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June 17, 2022
An Admitted Johns Hopkins MD/PhD Candidate Reflects on His Journey
Learn how real students and recent grads have navigated their way through the medical school admissions process and med school itself with our What is Medical School Really Like? series .
Meet Luke, an incoming MD/PhD student at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Luke, thank you for sharing your story with us!
Let’s start at the beginning… Where did you go to undergrad and what did you major in?
Luke: I went to the Georgia Institute of Technology and majored in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering. This certainly isn’t the most traditional premed major, but I’m glad I chose it for many reasons (the main one being that I can always find a job if this whole medicine thing doesn’t work out).
What was your inspiration or epiphany for deciding to pursue a career in medicine?
Luke: It was definitely more of a slow boil rather than an epiphany. At the beginning of undergrad, I really enjoyed the basic science research I was doing, so I planned on eventually applying to PhD programs.
Cue the COVID-19 pandemic. During the first summer of the pandemic, I had the chance to do research in a lab that was developing antibody-based therapeutics against SARS-CoV-2. It was a frenetically-paced 3 months, but the timing of this experience helped me realize that research can meaningfully respond to changes in society and doesn’t have to be limited to a lab bench. As I reflected on this internship, I realized that I was most excited by translational, patient-focused research. Applying to MD/PhD programs seemed like the most logical next step.
I also had the good fortune of meeting some fantastic physician-scientist mentors along the way. During informal conversations with each of them, they consistently spoke to how they would do it all again despite the challenges and lengthy training timeline. From then on, I knew it was the right career path for me.
During the application process, were you also working full-time? What did that look like and how were you able to balance it all?
Luke: Yes, I took one gap year so throughout the application cycle I was working full-time as a research assistant in an academic lab. As an MD/PhD applicant, this was the ideal position for me because it allowed me to do research full-time (which isn’t possible during undergrad) and provided a flexible schedule for applications and interviews.
Whether applicants are working full-time or still in school, applications will consume a lot of your time and energy, especially during the summer (secondaries) and fall (interviews). They are definitely manageable, but it’s important to outline expectations with your professors, PI’s, or supervisors ahead of time.
Which “tools” – such as an app, technique, lifehack, website, guide, mantra, or advice – got you through the application process and into your target school?
Luke: As a podcast junkie, I found various podcasts to be helpful when I was first learning about the medical school admissions process. A few of my favorites were: The Prospective Doctor , The Premed Years, All Access: Med School Admissions , and of course, Admissions Straight Talk .
Many applicants would agree that one of the biggest hurdles in medical school admissions is the MCAT. Study tips for this test can be found other places online, so my biggest piece of advice would be to minimize the amount of money you spend on study resources. Outside of AAMC material, most of these are unnecessary and there are plenty of low-cost or free resources on the internet. I’d also like to plug a great initiative, MD Collective , which provides free, personal MCAT tutoring and long-term advising to first-generation and low-income students.
Once you crush the MCAT and submit your primary AMCAS application, secondary essays will become the next big boss you need to beat. The name of the game with secondaries is efficiency and organization. I would recommend making a spreadsheet with deadlines and secondary prompts (diversity, adversity, leadership, etc.). This will help you realize where you can use control-C to kill several birds with one stone.
Aside from these tools, the best “lifehack” for getting into medical school is finding good mentors. Whether they’re current students or attending physicians, they will help you avoid common pitfalls and be great resources for reviewing essays and conducting mock interviews.
Speaking of, the best piece of advice I received from one of my mentors was to take the road less traveled as a premed. This doesn’t mean to go against the grain for the sake of it, but rather to try and carve out your own unique journey to medical school. Some of the most interesting accepted students I’ve met have stories and backgrounds that aren’t “traditional” in premed terms , so try not to lose sight of what makes you different.
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Secondary Application Essay Tips >>
There are so many factors that go into accepting an offer at a med program! Which metrics did you use and what was most important to you?
Luke: Receiving multiple admission offers is a difficult, but good, problem to have. It’s a very personal decision in the end, so I can only speak to what I valued during the decision process.
- Location Can you envision yourself living in a certain city for 4 (or even 8 years)? Also, medical school is challenging and life will happen along the way, so it can be helpful to be close to your support system.
- Research opportunities This was more important for me as an MD/PhD applicant, but could be a consideration for MD students as well. While all research-focused medical schools will offer plenty of opportunities, each institution has its strengths. For someone like me, interested in biomedical engineering and cancer immunology, it’s a dream to be at a place like Hopkins .
- Clinical education I think the preclinical education is fairly consistent across institutions and most medical schools will do a good job of teaching you. What’s important to consider, though, is the environment you’ll be in and the patients you’ll be interacting with during your clerkship rotations. As an example, Johns Hopkins has a very unique and diverse patient population being situated in East Baltimore, and I think that contributes to the quality of its medical training in many ways.
Studying is a huge part of any med school student’s life – and studying truly never ends for medical professionals! What is your approach to studying? What does an ideal study session look like for you?
Luke: The best approach to studying varies between students and is also dependent on the subject matter. For example, my undergraduate engineering curriculum was very problem-solving focused, so it was helpful to study and work through practice problems in a group.
However, the MCAT and most medical school classes require you to study for long stretches and retain vast amounts of information. This is where the Pomodoro method and spaced-repetition flashcards like Anki come in handy.
