Who Is a Medical Scientist Training Program Student? Interviewing for an MD–PhD as a “Nontraditional” Researcher

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For students interested in an academic career, the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) offers both an incredible opportunity and what can be a frustratingly harrowing admission process if the student does not fit the “traditional” mold. While the scope of research and breadth of practice encompassed by MSTP students has broadened in recent years,1,2 there remains a perception that dual degrees must focus on laboratory-based research. Changing realities of patient-centered practice, development of value-based payment and prescribing models, debates about equity and access to care, and ongoing discussions surrounding health care reform increasingly require realms of knowledge that extend beyond the traditional mold,1,2 yet regardless of the extent to which programs do or do not include students studying these questions, one important and often overlooked consequence of the discussion itself is the impact that it can have on potential students.
When applying for an MD–PhD as a nontraditional researcher, it is not uncommon to experience a variety of responses—even after being chosen to interview at a presumably interested school. Discussions with current medical students from across the country too often tell a similar tale: Some programs talk about nontraditional students who thrived at their institution. Others acknowledge that they are looking to “build their program in that direction” or that, while they do not have a formalized program for nontraditional students, they are willing to help such students find mentors. Still others take a different approach, directly informing students invited to campus that they do not understand or do not support graduate study in a nontraditional field.
The latter perspective, while understandable for a program as a whole, can be a devastating experience for a student invited to attend an on-site interview day. It is an aspect of the admissions process that we, as a community of academic physicians faced with the ever-evolving reality of what it means to be a physician–scientist,1–3 are afforded a unique position to improve. As renewed attention begins to turn toward the mental well-being of students,4 work is needed to understand how the decisions and policies that we make are reflected in practice and to recognize the impact that they can have on what it means to be an MD–PhD applicant on interview day.
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