How To Write Your MD PhD Essays

July 9, 2024


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 4/25/24

Suppose you’ve decided that pursuing the MD PhD dual degree is right for you. In that case, you may have noticed that the application process is slightly different than applying to MD programs at allopathic medical schools. Namely, besides submitting the required application materials through the AMCAS, MD PhDs must also write two additional essays: the MD PhD essay and the significant research experience essay.

Today’s guide will review what an MD PhD is, what you can expect from MD PhD dual degree programs, and how to apply to MD PhD programs in the United States. You will also learn how to write compelling MD PhD essays by utilizing our tips for making your essays stand out. 

Are you ready to succeed? Let’s dive right in.

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What is an MD PhD?

An MD PhD is also known as a physician-scientist or a medical scientist. An MD PhD holds both the Doctor of Medicine degree (MD) and the Doctor of Philosophy degree (PhD) in scientific research. 

The difference between MDs and MD PhDs is that while MDs are typically in medical school for the traditional four years, MD PhDs must complete four years of medical training in addition to three to four years of training to become physician-scientists. 

In total, MD PhDs complete their dual degrees in seven to eight years, making their pathway long and challenging but ultimately rewarding for those who are passionate about conducting biomedical scientific research. 

In short, MD PhDs combine clinical medicine with scientific research and have comprehensive knowledge of important topics in medicine. According to the AAMC, physician-scientists research various topics in the following disciplines:

  • Biochemistry and Macromolecular Biophysics
  • Bioengineering and Biomedical Imaging
  • Bioethics
  • Cell and Developmental Biology
  • Chemical and Physical Sciences
  • Computational Biology and Bioinformatics
  • Immunology
  • Microbiology and Infectious Disease
  • Molecular Biology and Genetics
  • Neuroscience
  • Pathology and Mechanisms of Disease
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology
  • Public Health, Epidemiology, and Preventative Medicine
  • Social and Behavioral Sciences

What are MD PhD Programs?

MD PhD programs are dual degree programs that allow students to obtain their MD and PhD degrees simultaneously. The MD PhD curriculum is continuous, meaning you will work on both degrees throughout your medical and graduate school education. The following infographic provided by the AAMC breaks down what a typical MD PhD program looks like:

TimelineDescription automatically generated

Of course, there may be variations depending on the school’s curriculum, so be sure to check with the programs to which you apply to learn more about year-to-year coursework, training, and research. 

Currently, there are over 100 MD PhD programs in the United States, and over 40 programs are partially or fully funded by training grants known as MSTPs (Medical Science Training Programs). Because of these grants, most MD PhD students complete their dual degrees with very little or zero student debt. 

To decide which MD PhD program is right for you, you will have to do some preliminary research. Use the following checklist of questions to determine which program is a good fit:

  • Does the program have ample funding?
  • Is the location of the school desirable?
  • Is there a good balance between clinical training and research?
  • Does the school have a reputable history of strong publications and research?
  • Is the program multi-disciplinary, and will it provide plentiful topics to research?
  • Is clinical training introduced early in the program?
  • Are there mentors available to oversee research projects?
  • Are current MD PhD students satisfied with the program?
  • Are the school’s alumni performing high-level research and frequently publishing?
  • Does the program’s mission statement/culture align with your academic and career goals?

How to Apply to MD PhD Programs

Take a leaf out of Patrick's book: he got into six fully funded MD/ Phd programs with our help! 

The application process for MD PhD programs is similar to applying to MD programs. For most allopathic medical schools, you will use the AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service). 

Of course, not every medical school uses the AMCAS—osteopathic schools use the AACOMAS (American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service), and Texas medical schools use the TMDSAS (Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Service). Be sure to verify that you are using the correct application service for the school to which you’re applying.

So, let’s revisit the AMCAS, as that will be the main application service you will use to apply to MD PhD programs. In the AMCAS, you must select “MD PhD” as the program to which you’re applying.

There are nine sections that you must complete in the AMCAS:

Sections 1, 2, and 3

The first three sections in the AMCAS are where you will enter your basic information such as your name, background information, biographical information, identifiers, and the previous schools you have attended.