I’m easily distractable so I typically like to study alone in a quiet library with brown noise playing through my headphones. Of course, a cup of coffee is always within reach.
Med school is intense, to say the least! How has it forced you to get outside your comfort zone?
Luke: Outside of challenging myself academically, I think being a premed made me much more willing to put myself out there in search of new opportunities. In fact, my most formative shadowing experiences, research internships, and mentor relationships came from cold emails.
In a similar way, applying to med school made me much more comfortable with the idea of failure and rejection. Even if you’re a successful applicant with numerous acceptances, there will be a long trail of failures and shortcomings that others don’t see. As someone much smarter than me once said, “the best formula for success is to double your rate of failure.”
Does Johns Hopkins have any traditions or superstitions that med students participate in?
Luke: I’m sure there will be plenty of informal traditions that I’ll learn more about once I start classes, but one thing stands out to me as an incoming student is the Colleges Advisory Program (CAP). During orientation, the entire class is randomly sorted (Harry Potter style) into one of four colleges, each named after significant historical figures at Hopkins.
The colleges provide an informal environment for students to interact with peers and faculty. They also host a 3-day Olympics each fall with a wide range of activities. I haven’t participated yet, but it seems quite fun.
CAP is symbolic of a larger theme that many might not suspect about Hopkins, which is that it’s a very friendly and collegial place. From my interactions with future classmates, current students, and faculty, I can definitely say that the medical school feels like one, big family.
Where can people follow your journey to get an unfiltered view of what it’s like to be a med student?
Luke: I’m most active on Twitter ( @luketomasovic11 ), where I tweet about life as an MD/PhD student and occasionally geek out on science.
And finally… What advice would you give your younger self just beginning the med school application process?
Luke: Wow, where do I begin? I’ll do my best to condense my advice into three main points:
- Be kind to yourself It’s easy to fall into the trap of perfectionism along the way, but I can assure you that most things in life tend to work out as long as you make your best effort.
- It’s a marathon, not a sprint If undergrad felt like a long time, then the application process will feel even longer. Don’t forget to fit the rest of your life into this period, and try to stop to smell the roses every once in a while. You won’t remember whether you got an A or an A- on an exam, but you will remember a weekend spent with friends. The journey is the reward, so take it all in stride.
- Comparison is the thief of joy An overused quote, but maybe for good reason. One of your goals in the application process should be to reflect on what makes you unique, so comparing yourself to others defeats the whole point. You should be more concerned with being the best version of yourself, instead of keeping up with the Joneses.
Do you want to be featured in our next ‘ What is Medical School Really Like? ’ post? Know someone else who you’d love to see featured? Are there questions you’d like us to ask our students in this series? LET US KNOW!
Are you setting out on your own medical school journey? We can help you reach the finish line! Check out our Med School Admissions Consulting Services to team up with an admissions expert who will help you join the ranks of thousands of Accepted clients who get accepted to their dream schools.
- What is Med School Really Like?
- How to Write About Your Research Interests
- What Med School Applicants Must Know About Johns Hopkins , a podcast episode
- Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Secondary Application Essay Tips
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MD-PhD, Combined Degree
School of medicine, md - phd, combined degree program.
From its inception, the physician-scientist has been a hallmark of Johns Hopkins medicine and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Indeed, the Hopkins tri-emblem represents the three core values of the institution: teaching, patient care, and research.
The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine offers a variety of opportunities for the training of medical scientists. A combined curriculum leading to both MD and PhD degrees enables students who aspire to careers in academic medicine to obtain intensive training in specialized areas of the biomedical sciences in addition to top-flight medical training. The traditional diversity and flexibility of the educational opportunities at Johns Hopkins permit the design of individualized programs to meet the needs of students with a variety of interests, educational backgrounds, and career goals.
To accomplish our training goals, we expect students to fully commit to medical training while in medical school and research training while in graduate school. However, we also take important steps to ensure that students are exposed to the intersection of both worlds early in their training, as well as given the professional and career development advice they need to succeed.
In a word, the MD-PhD curriculum at Johns Hopkins is flexible. Most students decide to complete the first two years of medical school before they begin graduate school and finish the last two years of their medical training after completing their thesis work (see the Timeline below). However, students who want more first-hand experience in clinical medicine before beginning graduate work can elect to complete three years of medical school, followed by their graduate training, and then the last year of medical school. This can give them a better appreciation of the potential clinical relevance of their research. In making a choice, trainees consult extensively with the Program Director, the Dean of Students, members of the MD-PhD Committee, prospective research mentors, and their faculty advisors. Students in the MD-PhD Program are automatically accepted to all graduate programs, so decisions regarding graduate training programs can be made with a strong understanding of each program. The MD-PhD Committee is responsible for program oversight, admissions, and student mentorship . Students complete MD-PhD training on average in eight years.
Johns Hopkins interdisciplinary organizational structure means each faculty member may be affiliated with several clinical departments, research sections, and graduate programs.
