. Even later on, research questions need to mesh well with large picture priorities of the funding agencies, and during grant reviews, reviewers (and other stakeholders, i.e. your dept head) often dictate what will and won't get done, even if some of what they suggest makes no sense. If nobody's interested in neonatal breastfeeding research, you just won't be able to raise money doing it. So it's best to not be wedded to a particular idea. It's more about the process and general topical interest rather than very specific niche area.
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