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  • Nesha

My "Scenic" Non-Traditional Route to becoming a Physician-Scientist

All you need is an MD to be a doctor, right? If you wanted to be a physician, why do you want a PhD?

I was introduced to the MD/PhD route about 8 years ago. Here I am, an African-American woman without any mentoring or anyone to show me anything about getting a PhD or an MD. All I know is if I apply for the MD/PhD programs, it will fund the MD portion of my education. At least, that's how they recruited me to the idea. But, it left me with questions. I didn't understand what it truly meant to be a physician-scientist. When I searched for different programs, I didn't think I could handle being in the lab alone. I'm barely making it through my coursework. Do I really understand this stuff? I also did not want to do lab work for the rest of my life. Am I going to turn against a fully-funded opportunity? At the time, I felt I had no choice.

But, it left me with the ultimate question. I didn't understand what it truly meant to be a physician-scientist.

I did not know what I was feeling was a real thing. I later learned about Imposter Syndrome and knew that's what I was dealing with. Over those 8 years, I engaged in more and more research, from bench work to public health. I didn't realize the breadth of research. I had tunnel vision. Research was only using test tubes and pipettes in my mind, which wasn't a problem. However, I have never been one that likes being confined. I like having options.

Those years of experiencing different styles and types of research planted a desire for invention, innovation, and originality in healthcare, science, and medicine for me.

Attending grad school to receive my master's degree ignited this dormant desire for the MD/PhD life again. After years of experiencing different research, I still didn't think I knew what I was doing. After applying to medical school and having multiple attempts on the #MCAT, the idea and dream of becoming a physician-scientist were looking slimmer.

During my gap year for medical school, I found a PhD program I was interested in. As I mentioned, I'm a person who likes to have options, so I loved that this program wasn't married to bench science or community science; you could do either. I also had a health science background, so I figured this was the best choice. It wasn't until I started this journey that I found others on a similar path. Getting their PhD first and then going to medical school. I definitely didn't know that was a thing. I felt comfortable finding my small community and support system.

I began mentoring students in healthcare doing mock interviews, and met a few students questioning which route to take. I'm asked all the time, how do I decide between PhD and MD? My answer is, why not do both if you have an interest in both? There are not many people who want to do both. But it does take some serious thought.

I'm asked all the time, how do I decide between PhD and MD? My answer is, why not do both if you have an interest in both?

How to become a physician-scientist?

I needed to understand that a specific route didn't exist, even for medical school. This journey isn't A + B = C. We might need to do some algebra and carry the 1 a few times to get our answer. Once I understood that phenomenon, life went smooth sailing.

There are funded programs that most students who desire to be a physician-scientist apply to, be sure to look for MSTP programs. If you decide to do both degrees separately, there is still funding that exists. I'm grateful to have my degree covered by my employer. If this is a route you are considering, do your research on what you want to study for your PhD. Many programs are developing other majors outside of basic science, like in public health, as an example. Again, you can get both degrees separately, and you will still be acknowledged as a physician-scientist.

What is the PhD life like?

I'm a first-generational doctoral student, and like with medicine, I didn't have any mentorship or an example of telling me about what it takes to get a PhD. I knew PhD was about research, but this journey has taught me a lot. When you get a PhD, you become the scientific expert in your field. That is a journey in itself. It's more than the coursework, the writing, the research's understanding how to impact medicine, healthcare, and public health with your own creative ideas. It's a skill to learn. You have to learn how to read articles and learn from other research that you've read in the field and apply it to what you want to do. I love being able to fill gaps in the healthcare world.

Every PhD student will travel a different route, even in the same program. After the core coursework, the completion of your degree is on you! You begin to crossover from student to colleague in the field. It might take time to build your research skills. Although you have a team, your research is your own. You are now impacting the field. We're going to look to you!

Do what you have to do to reach your goals!

What is the plan to get the MD/DO?

After my PhD, I will apply to medical school. This requires me to retake my MCAT during my PhD time. Graduate school will teach you time management. I have to make hard decisions and sacrifices on this journey. I didn't expect to take this route, but now, I'm actually glad I did! I've learned so much! I learned how to study. I was able to tackle my test anxiety that was born from the medical school process. I learned persistence, resilience, and grit. While in my PhD program, I keep up my medical/science knowledge with my research and science videos. I even audited a class to help cut time with my MCAT studying for the Biology/Biochemistry section. Do what you have to do to reach your goals!

My MCAT journey is a totally separate blog in itself. But I will share this journey with you to know that there is no right way there. Just make sure you get there! If you desire to become a physician, scientist, or both, set yourself up to make it happen! Don't be afraid to reach out to others or seek mentorship or a tutor. These options exist for a reason! Don't be afraid to help others either. What God has for you will be for you! Nothing or no one can stop it or take it away!

Until next time...😊

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1 Comment

Nathaly Munoz
Nathaly Munoz
Jan 08, 2023

Hi Nesha! Loved your story, you definitely inspired hope in myself! Would love to connect if possible. I think stories like yours need to be out there for everyone to hear. Thank you for sharing!

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