Thesis Mentor FAQ
Dear Thesis Mentors,
After several years of running the MD-PhD program, I've discovered that some of the same questions and issues come up repeatedly. To help all of you who have MD-PhD students in your labs (or plan to in the future), Maggie Krall and I have started putting together a set of answers to questions that we frequently get from faculty members. We're doing something similar for the students, so one of the reasons for doing it for you is to allow you to stay at least one jump ahead. I welcome your comments, suggestions and questions.
What are our goals for the MD-PhD program?
The short answer is that our goal is to identify students with outstanding potential and help them get the training that they need to be accomplished independent physician-investigators. We want them to emerge from Penn ready to complete their training and go on to make substantial contributions in their chosen fields. Our goal is not to produce private practitioners with research training. Many of them will have careers in which they have patient contact while spending most of their time doing research. As a result, we have worked hard with the graduate groups and the medical school to put together an integrated curriculum that has our trainees doing medical school and graduate school training during the entire time that they are with us.
How many MD-PhD students are there and how long has the program been around?
The MD-PhD program is has been in existence since 1969. There are over 350 graduates and there are currently over 160 students enrolled. Our entering class size is typically about 20-24.
Are Penn MD-PhD alumni going into research careers or are most of them in private practice?
In our recent survey of alumni who had been out of the program long enough to have established their careers, approximately 80% were doing basic, translational or clinical research at academic medical centers, research institutes or in industry. Our graduates have compiled an impressive track record of success. That's one of the reasons why this program is so highly rated (and supported) by the NIH.
How long does it take most MD-PhD students to complete both degrees?
The average time to complete both degrees is just under 8 years, with most taking 7 or 8 years. An occasional student completes everything in 6 years, but I worry that they are not getting full benefit from their research time when they do that. Some students take more than 8. Our goal is 7 or 8 years. More information about our curriculum is also available on the website.
How do MD-PhD students choose labs?
MD-PhD students choose labs using some of the same resources as single degree PhD students. They attend Graduate Group seminar series, chalk talks and advising sessions, and must have Graduate Group approval for their rotation and thesis mentor choices. In addition, they must have the approval of the MD-PhD steering committee. We discuss issues related to choosing a lab extensively in special events and class meetings, and we encourage our students to choose carefully. We ask them to review the biosketches and funding of potential mentors to be sure the lab is active and successful. We invite them to consider mentors at all phases of their careers, and we educate them about the potential pros and cons of choosing more junior vs. more senior members of the faculty. We tell them to talk with other students and lab members, to learn as much as possible about the mentoring style of the PI. The MD-PhD program has a policy that no mentor can have more than 4 MD-PhD students at one time, and no more than 2 from a single class.
Do we encourage them to get out of the lab as quickly as possible?
No. We encourage them to be efficient and not waste time. We specifically tell them that they should be doing a first class thesis and that they should take the time that they need to accomplish that. We tell them that they should meet the goals of doing PhD training which include: 1) Learning how to asking interesting and significant questions. 2) Learning how to reduce the questions to a set of experiments. 3) Learning how to evaluate the results. 4) Learning how to present the results in written and oral form. 5) Learning survival skills for a successful career as an independent investigator.
Does the Combined Degree program have a policy on thesis committee meetings?
Yes. I've spent a lot of time recently convincing our students that one of the keys to completing the program in a reasonable length of time is to be efficient. Based on my own experience as a graduate student and as a thesis advisor, regular committee meetings provide a good spur to keeping things moving forward. Our policy is the "6+6" rule, which means that combined degree students are expected to have their first committee meeting within 6 months of entering the lab full time and then every 6 months after that. Maggie keeps track and they are expected to turn in a copy of their committee report each time. I realize that this is more frequent than some of the graduate groups require.
What is the Clinical Connections program?
