I Could Use Some Help Here

I met with the head of the MSTP program at one of my top choice schools today and I have no fucking clue how to take it. I was basically wanting to know whether or not I was wasting my time applying to the program. He spent the first 10 minutes talking about MCAT scores, how competitive medical school admission was, and things like that. Then he started asking me about the research I’ve done. I began explaining about it, describing what I’ve been working on, which is mostly quantitative research, and then interrupted to ask about whether I had bench research. By bench research, he was most certainly asking about whether I had spent time in a biochemistry or cellular biology lab. When I told him I hadn’t, he told me “That’s going to hurt you”. Fair enough. If that’s really what the MSTP world wants, fine.

Here’s the rub. We continue talking and then he starts going on about how he really wants people with a quantitative background. He told me that he thought it was a lot easier for quantitative people to learn the biology and lab stuff then it was for biology people to learn the math. He actually said that. How are those not contradictory statements? At this point in the conversation, I pretty much concluded that I was wasting my time, so I pressed him a little bit and asked him how wanting someone with a lot of bench experience and a quantitative background wasn’t contradictory. He told me that it wasn’t specific backgrounds that they wanted; a generic background was what they were looking for, but in specific areas. Eventually, and I have no idea what point of the conversation we were in, he interrupted to ask, “What other questions do you have for me?” which was clearly code for, “I”m busy, so get the fuck out of my office”. I thanked him for his time, he told me to emphasize my quantitative background on my application and then I got up to leave. As I was leaving, I asked him if I was wasting my time applying to his program and he told that I wasn’t and that I should write about my quantitative background.

I’d like to ask my MD-PhD readers for some insight on this because I have no idea what the hell to think. I don’t know what the fuck an immunoassay is. I don’t know anything about how to do a fucking Western blot, Southern blot, or any other kind of blot. Is the MD-PhD world really so narrow-minded to think that if I haven’t clocked time with test tubes in one hand and cell cultures in the other that I have no business becoming a physician-scientist? I haven’t a clue what to think – was this guy telling me I was completely off my rocker? Do I need to push my application back another year so I can go get my hands dirty in an immunology lab? This was one of my top choice schools and now I feel like I’m just a scrub with a big MCAT score with a shit cumulative GPA that has wasted the past three years trying to become a doctor.

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12 Responses

  1. So, I’m not an MD/Ph.D. but, a fellow premed, post-bacc. I, however, say go for it. You’ve got research experience and, very importantly, quantitative skills. You’ll have a learning curve on the assays but there will be someone there to help you out. I also believe that some people with bio background don’t have a lot exposure to math and may not know where to start with analysis. So, your quantitative background will come in handy to a team.

    My suggestion … apply. Then, if you’re worried about your lack of assay skills, go spend a few months volunteering in a bio lab that interests you. I volunteer in a molecular toxicology lab. Since I’ve had stats and knew the software, I helped fellow lab mates in some of the analysis and analyzed my data for my own project. My lab mates, in turn, trained me in cell culture, some assays and other techniques.

    In interviews, emphasize what you’ve been doing since submitting your application (if you do anymore research) and the skills you have with quantitative research.

  2. I don’t think you’re at a disadvantage, frankly. You have the ability to think and your quantitative background will help you for a PhD and will diversify you amongst applicants. That being said, if there’s a way you can take an experimental methods class, that might not be a bad idea.

    And here’s how I feel-what we do with Westerns and Southerns, a simple molecular biology class can teach you. Anyone can pipette, and your PhD does NOT have to be in a basic science biology field…we have BioEngrs, Bioinformatics, and Statisticians in our program. They’re just as qualified and excellent as my Biology classmates. :)

    OMDG is likely the better person to help you, since I took the traditional path :)

  3. The hierarchy of science is this: theoretical math, theoretical physics, experimental physics, engineering (I think), chemistry (better if P-chem), structural biology, genetics, computational anything biology, cell and molecular, evo-devo. It is thought that if you are on a higher rung then you can do anything below that rung, but nothing above it. That’s what he was talking about. What kind of PhD do you want to get?

    I would chalk the interaction up to basic scientist with poor interpersonal skills. It’s a common problem.