Section 4

In section 4, you will enter all your information about course requirements (prerequisites) and school transcripts. 

Section 5

In section 5, the AMCAS work and activities section, you will enter your relevant extracurricular activities, work experience, and hobbies. Strong extracurricular activities include, but are not limited to, clinical experience, medical shadowing, and volunteering.

However, the most important extracurricular you can participate in before applying to the MD PhD program is research. This goes without saying: You must showcase substantive research experience to gain a competitive edge over other candidates. Gaining substantive research experience requires some effort and commitment on your part. 

You should aim to have multiple summers of research experience throughout your undergrad program, and it is beneficial to have at least one year of continuous research experience. This may mean that you take a gap year before applying to the MD PhD program, but it will be well worth it to boost your application and show admissions officers your dedication and passion for research.

Section 6

In section 6, you will upload all of your letters of recommendation

Section 7

In section 7, you will select that you are applying to the MD PhD program. You will also enter any other information about the school, such as whether you’re applying for an early decision.

Section 8

In section 8, you will enter your personal statement. For the MD PhD program, you will also submit two essays in addition to the personal statement. They are the MD PhD essay and the significant research experience essay. 

Section 9

In section 9, you will enter all information about standardized test scores, such as the MCAT.

How to Write Your MD PhD Essays

Tips to write MD/PHD Essays

The overall purpose of the MD PhD essay is to answer the question, “Why did you choose to apply to the MD PhD combined program?”

The MD PhD Essay

  • Demonstrates your reasons for pursuing the MD PhD dual degree program.
  • Focuses on why the combination of research and clinical medicine is right for you. (In other words, you can’t see yourself having just an MD or just a PhD. To feel the most fulfilled, you must combine both.) 
  • Shows that you are prepared for the rigors of both research and clinical medicine, not just one or the other.

Admissions committees want to ensure that the applicants they accept into the MD PhD program are devoted to the field. After all, why would anyone spend seven to eight years in research if they didn’t absolutely love it? 

To that end, the MD PhD essay must convince the admissions officers that you are passionate about research and can’t imagine doing anything except the work of a physician-scientist. 

To structure your MD PhD essay, follow academic and professional standards of writing. There should be a consistent format of an introduction, body, and conclusion. View the table below for a general outline of the MD PhD essay:

image of general outline of the MD PhD essay

A strong introduction immediately pulls the reader in and briefly summarizes your motivations for pursuing the MD PhD program. You can achieve this with a personal anecdote that neatly ties in your experience and goals. 

The body paragraphs are the meat of the content. You should detail how you prepared for a career as a physician-scientist by demonstrating your clinical and research experiences. Because of limited space, you should aim to write about two to three substantive experiences that showcase your strengths and what you learned. The body paragraphs should focus on quality rather than the number of experiences. The body paragraphs should also reinforce why the MD PhD path is right for you.

Finally, a strong conclusion leaves the reader with the impression that you are a strong candidate for the MD PhD program. You can achieve this by reiterating your motivations and goals, calling back to the introduction/personal anecdote, and concisely tying together your experiences. 

The Significant Research Experience Essay

The purpose of the significant research experience essay is right there in the title—to provide details about your significant research experiences. 

The significant research experience essay . . .

  • Provides details about your research projects and contributions.
  • Describes what you investigated and learned.
  • Discusses the durations of your research experiences.
  • Includes information about your mentors, such as their names and affiliations.

For the format of your significant research essay, you can structure it as a narrative that adheres to a general introduction, body, and conclusion. Or, you can structure the essay in entry format where each research experience has a subheading that includes identifying information about the research projects, mentors, and affiliations.

For example:

1. Professor X, MD/PhD, Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, February 2019 – March 2021

[Enter details about the experience here.]

If you prefer the entry format for your essay, it’s still a good idea to write one or two introductory sentences and a strong conclusion to tie everything together. Just because it is in entry format doesn’t mean it should be overly technical or indifferent. You should still aim to tell a compelling, unique narrative.