Formal graduate programs in the School of Medicine encompass the following areas: Biochemistry; Cellular, and Molecular Biology; Biological Chemistry; Biomedical Engineering; Molecular Biophysics; Functional Anatomy and Human Evolutionary Studies; Cell Biology; Cellular and Molecular Medicine; History of Medicine; Human Genetics; Immunology; Neuroscience; Pathobiology; Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences, and Cellular and Molecular Physiology. Students are also eligible to obtain their PhD in one of the 11 graduate programs at the Bloomberg School of Public Health or the School of Arts and Sciences on the Homewood Campus. Students may select a thesis mentor from faculty in the Schools of Medicine and Public Health.
The MD-PhD Program also sponsors special seminars and lectures, It also maintains a dedicated library, the Paul Talalay MD-PhD Library, to enrich the educational opportunities of all MD-PhD students. Efforts are made to acquaint MD-PhD candidates with the major advances, concepts, and cutting-edge techniques in contemporary medicine and biomedical sciences. We also create an environment that promotes a more intimate personal contact with successful medical scientists in this institution.
Admission Procedures. Individuals who wish to apply for admission to the combined MD-PhD Program of the School of Medicine must submit an application through AMCAS in which they will indicate the MD-PhD Program. Once the AMCAS application has been verified and submitted to Hopkins, the applicant will receive an invitation to complete the Hopkins Secondary Application. Here the applicant will submit the additional materials required for the combined degree. Johns Hopkins does not allow applicants to apply to both the traditional MD program and the combined program during the same cycle.
All combined-degree applications are reviewed by a separate MD-PhD Review Committee which is comprised of faculty from the basic sciences and clinical arena, as well as faculty from the Bloomberg School of Public Health. A separate Graduate School application is not necessary . The MD-PhD Committee determines whether or not an interview is indicated. In general, the committee is looking for students with a passion for research and a commitment to medicine. This assessment is based on the applicant’s research experience, letters of recommendation, academic performance and extracurricular activities. The Committee considers standardized test scores only in the context of the applicant’s other credentials. If an interview is granted, the applicant is notified by the MD-PhD Office and after the applicant accepts, the process for scheduling an interview begins. Interview visits generally occur over two days. Applicants are interviewed by members of the MD-PhD Committee and other faculty members who share their research interests. Applicants have many opportunities to meet with current students and tour the campus during their visit.
All eligible applicants who are admitted to the MD-PhD Program are funded by the NIH Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) Award. This program, supported by the National Institutes of Health, provides full tuition, stipend, and medical and dental insurance for students. Due to federal restrictions, only U.S. citizens and permanent residents are eligible for MSTP funding. Approximately 10-12 MD-PhD students matriculate each year.
Students who matriculate to the traditional MD Program but have a clearly demonstrated interest and experience in scientific research, are eligible to apply to the combined MD-PhD Program. These students may apply for admission during the fall of their first or second year of medical school. These qualified applicants are evaluated and placed in the pool for the current application cycle and will be considered for MSTP funding.
Financial Support. The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) is supported by a training grant from the National Institutes of Health. A number of exceptional students with unusual accomplishments and commitment to a career in the medical sciences will be selected for traineeships under this program. Such fellowships provide stipend and tuition support for combined medical and graduate study. All students who are admitted to the MD-PhD Program will be considered for these awards.
Graduates of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine MD-PhD Program have gone on to become leaders in many areas of academic medicine.
Advice on the scope and opportunities offered by these programs may be obtained from the Director or Administrative Director of the MD-PhD Program.
How to Write M.D.-Ph.D. Application Essays
M.D.-Ph.D. applicants should write essays that highlight their scientific curiosity and knowledge.
M.D.-Ph.D. applicants are usually expected to write more admissions essays than traditional medical school applicants. (Getty Images)
Pursuing an M.D.-Ph.D. degree , which combines the rigors of medical school with the difficulty of a doctoral thesis, is not a challenge to be taken lightly. Becoming a physician-scientist requires demanding training; people who pursue this profession must be prepared to both heal sick patients and conduct biomedical research.
M.D.-Ph.D. programs usually last between seven to eight years, so admissions officers for these programs want to ensure that the students they choose are ready to commit to many years of strenuous study.
Admissions officers also want to select students who have a history of conducting meaningful academic research and who have the potential to increase knowledge in the medical profession. Because M.D.-Ph.D. students frequently attend medical school for free through full scholarships and also receive stipends to pay their living expenses, M.D.-Ph.D. programs hold applicants to high academic standards.
Dr. McGreggor Crowley, an admissions counselor at the education consulting firm IvyWise who previously served on the Harvard Medical School admissions commitee, says that M.D.-Ph.D. programs seek students who are diligent and self-motivated.
"They're going to want someone who is going to dive into a project and take ownership of it and take control of it," Crowley says.
M.D.-Ph.D. applicants are typically expected to write more admissions essays than traditional medical school applicants. In addition to the personal comments essay , which is mandatory for all M.D. applicants who submit their credentials using the American Medical College Application Service, M.D.-Ph.D. hopefuls who use this application method are also obligated to write two supplemental essays. They must write an M.D.-Ph.D. essay, where they explain why they want both a traditional medical degree and a Ph.D. degree, and a significant research experience essay, where they describe the scientific research they have conducted.
Learn about how M.D.-Ph.D. programs
M.D.-Ph.D. admissions officers say that when they read these supplemental essays, they are looking for evidence that an applicant has the grit, initiative, academic aptitude and love of science necessary to excel in an M.D.-Ph.D. program.