The clinical connections program has been designed for MD-PhD students in the graduate phase of the program. Students are matched with a physician-scientist clinical preceptor in an area of interest to them. The goals of the program are 1) to help the student to stay in touch with his/her clinical skills and knowledge base, 2) to pair the student with someone who can offer insight into physician-scientist career paths in a clinical area of interest to him/her. The aim is to provide a meaningful experience without taking substantial time from the student's dissertation work. The student and preceptor are to set up a mutually agreeable schedule which totals anywhere from 4 to 8 half days over the course of a semester.
What is the Monthly Events series?
The Combined Degree monthly event series is designed to highlight the intersection of science and medicine through student talks, guest faculty talks and panel discussions. Many of these events are in our Grand Rounds format. One student presents a clinical case and a second student does a talk on some of the relevant underlying basic science. The quality of these talks is outstanding, and we strongly encourage faculty members to attend the events and the receptions that follow. All MD-PhD students are required to attend the events series, which takes place in the evening from 5pm to 7.
What are the issues that affect the timing of their return to medical school?
Another timing issue unique to MD-PhD students is that they can only graduate from the MD portion of the program in May, if they plan to do a residency. If an MD-PhD student returns to clinics a month too late, it can mean an entire additional year in the program. For this reason our students need to plan especially carefully. This is not a reason to rush a thesis project to a premature conclusion, but it is something that needs to be taken into account.
A typical student will need to defend in the fall semester of the academic year before the year they graduate, in order to have adequate time to make decisions and fulfill the requirements for their residency applications . (To provide a concrete example, most of the students who graduated in May of 2009 defended their dissertations between August and early December of 2007). Different students have different scheduling limitations depending on their clinical interests and which clinical courses they still need to take. For some, returning late in the fall semester of the year before they graduate works nicely. For others, it is necessary to be back to clinics August or September (or even earlier), if they are to graduate the following academic year. There is sometimes a misperception that it is fine for all or most MD-PhDs to defend in December if they want to graduate the following year, but this is emphatically not the case. If you have specific questions about these issues or would like a more detailed explanation, please contact Maggie Krall.
Are Penn MD-PhD students expected to defend their thesis before returning to medical school?
Yes. Completing research and writing for a PhD thesis is tough to do part time while completing medical school. In the past we've allowed students to return to clinics without defending. Some of them graduate without completing their thesis and we have to haunt them forever. Current policy is that only in exceptional circumstances will we allow students to return prior to their thesis defense. Approval has to be granted on a case by case basis by the CD program director.
How are Penn MD-PhD students funded?
All of the students who have entered the MD-PhD program in the past few years have been granted full funding - tuition, fees and stipend - for the entire time that they are in the program. The funds to do this come from a number of sources including the School of Medicine, the NIH MSTP grant, private foundations, individual fellowships, other training grants and research grants. The thesis mentor's responsibility for funding an MD-PhD student is exactly the same as it is for a single degree PhD student.
Is it true that if my thesis student has been on the MSTP grant he or she won't cost me anything?
No. Not all of the students are appointed to the MSTP grant, but even if they are, they come off the grant at the end of the third year of the program - the same time that they move into their thesis lab full time. That means that they are eligible for appointment to other training grants while they are in your lab. It also means that you are responsible for covering their tuition, fees and stipends during the time they are with you, with an upper limit determined by the infamous "BGS mentor cap" for students in the various BGS PhD programs. If you are not sure what this means for your lab budget, feel free to ask me or Maggie to discuss it with you.
How much more training to MD-PhD students do after they leave Penn?
Historically, 95% of our graduates over the past 30 years have done residencies and clinical fellowships. Between clinical training after medical school and further research training, typical graduates spend at least another 6 years. Those who have not done residencies have done a number of different things, including traditional postdocs and going into industry.
If you have questions about the program, please contact one of the Steering Committee members:
Skip Brass, MD, PhD
Associate Dean and Director
Gary Koretzky, MD, PhD
Aimee Payne, MD, PhD
Mitch Weiss, MD, PhD