Majority of MD-PhD Graduates Pursue Research, New Report Finds

A groundbreaking AAMC study tracks the career paths of MD-PhD dual-degree program graduates over 50 years to explore where they work, what kinds of research they do, and more.
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Credit: National Institutes of Health

A large majority of MD-PhD program graduates—including those who receive federal support for their education—engage in research after completing their degrees. These clinician-researchers are working in diverse fields to help unravel scientific mysteries and explore cures for dangerous diseases.

Those are among the findings of the AAMC’s National MD-PhD Program Outcomes Study, the most comprehensive analysis of MD-PhD programs to date. The report, released in April, explored data on 50 years of MD-PhD program alumni and provides key insights into the work of physician-scientists.

Researchers who are clinicians are able to facilitate collaboration between the worlds of patient care and science, says AAMC Chief Scientific Officer Ross McKinney Jr., MD. “Because of their clinical insights, they can see where research is critically needed and may get clues about important questions they can then help answer in the laboratory,” he notes.“Because of their clinical insights, [MD-PhDs] can see where research is critically needed and may get clues about important questions they can then help answer in the laboratory.”

“Because of their clinical insights, [MD-PhDs] can see where research is critically needed and may get clues about important questions they can then help answer in the laboratory.”

Ross McKinney, MD
AAMC Chief Scientific Officer

McKinney explains that the study was undertaken in part to address speculative concerns that MD-PhD program alumni tended to pursue clinical practice rather than research. “We wanted to know whether those suspicions were true,” he says. “It turns out they are not.”

For the study, researchers created a data set much larger than any previously available. They combined survey responses from nearly 6,800 MD-PhD program alumni with data on all MD-PhD alumni from three major databases: the AAMC Student Records System, the AAMC Faculty Roster, and the GME Track® database. The results will aid leaders of dual-degree programs, who were instrumental in developing and soliciting responses to the survey, as well as many others at medical schools, teaching hospitals, funding agencies, and other institutions. 

Here are some report highlights:

  1. MD-PhD alumni are doing work consistent with their training. Almost 80% of MD-PhD survey respondents work in places where they can do research, develop new devices and treatments, and help train the next generation of scientists and clinicians.
  2. Alumni are committed to conducting research. More than 75% of survey participants who answered a question about how they spend their work hours do at least some research, and most have research grant support. 
  3. Most MD-PhD program graduates are drawn to academia. Nearly 60% of all program alumni appear in the AAMC Faculty Roster as full-time faculty at U.S. medical schools. Other MD-PhDs work in research institutions like the National Institutes of Health, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, and private practices.
  4. Projected demand for physician-scientists is outstripping supply. Even though MD-PhD programs are growing, they graduated only 602 people in 2016. This is half the number needed to meet the projected demand for physician-scientists, according to projections from the NIH Physician-Scientist Workforce Working Group.
  5. The number of women MD-PhDs has risen dramatically. The percentage of women MD-PhD program graduates increased from a little over 1% before 1975 to 35% between 2005 and 2014. Still, this lags behind the percentage of women in medical schools, where females comprise almost half the student body. 
  6. Although more work needs to be done, racial and ethnic diversity is increasing. The proportion of black or African-American MD-PhD graduates rose from 3% before 2005 to 5% between 2005 and 2014, and the proportion of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish graduates rose from 2% to 5% in the same time period.
  7. Training time is growing. The average time to degree has increased to 8 years, up from 6.2 years several decades ago. In addition, after completing their degrees, many MD-PhDs invest more time in clinical training and other resume-building pursuits—which means alumni in their mid to late 30s are often still awaiting their first professional-level jobs. 
  8. Alumni are satisfied with their education. Given the choice, more than 80% of MD-PhD program graduates surveyed say they would definitely or probably repeat their program.

These and other report findings have implications for all members of academic medicine, says Darrell G. Kirch, MD, AAMC president and CEO. “Physician-scientists play an essential role in academic medicine through innovative research and discovery and by linking that new knowledge to clinical applications that can improve patient care and the health of our nation. This study demonstrates why continued federal investment in training the next generation of physician-scientists is so critical.”

The report authors, who also produced a related Analysis in Brief, identify several opportunities to help support MD-PhDs in their training and careers. These include helping students learn to compete for research grants and creating more residencies that facilitate research during clinical training. They also suggest exploring ways to reduce the number of years to degree and for postgraduate training while still ensuring excellence—a goal they say is obtainable.

McKinney looks ahead to next steps. “We will be urging key leaders at the NIH and in our research community to continue their historically strong support for MD-PhD training,” he says. “We also hope the study guides MD-PhD program directors as they prepare candidates for work in the real world and for making significant contributions to patient health and well-being.”