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An MD or PHD, what is the best path for you?

On the American Heart Association Research Committee, you can see 9 of 30 members marked having a Ph.D. Furthermore, you’ll see that all programs the committee members are affiliated with have some medical association.

This example of the committee brings the question “Can an MD do what Ph.D. does?” The short answer is yes. Ph.D.’s may not necessarily have all the training an MD has, so the profession cannot provide exactly the same opportunities. So does the difference lies with patient care? Many PhDs work with MDs, so maybe a Ph.D. can have a similar clinical care experience.

How do people with an MD (Doctor of Medicine) differ from those with Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)? The most common answers are likely:

  • “MDs make more money.”
  • “MDs prescribe medications.”
  • “They’re the real doctors”

Some Differences and Similarities:

PhDs:

  • On average, about 4-6 years to complete the degree
  • Purpose – to develop original work
  • Considered an academic degree
  • Contribute new theory and knowledge to the field

MDs:

  • On average, about 4 years to complete the degree, not including residency
  • Purpose – trained to give patient care
  • Considered a professional degree
  • Apply the existing theories and knowledge practically.

Both:

  • Referred to as Doctors
  • Both can specialize in fields.
  • Both perform research and apply for funding

The foundational difference may be related to assuming that Ph.D.s advance knowledge and MDs apply existing knowledge. It is not required for MDs to produce original research, whereas PhDs write up a dissertation (includes original work).

Okay, so obviously the training for doctor degrees are different. But, who is more up-to-date on cutting edge knowledge? Maybe, this sways your opinion?

PhDs are required to do original work, so wouldn’t they be?  What about MDs that conduct clinical trials? Do they use cutting edge knowledge?

It begins to get cloudy when you look past the path of earning your MD or Ph.D. Both professions can conduct clinical trials. Both professions can conduct translational related work.  Which route is better for you? How do you choose?

The path to the degree prepares you for what is ahead in your career. Hence the obvious difference of original work vs patient-related work. This is how many view it. However, the cloudiness between which path to choose increases when ideas like a specialty in biomedical research come to mind. Acceptance into MD/PhD program absorbs expectations into a research-oriented career. The program is expecting you to make medical advances through your training as a researcher.

Ask yourself  “What is the next step after obtaining my terminal degree (MD and Ph.D.)? “

You can pursue research opportunities with just an MD degree. This can occur through a fellowship type of training. Sort of similar to post-doctoral training, an option after completion of a Ph.D.

Overall the training and mentorship past your terminal degree will maximize your opportunities. There is a lot to mull over for choosing a path. Make a Pros and Cons list? Or better yet, maybe just go observe both types of professions?  Find a lab to work in or do some volunteering over the summer, Maybe get involved in a big project. Do something that is even just solely preparing materials for a particular procedure. See if you like the environment. I suggest looking beyond obtaining the terminal degree. Look for people you admire and learn their stories. Keep your eyes up to see all the open doors.

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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5 Things To Consider Before Choosing Your Dissertation Topic

As I am inching towards, what I hope would be my final year of PhD research, I have been thinking and analyzing a lot of my actions in retrospect. I thought of putting together a list of things I learned and things I wish I had considered in my first year.

 

1) Finding the “right” mentor.

We spend a lot of time in deciding the right lab or the best PhD supervisor. A lot has been said and done about finding the right fit. One thing I have learned is that apart from the usual parameters we set in finding the best supervisor for us personally, sometimes we forget to consider if the supervisor is right for the project. Sometimes the project may expand in an area beyond your and your mentor’s expertise. In such cases, it is important to consider whether your mentor will make the right resources available to you. Putting together a good research advisory committee, scientists who would have expertise in that specific topic, will come in handy. Research can be quite daunting and grad students deal with intense pressure and stress on a daily basis. Your time should be spent researching and not trying to find the right instrument in the cheapest core facility and definitely NOT YouTubing the workings of a new technique. Make sure to find someone to train you, attend workshops, shadow a technician and make sure your supervisor makes these available to you when needed. A mark of a good mentor is when they don’t hesitate to seek consultation or advise from an external or senior scientist who is an expert in the field.

 

2) Is this a good career investment?

Turns out most students forget about the crucial thing about spending years in grad school – landing the job! Most of us don’t think about job search or the next move until our final year, which I think is too late. While choosing a topic, you may want to consider things like job market, skill requirement, funding agencies and so on. For example, researching therapeutic drug targets for a disease that has no cure is far better than investing in a project discovering drug targets for a disease with multiple FDA approved drugs. Weigh the pros and cons carefully. Will your project help you acquire technical skills that are translatable to the industry? If you live in a city or country that is in dire need of science policy advisors or climate crisis advocates or good science communicators, will your PhD program give you enough skills to apply to these jobs?

 

3) Is there scope for collaborations?

Collaborations are a unique way to expand into different research topics in your field, whether it’s a collaboration within your group or research with a different research group altogether. This lets you become more versatile, get a flavor of how other researchers approach their science and if nothing else, learn a new scientific topic up-close. A productive collaboration is one which will take your expertise and enhance another project, without taking too much time away from your project. Inter-lab collaborations are a great way to demonstrate your negotiating, team management and interpersonal skills. Oh, and did I mention it’s good for networking? So finding aims in your proposal early on, that are good for teaming up with other groups is a good idea, especially while conferencing.

 

4) Will it help you AND your science grow?

I will start with the science part first. Obviously, we all want to learn and become an expert in the respective field when we started off, so what do I mean by growth here? If your research topic is only going to be a repeat of your previous techniques and scientific concepts, chances are, halfway through the project, you’re going to lose interest. It is great to start off the project with something familiar, but if it isn’t exploring in areas that are uncomfortable and challenging to you, is it really worth a PhD? Test new ideas, push your boundaries and give yourself a deadline to fully delve into answering these questions. But be wary not to spend too much time and get distracted. It is good to spend the first two years (in a five-year program) to be adventurous, but if it gets too challenging it really should not be pursued at the expense of your time.

I stress on personal growth next. PhD project is a LOT of time commitment. Especially to one very specific thing, that more often than not, will consume most, if not all of your time. This means one must consider having room for co-curricular activities that will in turn be an asset for your own research project. For example, I love to read about popular science, wildlife, climate science, conservation, policies and history. My program had a structured graduate minor alongside my PhD major and I decided to study science communication for this minor. Now, I get to write, read or watch other popular forms of science, engage with community, organize local events and dissect science policies as part of my curriculum. I have also gotten opportunities where I talked about my own research to strangers and thus, honed in my craft of communicating science. All of this will ultimately reflect in your resume and you know that apart from spending long hours fine-tuning your experiments, you will leave with heaps of useful skills for future jobs. So, I would recommend finding things that compliment your science early on, this will go a long way!

 

5) Will you need a backup plan?

If you are diving into something extremely challenging, let’s say it will not only require you to learn new, field-specific techniques, but it will mean questioning the dogma – make sure you have another small project to safely rely back on. If your program has at least one first-author paper requirement for dissertation, it is imperative you sit with your supervisor and make sure you will get a paper out in time. No dogma is worth challenging at the cost of your degree!

 

These are some pointers that I thought of, from personal experience. I hope that you will find it useful and informative.