Dr. Michael Donnenberg, the senior associate dean for research and research training at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and director of its M.D.-Ph.D program, says when he reads M.D.-Ph.D. applications, he looks for signs that these students wouldn't be satisfied by a career that didn't involve both clinical medicine and research medicine.
Pursue a medical career
"I'm always looking for that, not that they can't decide which one they want to do, but that they can't imagine giving one up for the other," he says. "I think that's a really essential quality of a physician scientist."
Dr. Andrew Zinn, director of the Medical Scientist Training Program and dean of the graduate school of biomedical sciences at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center , says he appreciates when M.D.-Ph.D. applicants demonstrate strong interest in a particular area of medicine. Ideally, applicants have completed a series of significant research projects on a specific topic, he says.
"I like to see somebody who has prioritized depth over breadth," Zinn says.
With that in mind, below are two M.D.-Ph.D. admissions essays that impressed admissions officers. The first is an M.D.-Ph.D. motivation essay submitted by a student who was accepted to the M.D.-Ph.D. program at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center but ultimately decided to go elsewhere.
Zinn says one key reason why this M.D.-Ph.D. motivation essay made a positive impression is because it conveyed the applicant's strong interest in investigating treatments for a specific disease, which in this case was multiple sclerosis. Zinn says very few M.D.-Ph.D. applicants have identified the particular medical problem that they want to solve using their research.
"That's unusual for an individual at his stage of training," Zinn says. "It indicates a sophistication, a maturity. It's not absolutely essential, but it does stand out. It's unusual to see somebody who really found their passion in 10th grade and has worked toward that passion."
The second essay is a significant research experience submission authored by an incoming M.D.-Ph.D. student at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Donnenberg says the aspect of this significant research experience essay that impressed him the most was how it conveyed the applicant's persistence when faced with research challenges.
While he personally doesn't care if an M.D.-Ph.D. applicant knows what field they want to study in the Ph.D, portion of an M.D.-Ph.D. program, he is focused on finding students who are prepared to handle the rigors of scientific research.
Donnenberg says he was especially intrigued by the applicant's description of the problems she faced in her various research projects, what she did to address those problems and the lessons she learned from those difficult circumstances. Many M.D.-Ph.D. applicants avoid discussing lab failures to only highlight the experiments that went well, but he was impressed that this applicant took the opposite approach.
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Is a separate research essay required on the Johns Hopkins secondary application?
No, the research essay required for the AMCAS primary application is sufficient.
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MD PhD Essay: The Ultimate Guide
MD-PhD programs combine medical school training with the demands of scientific research. Graduates of these hybrid programs can pursue a variety of career paths, but the ultimate goal of MD PhD programs is to train physician-scientists. The MD PhD program is a long and difficult process, lasting between seven to eight years. On top of your personal statement and AMCAS Work and Activities section, you will have to submit two additional essays through AMCAS: The Significant Research Experience Essay and the MD PhD Essay. Many applicants find the MD PhD essay quite challenging since it lacks the definitive expectations of the research experience essay. So in today's blog, you'll learn exactly how to write a strong MD PhD essay.
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Article Contents 15 min read
What is the md phd essay and what is its purpose.
MD PhD admissions offices seek to ensure that the students they admit are ready to commit to many years of rigorous training and study. If you want to apply to MD PhD vs MD programs, keep in mind that there is more work involved in the application process as you'll have two additional essays to complete. The MD PhD essay is a unique component of the application process and it's where you'll discuss your reasons behind pursuing the joint program.
To understand what admissions committees are looking for in this essay, you need to first understand what kind of professionals they are hoping to train. A physician-scientist values medical research and progress above other elements of the medical profession. They will most likely spend their time in clinical settings, but mainly in relation to their research. Due to the large emphasis on research, clinical care is not their primary role. Research, discovery, and the application of new knowledge is their main interest. With this said, their research still directly involves clinical work and patient well-being, otherwise, they could have simply pursued a PhD. This intricate balance between research and medicine must be demonstrated in your MD PhD essay, with a larger emphasis on research.
Your MD PhD essay must show that you wouldn’t be satisfied with a career that didn't involve both medical research and clinical practice. You must demonstrate that pursuing just one or the other is not right for you. Your essay should not make you appear indecisive, as if you cannot choose between MD and PhD programs. Instead, you must show that you will be most fulfilled working as a physician-scientist. Overall, your essay must answer the question “Why did you choose the combined MD PhD program?”
Your MD PhD essay should tell the story of how you became involved in scientific research and how you want to apply this research to medical practice. Your personal statement, research essay, and your MD PhD essay may sometimes touch upon the same experiences, but you will want to approach each of them from different angles. While your personal statement typically focuses on how you came to medicine in general, your MD PhD essay should answer how your interests and qualifications combine science and medical practice. Have a look at our blog if you're looking for medical school personal statement examples .
Admissions committees are looking for certain qualities and experiences in their applicants. Every scientist should possess creativity and curiosity. Maturity and critical thinking are also essential, as MD PhD applicants will have to face unexpected problems and challenges during training and throughout their careers. Other valuable qualities include grit, initiative, academic prowess, and of course, a love of research. If you don't like research, then the joint program is definitely not for you! Many MD PhD programs aim to prepare future leaders of research initiatives and projects. Your essay does not need to dive into the fine details of your research experiences but you should highlight 2-3 experiences that were significant while discussing what you learned from them. Demonstrating perseverance is also key since the scientific method is often a repetitive and frustrating process. It’s perfectly acceptable to highlight any setbacks you experienced during the research process as long as you can speak to how you overcame these challenges and what you learned in doing so.