    • The more that I think about the interaction, the more I’m inclined to think that he pretty much thinks that the only research that is of any real value is bench research. Maybe I’m misinterpreting it, but he seemed to poo-poo everything that I had done because I wasn’t working in a lab that was puzzling out the pathway for control over gene expression in some pathway. He was of absolutely zero help when it came to understanding whether I’m wasting my time applying to that program.

      Part of the problem may have been that he didn’t know anything about me – didn’t know my background, interests, experience, or any of that. He basically told me how baller his program is, how competitive it was, etc. and then asked for my research experience. He kept interrupting me on everything I said because he wanted to see what my lab experience was and when I told him I didn’t have any, he got the piece of information he wanted and proceeded to start telling me why that was I needed to get in order to be successful in that program.

      I completely forgot about this until now, but near the end, prior to summarily dismissing me from his throne room, he had the brass to tell me that the institution took into account things like race, ethnicity, economic status and whether or not I’d had a difficult childhood or grew up in a farm town with a one room red brick schoolhouse. I left his office with less of an idea about whether I’m making a mistake applying to dual-degree programs than I had before I went in.

    • I’d like to do my PhD in something like statistics, computational biology, or something quantitative like that – genetics could also be a possibility, depending upon the groups that are involved. I also have an interest in studying things like imaging and the use of ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. It really depends upon the group that I find I think.

      • Like I said before, we have quite a few students who are in the field you are interested in and they are absolutely fantastic. I think he’s just terrible at mentoring, frankly.

        That being said, I’m now on the West Coast and my IMPRESSION (OMDG, please correct me if I’m wrong) is that schools here out West, such as UW, OHSU, UCSF and UCLA are much more outwardly amenable (especially if you can do your PhD at CalTech) to doing something non-bench science than schools back East, but then, I can see Columbia, Penn and MAYBE Harvard (if you can do a PhD through MIT), being totally fine with it, they just might grouse more. I’d avoid Colorado and Hopkins for sure.

        Or just call up program directors/coordinators and honestly ask. They should be able to hook you up to students who are in your field of interest and answer questions honestly.

      • Taking a little break from trying to figure out how to generate plots in R – thanks for the encouragement. The more that I think about it, the more it sounds like he didn’t know anything about me and thinks that his research is the only thing that’s meaningful. I talked to a buddy that is a med student there and he told me that there are plenty of opportunities to do quantitative research and that the dean of the university is making a conscious effort to bring more people into the school that have that background and mindset. Sounds like I just had a bad experience with the guy and shouldn’t let it bother me.

        Probably not the first time someone further up the medical foodchain will rub me the wrong way.

    • OMDG-where does that put your kickass Epi degree? I’d place it pretty high up haha

  4. I think that this is the major issue:

    “Part of the problem may have been that he didn’t know anything about me – didn’t know my background, interests, experience, or any of that.”

    I had a similar thing happen to me with the director of my school’s post-bacc program. When I was transferring there from another school, there were a few technical things to work out. In one of the last emails she received from me, she commented: “I am not sure how competitive of an applicant you will be, but all you can do is try”. This is coming from someone who didn’t know me AT ALL. She had no idea of my GPA, background, life experiences, nothing. All she knew is that I was a student at school X and wanted to transfer to school Y. That’s it. She really had some nerve to make that comment.

    I guess that the moral of the story is to not let other’s (un- or misinformed) opinions bother you. It seems to me that you are doing all of the right things.

    I don’t know if you are into Napoleon Hill at all, but one idea he liked to promulgate was something to the effect that in each of life’s setbacks or disappointments, there is an equal opportunity. Maybe this program really isn’t right for you. You might end up not liking being there for 7 years, dealing with this guy. This interaction might force you to find another program that is more suited to your goals/interests/personality that you would not have found being fixated on this program.

    • I agree with you on all points. As I had a chance to talk with the program director, I started realizing that if he was this condescending to a stranger he might be a complete and utter nightmare to work with as a student.

      My guess is that in six months, if I get an interview at that program, he won’t remember me at all. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – perhaps it was just a really bad interaction for both of us. But it definitely made that institution a lot less desirable in my eyes.

      One good thing that did come out of it was that I think I have a better idea of what to articulate in the application and interview process. For example, I take it as an axiom that I’m interested in academics, so I tend to forget to mention that. MSTP programs tend to want to actually hear you talk about that I think because it isn’t the norm in medical school applicants.

      Hopefully the application and interview process goes better than yesterday.

