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When Is an MD/PhD the Right Path?

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Bioinformaticist and physician Russ Altman offers some practical advice for those considering a plunge down the MD/PhD road.

Russ Altman, a professor of bioengineering, genetics, and medicine at Stanford University, has wanted to have one foot in the clinic and the other at the bench ever since his undergraduate days as a biochemistry major. In addition to his research positions at Stanford and his various research pursuits involving computational biology and pharmacogenomics, Altman also maintains a small private medical practice. He offers two key pieces of advice for those considering the MD/PhD route.

1. Make sure you want to be a physician. Make sure you want to be a scientist.

Sounds obvious, doesn't it? Altman says this no-brainer is worth stating because some folks embark upon the long and arduous MD/PhD journey for the wrong reasons -- and that can be one painful lesson to learn. "Don't do one simply to give you a competitive advantage in the other," he says. "Any kind of superficial reason to do [an MD/PhD program] I don't think can weather how physically and intellectually difficult it is to finish these two things. So make sure you want to treat patients, and for the PhD, make sure you want to do research."

2. When choosing a dual MD/PhD program, it’s the quality of the PhD program that matters.

Because medical education and training is standardized across the US and many other countries, it's the quality of the PhD program that should inform your decision when selecting which dual program to attend. "At the end of the day, everyone takes the same nationalized exams, so the quality of medical school training is pretty much even," he says. "But the quality of PhD training is highly variable, so given that, I would choose your program based on its offering first-class PhD credentials and then look at the MD program."

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