Remember, your MD PhD essay is a tough balancing act. While it is important to describe your solid research background throughout your application, if all your application components focus only on research, you may have a problem. This would be great for someone who wants to pursue a PhD, but research only experience is not suitable if you want to pursue a combined program. Your MD PhD essay must show a crossover between your scientific research and the experiences you have had working with patients and physicians. For example, you could show that your research is inspired by clinical experience or you could discuss a significant patient interaction during your experience working in a clinical setting. Your interest in MD PhD programs may also be inspired by your concern for the medical issues facing your community, your country, or the world.
Why you are pursuing the joint program
The MD PhD essay is the only component of your application process which directly questions your passion for the combination of the two fields. Make sure that your MD PhD essay and Significant Research Experience Essay are not the same. You have a small amount of space to express your desire to become a physician-scientist, so do not waste it by repeating the same information in all your application components. The Significant Research Experience Essay is where you’ll include all the details of your research experience such as your exact duties, results, and where and with whom you conducted your research.
Use your MD PhD essay to show a larger picture. Admissions offices want to see evidence of problem-solving, maturity, independence, and your level of involvement in a project. Think about how your research experiences foster your scientific curiosity. The MD PhD essay is your chance to show admissions committees the important steps of your journey to the MD PhD program. This is your chance to describe components of your experiences and plans, which might not be evident from your other application materials.
Avoid including cliché topics or phrases in your essay. Many applicants indeed have similar stories of how they became interested in the medical profession. While these reasons may be common, your experiences are unique. Your essay must stand out and leave a lasting positive impression on the reader. Similarly, do not include grand statements linking your choice to enter the MD PhD program to destiny. These will only come across as dramatic, which isn't what you want to convey.
Remember not to describe any negative experiences and their effect on your decision to apply to MD PhD programs. For example, don't discuss how you believe that the academic job market does not look promising for a PhD graduate. Discussing failures in research however, is different, and can be a great way to demonstrate resilience. Frustrating experiences in research are common, so rather than describing the negative aspect of your failures in research, try to describe how this experience positively affected your journey.
Another thing you must avoid in your MD PhD essay is listing accomplishments and skills that are already found in your CV. Your personal statement is not meant to be a reiteration of your CV, instead, it should be your story – one that you will share with the admissions committees. Take them on a journey, in chronological order, highlighting the significant experiences that have led you to want to pursue both medicine and research. With each experience, you must reflect on what you've learned and you need to provide evidence to support any statements. It's not enough to simply state “I demonstrated compassion volunteering at a homeless shelter”. You must show the admissions committees how you demonstrated compassion. For example, you could discuss a specific interaction you had, or a specific project you worked on that demonstrates your ability to show compassion.
What to avoid in your MD-PhD essay:
Your MD-PhD essay should be a story! Avoid simply listing what is already in your CV. "}]' code='timeline1'>
Check out our video for some more tips on how to write the MD PhD essay:
How to Structure your MD PhD essay
If you’re applying to MD PhD programs through AMCAS, the MD PhD essay must be no longer than 3000 characters, typically, one page in length. Your essay must be well structured and it's important to avoid any fluff or unnecessarily descriptive language. It must be succinct while containing all the necessary information to make a complete impression of your candidacy. Overall, it should follow the structure of an academic essay and should contain an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.
Successful essays will have a powerful introduction, which will introduce the reader to the main message of the letter – your motivation for pursuing the joint program. The opening sentence, in particular, can make or break your entire essay. If it isn’t captivating, unique, and interesting, you risk losing the reader’s attention, which could result in your essay blending in with the thousands of other essays.
To create a unique opening sentence, considering beginning your essay with a personal anecdote. Essentially, you could narrate a personal experience or story that introduces the topic – this is a very common technique in personal essays and it's very effective. For example, you could talk about a time you were ill, an exciting moment during your research, an encounter with the medical system, or even a story of a loved one who was ill or passed away. If you had a specific experience or revelatory “aha” moment, where all of a sudden you just knew you wanted to become a physician-scientist, then this can be a great way to open your essay.
The body of your essay has to reveal how your experiences in research and clinical medicine have prepared you for a career as a physician-scientist. Essentially, this is where you provide evidence to the admissions committee to justify your reasons for pursuing the joint program. It’s important that you demonstrate not only your suitability for both research and medicine but that you've taken the steps necessary to test drive your future career. Try to include two or three experiences that demonstrate your expertise as a researcher and future physician.
Remember to always focus on quality, rather than quantity. When deciding which experiences to include, pick the experiences that were most transformative in your journey towards medicine and research. For example, you could highlight a patient interaction that influenced your research interests or a research or lab experience that pushed you towards considering the combined program. If your research made you realize the wider implications of your profession and its relationship to medical practice, it's a great experience to include. It is wise to remember the AAMC’s core competencies when describing your clinical and research experiences. These competencies may help you find connections between your desire to practice both science and medicine.
