Exploring Reasons That U.S. MD-PhD Students Enter and Leave Their Dual-Degree Programs

Devasmita Chakraverty, Donna B Jeffe, Katherine P Dabney, Robert H Tai
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 461-483

In response to widespread efforts to increase the size and diversity of the biomedical-research workforce in the U.S., a large-scale qualitative study was conducted to examine current and former students’ training experiences in MD (Doctor of Medicine), PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), and MD-PhD dual-degree programs. In this paper, we aimed to describe the experiences of a subset of study participants who had dropped out their MD-PhD dual-degree training program, the reasons they entered the MD-PhD program, as well as their reasons for discontinuing their training for the MD-PhD.

To our knowledge, the U.S. has the longest history of MD-PhD dual-degree training programs dating back to the 1950s and produces the largest number of MD-PhD graduates in the world. Integrated dual-degree MD-PhD programs are offered at more than 90 medical schools in the U.S., and historically have included three phases – preclinical, PhD-research, and clinical training, all during medical-school training. On average, it takes eight years of training to complete requirements for the MD-PhD dual-degree. MD-PhD students have unique training experiences, different from MD-only or PhD-only students. Not all MD-PhD students complete their training, at a cost to funding agencies, schools, and students themselves.

We purposefully sampled from 97 U.S. schools with doctoral programs, posting advertisements for recruitment of participants who were engaged in or had completed PhD, MD, and MD-PhD training. Between 2011 and 2013, semi-structured, one-on-one phone interviews were conducted with 217 participants. Using a phenomenological approach and inductive, thematic analysis, we examined students’ reasons for entering the MD-PhD dual-degree program, when they decided to leave, and their reasons for leaving MD-PhD training.

Study findings offer new insights into MD-PhD students’ reasons for leaving the program, beyond what is known about program attrition based on retrospective analysis of existing national data, as little is known about students’ actual reasons for attrition. By more deeply exploring students’ reasons for attrition, programs can find ways to improve MD-PhD students’ training experiences and boost their retention in these dual-degree programs to completion, which will, in turn, foster expansion of the biomedical-research-workforce capacity.

Seven participants in the larger study reported during their interview that they left their MD-PhD programs before finishing, and these were the only participants who reported leaving their doctoral training. At the time of interview, two participants had completed the MD and were academic-medicine faculty, four were completing medical school, and one dropped out of medicine to complete a PhD in Education. Participants reported enrolling in MD-PhD programs to work in both clinical practice and research. Very positive college research experiences, mentorship, and personal reasons also played important roles in participants’ decisions to pursue the dual MD-PhD degree. However, once in the program, positive mentorship and other opportunities that they experienced during or after college, which initially drew candidates to the program was found lacking. Four themes emerged as reasons for leaving the MD-PhD program: (1) declining interest in research, (2) isolation and lack of social integration during the different training phases, (3) suboptimal PhD-advising experiences, and (4) unforeseen obstacles to completing PhD research requirements, such as loss of funding.

Though limited by a small sample size, findings highlight the need for better integrated institutional and programmatic supports for MD-PhD students, especially during PhD training.

Researchers should continue to explore if other programmatic aspects of MD-PhD training (other than challenges experienced during PhD training, as discussed in this paper) are particularly problematic and pose challenges to the successful completion of the program.

The MD-PhD workforce comprises a small, but highly trained cadre of physician-scientists with the expertise to conduct clinical and/or basic science research aimed at improving patient care and developing new diagnostic tools and therapies. Although MD-PhD graduates comprise a small proportion of all MD graduates in the U.S. and globally, about half of all MD-trained physician-scientists in the U.S. federally funded biomedical-research workforce are MD-PhD-trained physicians. Training is extensive and rigorous. Improving experiences during the PhD-training phase could help reduce MD-PhD program attrition, as attrition results in substantial financial cost to federal and private funding agencies and to medical schools that fund MD-PhD programs in the U.S. and other countries.

Future research could examine, in greater depth, how communications among students, faculty and administrators in various settings, such as classrooms, research labs, and clinics, might help MD-PhD students become more fully integrated into each new program phase and continue in the program to completion. Future research could also examine experiences of MD-PhD students from groups underrepresented in medicine and the biomedical-research workforce (e.g., first-generation college graduates, women, and racial/ethnic minorities), which might serve to inform interventions to increase the numbers of applicants to MD-PhD programs and help reverse the steady decline in the physician-scientist workforce over the past several decades.

MD-PhD program, doctoral training challenges, biomedical-research work-force, attrition, medical education
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