  5. First off, let me just say that I love your blog and I am so sorry you had to endure this. I am a post-baccalaureate student as well and actually have a very good friend (also in my postbacc) who is starting from scratch to pursue an MD/PhD. Although I am not personally active in this pursuit, I have learned a great deal about the sorts of things MSTP committees look for as the doctor I have been shadowing has been a practicing MD/PhD for 30+ years and has served on the MSTP selection board at the local med school. Given my friend’s interest and my former lack of knowledge regarding the preparation required for a career as a physician-scientist, I have grilled the doctor and others in our medical center to find out as much as I can on pretty much everything about it. My friend and the doctor have met and she’s shared with me the words of wisdom he imparted to her.

    A lot of what I’ll share you might already know but if anything, he definitely said things that somewhat go against some of the information the person you describe gave to you. I will say that the doc I’ve been shadowing has worked in physician-scientist education his entire life and chose to train and work at this same place his whole life. He really loves what he does and wants others to pursue this if they truly believe that research is where they want to be in medicine. The most important thing he said is looked for in a candidate is a steadfast, unwavering dedication to research. Period. This of course can only translate into hard and fast experience on your part in whatever field of science you wish to pursue. As so much medical research is deeply rooted in the basic sciences, many advisers tell students to get their hands dirty by getting them plenty wet (cell bio, genetics, immunology, microbiology but not necessarily so much chemistry and other things). As these fields form the foundation of modern medicine, it is of no surprise such advice is frequently given. In recent decades however, technological progress has enabled medical researchers to do lots more than traditional bench research. So much so that novel science degrees are popping up like it is nobody’s business, especially those with very adequate informatics components. We will need as many bioinformatics specialists in 5-10 years as we generally need physician-scientists who will continue advancing the bounds of 21st-century medicine.

    The impression I got from the doc is that while the process by which research is done is largely the same now as it was 15-20 years ago, there are countless more opportunities through which this research can be performed. This is SO SO SO dependent on interdisciplinary engagement. Dual degrees in medicine serve a unique purpose unlike they sometimes do in other realms because, contrary to what someone said above, no one really cares where you stand on the supposed science hierarchy so long as the work you do can be applied to save or better lives. (The fact that this notion continues to exist is ridiculous. I don’t believe theoretical physicists have ever been able to figure out a way to reduce cell death in heart attack patients, yet no one is saying that the work theoreticians do isn’t important in the grand scheme of knowledge cultivation in science. I’d argue for a categorical framework if anything, but even that can be a slippery slope. I digress…). What is great about medicine too is that you don’t even have to have a PhD to do hardcore research anymore. There are multiple ways to get involved in research as a medical student and if you don’t necessarily want to deal with MD/PhD-specific admissions now, you can most certainly choose to pursue an MS or PhD at some point later in the game when you’re in med school and have a much more clear idea of the research you want to pursue and the impact you want to make. You should think about applying to Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine or Mayo if you’re truly passionate about research in medicine. They’re curricula engage research so intimately into physician training that if you have even the slightest inkling to devote your life to research, you should at least give them a look.

    Lastly, the doc I’ve shadowed told my friend that, for all intents and purposes, your GPA and MCAT are but icing on the cake for MD/PhD admissions. I’d say in your case that your MCAT score WILL GET YOU NOTICED. In the end though, what matters most is how much you can prove a dedication to research. They don’t care if you’ve published multiple papers if you can’t even talk about the process you endured and what you believe the impact of said research will be. In reality your desire to be a physician-scientist has to be as distinct as your desire to be a physician alone. After all, they are very different career paths when you think of 1) how much more time in school you will spend and 2) how much less patient contact you will have overall through the years.

    Don’t let someone’s foolishness deter you from what you want to achieve. Best of luck to you and I look forward to your future success! Post-bacc solidarity forever. (Sorry for any typos).

  6. Hi, your advice has been extremely helpful and I really appreciate your honesty regarding the whole MCAT process. I worked in a biochem lab for two years and am currently working in a medicinal organic chemistry lab. My experience has been that the techniques involved with “benchwork” come quickly to students who are really engaged in the learning process in general. It takes a couple of months to get comfortable in the lab but its not a big deal. Those “assays” are just techniques you pick up through experience, not having that experience prior to matriculation matters little if at all.

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