A strong MD PhD essay conclusion should include a creative reiteration of why you want to pursue training in both medicine and research. Do not make your conclusion into a dry summary of your essay. Rather, it should discuss how your research experience and clinical experience complement each other and should tie together the overall theme of your essay. Your final sentence should leave the reader with a lasting impression that you are a suitable candidate for their MD PhD program.
Once you’ve constructed your essay, be prepared for multiple rounds of revisions and re-edits, ideally, with the help of a medical school advisor . Never underestimate the importance of revision in getting your essay just right. Enlisting the help of a professional who knows exactly what admissions committees are looking for can help you create a powerful essay that will stand out. Family and friends are a good start with your essay, but for a truly unbiased review, it's best to consult a professional with years of experience. Writing your MD PhD essay is a challenge, but do not lose sight of the message you are trying to get across. It is important to keep in mind that the experiences you include in your MD PhD essay must reinforce your desire and need to become a physician-scientist – this is the central purpose of your statement.
MD PhD Essay Example #1:
Amidst crying babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), I asked my current mentor, “How do physicians and scientists approach a disease differently?” [Name of doctor] with over 30 years of experience in her neonatal practice and perinatal brain research, replied, “A physician looks at disease top-down while a scientist looks at disease bottom-up.” Her answer resonated with me because at that moment I realized the value of converging physician and scientists’ interpretations of disease. My goal as a physician-scientist will be to draw connections between physiopathology of disease and molecular properties of drug candidates in order to characterize its efficacy and mechanism of action in the process of drug development.
My research experience led me toward a career as a physician-scientist as I began to draw connections between the properties of therapeutic proteins in the body and the impact it could have on patients. In [name of doctor] 's lab, I found intercellular adhesion molecule-5 could serve as a diagnostic tool for HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders since its presence in serum meant brain damage. While in [name of doctor]'s lab, my experiments showed overexpression of sigma-1 receptor protein (S1R) in cancer cells causes them to proliferate. PKC inhibitor that suppresses S1R signals to cell could mean a treatment strategy for cancer patients.
As a research assistant in [name of doctor] ’s lab, researching inter-alpha inhibitor protein (IAIP) as a drug candidate for neonatal hypoxia ischemia encephalopathy (HIE), I visited the NICU where I witnessed the distress of both the premature babies and their families. Working in the lab, I was not fully aware of the human impact of HIE but speaking with physicians I began to understand the need for developing a new therapeutic strategy for HIE as the current treatment—hypoxia is only partially protective. It was here I realized a physician-scientist sits in an advantageous position to explore new therapeutic options that being a researcher, or a physician alone could not.
By working in the lab and hospital, I considered the perspectives of both physicians and scientists as I investigated IAIP’s neuroprotective mechanism. From a physician’s point of view, I understood HIE-associated brain injury is caused by inflammation after energy deprivation. From a scientist’s view, IAIP protects the cell by suppressing pro-inflammatory cytokine production. IAIP’s mechanism can be hypothesized and tested by exploring how IAIP’s molecular properties influences HIE’s pathology, so I am currently performing histological and cell culture studies to understand IAIP’s mechanism in tissue and cell.
My intention is to be a physician-scientist because the overlap of the two professions brings out the best of medicine—translation of bench research into medical devices and drugs that can be used in the clinical arena for patient care.
What makes this essay great:
- The essay begins with a personal anecdote, which instantly captivates the reader's attention and transports them into the NICU with the student.
- The student describes their revelations at each point in their story, in particular, where their initial interest in medicine and research began, and when they understood the intricate interconnection between both fields.
- The student demonstrates their curiosity into the mechanisms behind disease, and it's interesting to see how they investigate complex issues from both a physician and scientist point of view.
- The student utilizes excellent transitional sentences allowing for the essay to flow well and the body paragraphs are well constructed. Through strong examples and evidence, the student supports their statements and discussions effectively, ie, showing instead of telling.
Click here to view the example.
MD PhD Essay Example #3:
1. Can I change my research direction during my studies, or will I have to stick to the research field I identified in my personal statement and MD PhD essay?
The majority of applicants only have a general idea of what area of research they want to pursue in the future. For this reason, it is completely normal for you to change direction in your research throughout your studies. Most likely, you will have to get more research experience to realize what type of research you want to follow. In your MD PhD essay, the admissions committees will value the quality of your research experience, rather than the field. They want to see your ability to ask the right questions, design experiments, conduct analysis, and so on. This will show your scientific skills and qualifications, which can be transferred to any field.
2. Do I have a chance of getting accepted into MD PhD programs if I have limited research experience?
Research experience is essential when applying to MD PhD programs. Admissions committees want to select students who have a history of conducting meaningful academic research and have the potential to progress knowledge in the medical profession. It is normal for applicants to be uncertain of what research project they want to pursue in the future, but you must have some background in scientific study. If you have zero research experience, it's best to wait until you can gain some relevant experience before applying. You can, on the other hand, make a positive impression in your MD PhD essay if you convey a strong interest and experience in a research project – even if you have only one experience to reference. Your progress and commitment to a specific research area can make you stand out as long term dedication will always impress admissions committees. It is not necessary to be involved in dozens of research projects or make any groundbreaking scientific discoveries to enter the MD PhD program. Be sure to include and highlight your significant experiences in research throughout your application. Always focus on what you have learned and accomplished and don't be afraid to discuss your setbacks in addition to your accomplishments.
