Preparing to apply to MD/PhD programs

When do I apply?

Most people apply after finishing their junior year in college, but a growing number of applicants finish college and work for a year or more before applying. Some people use time after college to take courses needed for medical school admission (if they’ve not had them already) or to gain more laboratory research experience. Some people simply weren’t ready to make a decision about their future career and postponed choosing beyond the finish of college.


Which schools offer MD-PhD programs?

More than 100 U.S. medical schools have an organized MD-PhD program. They range in size from small programs that admit 1 or 2 students per year and might have only a dozen students enrolled, to very large programs that admit 20 new students per year and have over 150 students enrolled. The disciplines in which PhD training is offered vary from school to school, so make sure you ask. Many of the programs can be reached using links from this site.


How big are the programs and how many new students are admitted each year?

MD-PhD programs vary in size enormously – from smaller programs that take 1 or 2 students per year and might have a total enrollment of a dozen, to very large programs that might take 20 (or more) new students per year and have a total enrollment of 150+. As you look at programs you should ask yourself what will be the best fit and you should


What do admissions committees look for?

The answer to this question clearly varies from school to school, and it’s important to remember that your application will be interpreted differently by different programs. But some basic principles apply. In general the admissions committees will look for four things: evidence of academic success, relevant research experience, letters of recommendation from people who know you well and your plans for the future.

1) Evidence of academic success

using criteria that will include your GPA and MCAT scores, but not be limited to them. They will undoubtedly consider where you went to college and what types of courses you took. They will not necessarily be dismayed if you got off to a slow start, as long as you did well later. They will place the greatest emphasis on courses that are relevant to your chosen area of graduate school training.

2) Relevant research experience

If you plan to get a PhD in one of the laboratory sciences, then prior laboratory experience counts heavily, particularly if you spent a year or more in the same laboratory. Summer laboratory experience can be helpful,but summers are short. Whenever possible you should try to do research during the academic year or at least spend multiple summers in the same lab. For those of you planning a PhD outside of the laboratory sciences, seek equivalent experiences. The idea is to be sure you like it and to create a track record upon which your past performance can be judged and your future success predicted.

3) Letters of recommendation

The most important letter(s) are from the faculty member or other senior investigator with whom you worked. The letter should comment on your talents, skills, and potential for success as an independent investigator. If you are working with a senior faculty member, it is very helpful if they can compare you to other students with whom they have worked. Note that such a letter is not necessarily the most appropriate for an MD-only application. MD-PhD program admissions committees are usually most interested in your talent and ability as a scientist, not as a future primary care-giver. Fortunately, medical schools know this and allow you to submit more than one letter of recommendation.

4) Your plans for the future

Since training to be a physician-investigator is so costly in terms of your time and the school’s resources, your career goals should be compatible with MD-PhD training. Becoming a full time practitioner is a laudable goal, but doesn’t require a PhD in addition to a MD. Your goal as a trained physician-investigator should be to spend at least 75% of your time on research. You need not know the specific problem you want to work on at this point (many don’t), or with whom you would like to train, but your commitment to becoming an investigator should be clearly communicated and you should have given thought to what will be required.

Is it important to have spent time working in a hospital or clinic before I apply?

Perhaps. Some medical school admissions committees take that as evidence of commitment and as a predictor that you will do well in the clinical portions of your training and career.

What GPA and MCAT scores will I need for admission?

MCAT scores and your college GPA provide one way of predicting how you will do, but only one way. Average MCAT and GPA scores for combined degree program applicants last year were about 31 and 3.5 respectively. Average numbers for those accepted varied from school to school. At one large program, the average numbers for matriculants were MCAT 36 and GPA 3.8, but the range was large. If you have concerns or questions, ask the schools you are considering. If you take the MCAT exam more than once, some schools will look only at your highest scores.

Do I need to take the GRE?

Typically, no. Medical schools require the MCAT, not the GRE, but some programs require both, especially in engineering fields.


To how many schools should I apply for admissions as an MD-PhD candidate?

There is no universal answer to this question. Nationally, the average is 7 or 8 (compared to 11 for those who apply only to medical school). The range is wide. The application process is time-consuming and expensive. As when you applied to college, consider your strengths as an applicant and apply to programs that vary in their competitiveness for entry.


How should I decide where to apply?

Some applicants have decided that they want to work in a particular field or with a particular faculty member. For them, choosing where to apply is defined by where that faculty member works or where the field is best represented. Most applicants have only a general idea of what they might want to work on in the future and know that their interests are likely to evolve as they are exposed to new things. For them choice will be defined by issues such as the reputation of the school (hopefully not based solely on US News and World Report!), the success of the graduates of the program (be sure to ask!), and geography. Schools range in terms of the difficulty of gaining admission. The directors and non-faculty administrators of MD-PhD programs nationwide are a large pool of resources that you can tap. Most of us get e-mail from future applicants all of the time. Take advantage of our willingness to talk with you. Ask questions about the things that are important to you.

Will I get in somewhere?

Recent history shows that most well-qualified applicants who adopt a wise strategy for applying to programs will end up with one or more letters of acceptance. Just as you did when you applied to college, it is a good idea to assess your strengths as an applicant and apply to a number of schools. It is also a good idea to plan ahead by seeking advice from physician-scientists at your institution and others.

Is it okay to apply “MD-only” at some schools and “MD-PhD” at others?

Yes. But consider what your motives are for doing that. Is it because you are uncertain about which type of program you want? Is it a strategy to make sure you have been admitted somewhere for something? If you are invited for an interview by an MD-PhD program, members of the admissions committee may want you to explain your reasons. Another option could be Healthcare Administration Degrees that accommodate to your busy life.

These questions were originally complied by Skip Brass in 2002 and updated by in 2022