Tips for Making Your MD PhD Essays Stand Out

To make your MD PhD essays stand out, use the following tips for success:

  • Be specific, not generic. While you shouldn’t weigh down your essays with overly technical jargon, it’s important to be specific in what you learned in terms of lessons and skills.
  • If you faced challenges, don’t write about the negative aspects, but emphasize a growth mindset and what you did to overcome the obstacles. 
  • According to the US News & World Report, very few MD PhD applicants identify a medical problem that they want to solve with their research. Use this to your advantage to stand out—admissions officers want to see a level of maturity and sophistication from applicants. It would go a long way if you described research experiences about a medical issue that you have personal connections with and aspire to solve with research.
  • Show, don’t tell. For example, instead of saying, “I improved my critical thinking and analytical skills while completing X research project,” demonstrate what that project was, your process of investigation, the outcomes you learned, and your flexibility in absorbing new information. If you show interesting narratives rather than tell, your essays will leave a lasting impression on the admissions committee.


1. What is the best pre-med major for MD PhD programs?

Surprisingly, there is no best pre-med major for MD PhD programs, as medical schools do not have requirements for majors. Students are encouraged to pursue their passions and unique interests, even if that means majoring in non-science subjects (such as the liberal arts or the social sciences). That said, the most popular undergrad majors are in the biological sciences.

Whether you choose to major in the sciences or not, the only requirement you must fulfill is completing all prerequisite coursework. Every medical school has its own prerequisite coursework requirements, so verify that you are on track to complete all coursework, including labs. If you are unsure or need help with building your course schedule, speak with a pre-health advisor. 

2. Does it look better to have numerous research experiences?

Yes and no. Find a balance. While you should have multiple substantive research experiences, the emphasis should be on “substantive.” In other words, aim for quality over quantity. What you learn and gain from your research experiences is more important than the number of experiences you have. 

Furthermore, having quality research experiences will make it easier for you to network with supervisors, mentors, colleagues, and peers. You can tap into this support system when you ask for letters of recommendation for your med school application. 

3. Can I have someone look at my essays before submitting them through the AMCAS?

Yes! We strongly recommend that you spend time crafting your essays. Don’t simply type your essays in the application service and hit send. Write your essays over time, and expect to revise your drafts. Ask trusted peers, mentors, friends, or colleagues for their objective feedback. You can also consult with our team of experts. 

4. What should I avoid in my MD PhD essays?

  • Avoid clichés. You want your essays to be memorable to admissions committees who read thousands of these applications every year. Use language that’s compelling, descriptive, and tells a story. Make connections from your personal and professional experiences to the MD PhD program.
  • Avoid restating what’s already in your CV. You only have 3,000 characters, so every word counts. 
  • Avoid writing about negative experiences. Focus on positive reasons for pursuing the MD PhD and show a growth mindset. 
  • Avoid using a casual tone or language. Your essays should be academic and professional. 

5. Do I need to have publications before applying to MD PhD programs?

Publications are not required for MD PhD programs, but having publications gives you a competitive edge over other candidates. Admissions officers are aware of how difficult it is to publish so early in your education, but if you do have publications, be sure to list them in your application. 

Also, keep in mind that regardless of your current contributions in research, whether or not you have publications, you must be knowledgeable about your research topics and have substantial research experience. 

6. How many research experiences should I write about in my research experience essay?

You should aim to write about two to three significant research experiences. This will give you a good balance of different research experiences to discuss, including what you learned and your contributions. Writing about two to three experiences will also ensure that you remain within the essay length requirement of the AMCAS, which is 3,000 characters.


If you’re passionate about scientific research, the MD PhD dual degree is a great way to combine your love of clinical medicine and research. For most MD PhD programs, you will apply using the AMCAS. 

The application process is similar to traditional MD programs, but with the MD PhD, you will have to select that program within the application service. Additionally, you will have to write two essays specifically for the MD PhD program: the MD PhD essay and the significant research experience essay. 

To write strong, compelling MD PhD essays, persuade the admissions committee of your reasons for combining clinical medicine with research and why it’s the best pathway for you. Demonstrate how your research experiences have prepared you for a rewarding career as a physician-scientist. We wish you the best of luck as you pursue your MD PhD.

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