3. Should my research and my clinical experience be in the same field?
It’s great if you have research and clinical experiences that are related - this way you could write about how you worked with patients who had problems related to your scientific research and how you enjoyed helping them in a clinical setting. You can emphasize that you know from experience how fundamental research could be in providing a cure or treating a disease. However, you do not need to have clinical experience related to your research experience and interests. You can create a strong MD PhD essay by describing the research you plan to do in the context of a larger problem you want to solve and not just a question you want to explore. If you are looking to do research where you haven't worked with a related patient population, it could still be good to discuss the broader picture of why you think that research is important and how it might help communities in the future.
4. Do I need to have publications to apply to MD PhD programs?
Publications are not necessary, especially if you are applying directly out of your undergrad degree. Admissions committees and program directors are aware of how difficult it is to contribute to publication at such an early stage in your education. If you do have publications to include in your application – please do! Publications can certainly give you a competitive edge as not every applicant will have this experience. Keep in mind that you must have an in-depth understanding of the research you participate in because you will likely be asked about it during your interviews, regardless of your level of contribution.
5. Are letters of reference important for MD PhD applications?
Absolutely. Admissions committees value outside perspectives on whether or not you will be suitable for their joint program. Research related references are especially important. Try to form good relationships with your research mentors, professors, directors, and principal investigators. Make sure you select referees that know you well. They should be able to give a detailed account of your research involvement and your strengths as a researcher and critical thinker. They should also be able to emphasize your maturity, reliability, and any other strength unique to you.
6. Can I apply to MD and MD PhD programs at the same time?
Yes, you can. You'll be able to indicate which schools and which programs you’re applying to in your AMCAS application. Many schools that reject you for MD PhD programs will still consider you for the regular MD stream.
7. Is a career as a physician-scientist my only option if I graduate from the MD PhD program?
Not necessarily, however, it is important to think about your future career plans when you apply to any professional program. The MD PhD training is very costly in terms of time and money for you and the institution that admits you, so try to reflect on whether your goals coincide with the goals of the MD PhD program you want to attend. Becoming a full-time physician and tending to patients are amazing goals, but they do not require a PhD in addition to an MD. If you want to become a physician-scientist, then you should plan to spend most of your time and efforts on research and less time in clinical practice. If you want to become a physician who works on making discoveries in the medical field, then the MD PhD program may be for you. Career-wise, most MD PhD graduates end up in careers that combine patient care and research. Many end up at academic medical centers, research institutions, or in the pharmaceutical/biotech industry. A large number of MD PhD graduates end up in academia as well.
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Common App Personal Essay
The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don‘t feel obligated to do so.
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Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
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
- Cell and Developmental Biology
- Chemical and Physical Sciences
- Computational Biology and Bioinformatics
- Microbiology and Infectious Disease
- Molecular Biology and Genetics
- Pathology and Mechanisms of Disease
- 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:
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.
In section 4, you will enter all your information about course requirements (prerequisites) and school transcripts.
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.
In section 6, you will upload all of your letters of recommendation .
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.
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.
In section 9, you will enter all information about standardized test scores, such as the MCAT .
How to Write Your 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:
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.
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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Roland Griffiths Is Dead at 77; Led a Renaissance in Psychedelics Research
The drugs had been the third rail of scientific inquiry. But in a landmark study, he saw them as a legitimate way to help alleviate suffering and even to reach a mystical state.
By Penelope Green
Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral science and psychiatry whose pioneering work in the study of psychedelics helped usher in a new era of research into those once banned substances — and reintroduced the mystical into scientific discourse about them — died on Monday at his home in Baltimore. He was 77.
The cause was colon cancer, said Claudia Turnbull, a longtime friend.
Dr. Griffiths, a distinguished psychopharmacologist and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, spent decades studying the mechanisms of dependence on mood-altering drugs. He published scores of papers on opiates and cocaine, on sedatives and alcohol, on nicotine and caffeine.
His work on caffeine, which he noted was the most commonly used drug in the world, was groundbreaking , showing that, yes, it was addictive, that withdrawal could be painful and that caffeine dependence was a “clinically meaningful disorder.”
But in August 2006 he published a paper that wasn’t just groundbreaking; it was mind-blowing.
The paper had an unusual title: “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.” And when it appeared in the magazine Psychopharmacology, it caused a media ruckus.
“The God Pill,” read the headline in The Economist. Here was the first double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study in decades to examine the psychological effects of a psychedelic on what scientists call “healthy normals” — healthy volunteers. Its focus was not on the beneficial properties of the drug for those suffering from depression, or being treated for cancer, or facing end-of-life terrors, or trying to quit smoking. Those landmark studies would come later.
This work involved trained doctors administering high doses of psilocybin — the psychoactive, or mind-altering, component found in the psilocybe genus of mushrooms — to healthy people in a controlled, living room-like setting.
Eighty percent of the participants described the experience as among the most revelatory and spiritually meaningful episodes of their lives, akin to the death of a parent or the birth of a child, as Dr. Griffiths often said.
