Nov 24, 2013
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I know this thread has probably been posted a million times, so sorry for any redundancies.

Like many of the posters in this forum, I too am going through what members of my lab refer to as the "junior-year crisis," the phase in my academic career where all of the future plans I've made for myself have pretty much been turned upside down. From the outset of my undergrad career, I was pretty dead set on going to medical school, until I began doing research almost a year ago. Now that I've learned a little bit more about myself, I know a (translational) research career is what I really want; however, I know the research careers are grueling and don't always work out the way they are envisioned, so I would be satisfied being a physician as well, but not without giving research a shot at first. So here we are again at the age old question: PhD or MD/PhD (ideally MSTP).

So here's just some background on my circumstances, which can hopefully help with any advice. I'm currently a junior majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Biology and Cognitive Science, my GPA is currently 3.97 which will most certainly go down by the time I graduate (but by my estimate not below 3.85), and I've yet to take the MCAT which would happen at the end of the upcoming spring semester if I decide to go MSTP.
I've been involved in research for a little under 7 months now, but my experience (as I have been led to believe) is above the norm for the average undergrad of equal duration of involvement. I work for the head of the behavioral neuroscience program at my university, who also happens to be a prominent figure in his field (developmental psychobiology), which has allowed me in my short amount of time to lead 5 independent projects, give 4 presentations (1 oral, 3 poster; 3 on the local-level, and 1 international conference), and I will probably come out of undergrad with at least 2 first-authored publications (1 in the works now plus my senior thesis which all past undergrads from my PI's lab have published). If I chose to, there is also the option of staying at my current institution for an extra year for our 4+1 MS in Neuroscience degree, which will allow me another year to probably rack up another 1-2 publications.

Taking into consideration my future prospects at my current university and my desire to have a research career or career in academia (and not so much a clinical career), does anyone have recommendations on whether a PhD program or MD/PhD program would be best? My research interests are sort-of translational, so I can see the benefits of MD/PhD, however the work I want to do is probably possible with just a PhD. I just struggle with the level of uncertainty that comes with a PhD-research career since everything is dependent on the economy and funding availability which currently sucks. My PI says that if I were to go the MSTP route, I would have a greater breadth of knowledge which would definitely help me in my research, but (based on his years of experience with grad students) my training as a researcher would not be as strong as training I would receive from a standalone PhD program, and that if I continued the quality of work I do now, I should have no problem getting any post-doc position I wanted and getting a decent starting faculty position (again, based on his experience with many students over past years). Not to mention, my PI could probably hook me up with a nice position at any top school I wanted. BUT, if not it would be nice to have the job security afforded by an MD/PhD dual degree.

So basically any advice on which direction makes more sense would be greatly appreciated since this crisis is pretty much overwhelming my life. Also if anyone has any thoughts on whether I should go straight into my graduate program after undergrad, or stay a year and get my master's degree that would also be helpful.
Thanks for taking the time to read this!
 

ratherbefishing

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So here we are again at the age old question: PhD or MD/PhD (ideally MSTP).

I've been involved in research for a little under 7 months now, but my experience (as I have been led to believe) is above the norm for the average undergrad of equal duration of involvement.
This is on the lighter side of most MSTP applicants.

I work for the head of the behavioral neuroscience program at my university, who also happens to be a prominent figure in his field (developmental psychobiology), which has allowed me in my short amount of time to lead 5 independent projects, give 4 presentations (1 oral, 3 poster; 3 on the local-level, and 1 international conference), and I will probably come out of undergrad with at least 2 first-authored publications (1 in the works now plus my senior thesis which all past undergrads from my PI's lab have published).
I read this as "0 publications." They may bear fruit, but don't count your eggs before they hatch.

If I chose to, there is also the option of staying at my current institution for an extra year for our 4+1 MS in Neuroscience degree, which will allow me another year to probably rack up another 1-2 publications.
As above, don't count on these. If you're going to to MD/PhD, I see a MS as a waste of your time. The program is long enough, get on with things.

Taking into consideration my future prospects at my current university and my desire to have a research career or career in academia (and not so much a clinical career), does anyone have recommendations on whether a PhD program or MD/PhD program would be best?
I think you just answered your own question. I didn't see clinical shadowing experience in your post. Make sure you know what you're getting on the clinical side. Do you want to spend 4 years in med school and another 4+ in residency? To me, "translational research" is a term that is overused. Very few people (including MD/PhDs) do actual translational research...that is, taking things from lab into clinical trials. Most people do medically-oriented research, which is what it seems that you are describing. For this, you only need the PhD.

I just struggle with the level of uncertainty that comes with a PhD-research career since everything is dependent on the economy and funding availability which currently sucks.
This is a decision that you will have to weigh and think deeply on. I agree that PhD-only and counting on a career of continuous funding is risky. 90% of PhDs do not land tenure-track faculty positions.

My PI says that if I were to go the MSTP route, I would have a greater breadth of knowledge which would definitely help me in my research, but (based on his years of experience with grad students) my training as a researcher would not be as strong as training I would receive from a standalone PhD program, and that if I continued the quality of work I do now, I should have no problem getting any post-doc position I wanted and getting a decent starting faculty position (again, based on his experience with many students over past years). Not to mention, my PI could probably hook me up with a nice position at any top school I wanted. BUT, if not it would be nice to have the job security afforded by an MD/PhD dual degree.
You have 0 pubs and less than a year's experience and you are thinking you can land a lab at a top school on the basis of your PI's rec? No offense, but this is bad advice. Many things have to go your way for that to happen. Objectively, chances are that it won't happen. You might be the next Bob Weinberg, but it remains to be seen.

So basically any advice on which direction makes more sense would be greatly appreciated since this crisis is pretty much overwhelming my life. Also if anyone has any thoughts on whether I should go straight into my graduate program after undergrad, or stay a year and get my master's degree that would also be helpful.
Thanks for taking the time to read this!
Get some clinical experience. Talk to some MD/PhDs and current students. Consider your tolerance of risk. Would you be ok with being a pure clinician if funding didn't work out? Not all of your projects will yield 1-2 papers with 1 year of work. What happens when things get hard. Lots of questions for you to reconcile. If you still want MD/PhD, go for it.
 

Neuronix

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Do you want to be a physician or not? That's the crux of the question. You need to do volunteering/shadowing and decide if being a physician also excites you. MD/PhD leads to a career as a physician-scientist, but all you're asking about is science. I think you should decide whether you like the idea of being in medical training, if not medical practice, for a lengthy period of time in addition to research. If you don't like clinical medicine/training or don't see a clinical component to your ideal future, do PhD. Remember, the job security you're writing about with MD/PhD, comes from the MD part. So if that job security is not useful to you (i.e. you're not happy as a physician), it doesn't matter.