Their experience had all the attributes of a mystical event. They described profound feelings of joy, love and, yes, terror, along with a sense of interconnectedness and even an understanding of a sublime, sacred and ultimate reality.
Such positive effects on their mood and behavior lasted for months and even years, as the author Michael Pollan discovered when he interviewed many of the participants for his 2018 book , “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.”
“To listen to these people describe the changes in their lives inspired by their psilocybin journeys is to wonder if the Hopkins session room isn’t a kind of human transformation factory,” Mr. Pollan wrote.
But Dr. Griffiths’s work showed that researchers could do more than induce a mystical experience in a lab; they could also use the tools of science — brain imaging, for example — to prospectively, as he put it, examine the nature of consciousness and of religious experience.
As Charles Schuster, a former director of the government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, told The New York Times in 2006 , “This represents a landmark study, because it is applying modern techniques to an area of human experience that goes back as long as humankind has been here.”
In a phone interview, Mr. Pollan said, “Roland had such a sterling reputation as being a rigorous and conscientious scientist.”
“No one of his stature had stepped into this area in such a long time that it gave a lot of other people confidence,” he added. “When he presented this completely weird study, which was so out there for science, it could have been dumped on, but it wasn’t.”
Dr. Griffiths’s work, which began in 1999, was endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as a cohort of experts that included the former deputy of the drug czar under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. And it ushered in what many have called a renaissance in psychedelic research.
“The fact that psychedelic research was being done at Hopkins — considered the premier medical center in the country — made it easier to get it approved here,” said Anthony P. Bossis, a psychologist specializing in palliative care at New York University.
He told Mr. Pollan that Dr. Griffiths’s work had paved the way for him and his colleagues to begin using psilocybin to successfully treat anxiety in cancer patients.
Theirs was not the only institution to do so. Similar research involving cancer patients, alcoholics, smokers and sufferers of depression began in earnest in this country and overseas following the publication of Dr. Griffiths’s paper.
“It was an amazing study,” Dr. Bossis told Mr. Pollan, “with such an elegant design. And it opened up the field.”
Psychedelics had been the third rail of scientific inquiry ever since Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were thrown out of Harvard for passing out LSD with messianic fervor in the early 1960s. By the end of that decade, psychedelics had been declared controlled substances deemed illegal for recreational and medical use.
Yet beginning in the 1950s, well before Dr. Leary exhorted a generation to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” LSD — a synthetic chemical derived from a fungus, along with psilocybin and other psychedelics — were being studied and used successfully to treat alcoholism, depression, anxiety and distress among the terminally ill.
The term psychedelic was coined in 1956 and drawn from the Greek root psyche, which translates to mind or soul. Freighted with the counterculture baggage of the 1960s, however, it devolved from its original meaning as a mind-altering drug into an aesthetic rendered in loopy typefaces and black-light posters.
Dr. Griffiths was well-suited to bring psychedelics back as a legitimate area of scientific inquiry. Like many students of psychology of his generation, he had been heavily influenced by the work of B.F. Skinner, the “radical behaviorist” who disdained the focus on emotions and the unconscious that had long dominated the field and rather dwelled on the role of environment in determining, or conditioning, human behavior.
In 1994, Dr. Griffiths began meditating regularly, which led to a transformative experience that, he said , “profoundly shifted my worldview and got me very curious about the nature of spiritual experiences.”
He told Mr. Pollan that the experience was so profound that he nearly quit science to devote himself to a spiritual practice. But, as it happened, others were working to rehabilitate the study of psychedelics. One was Bob Jesse , a former vice president of the software company Oracle, who had established a nonprofit to encourage research on mystical experiences and whose introduction to Dr. Griffiths became the engine for what would soon change the direction of Dr. Griffiths’s research and reinvigorate the field.
As researchers in his lab and elsewhere were studying the use of psilocybin in treating cancer patients, smokers and those with depression, he began focusing on examining the mystical aspects of their experiences and plumbing the nature of consciousness. He came to believe that the insights gleaned from psilocybin could have profound effects on humanity, which he saw heading toward disaster.
Psychedelics, he suggested, might right the ship.
“A hallmark feature of these experiences is that we’re all in this together,” he told The Chronicle of Higher Education in April. “It opens people up to this sense that we have a commonality and that we need to take care of each other.”
Roland Redmond Griffiths was born on July 19, 1946, in Glen Cove, N.Y., to William and Sylvie (Redmond) Griffiths. His father, who had trained as a psychologist, specialized in public health; his mother was a homemaker until the family moved to El Cerrito, Calif., in about 1951, after William had taken a job as a professor of public health at the University of California, Berkeley. There, Sylvie began successfully pursuing a master’s in psychology.
Roland majored in psychology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and studied psychopharmacology at the University of Minnesota, earning his Ph.D. there in 1972. Johns Hopkins hired him immediately afterward, and he began concentrating his research on drug use and addiction.
Dr. Griffiths is survived by his wife, Marla Weiner; his three children, Sylvie Grahan, Jennie Otis and Morgan Griffiths; five grandchildren; and his siblings, Kathy Farley and Mark Griffiths. His marriage in 1973 to Kristin Ann Johnson ended in divorce, as did his marriage to Diana Hansen.
Dr. Griffiths was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in November 2021, a finding he came to embrace, as he told David Marchese of The New York Times Magazine. He convinced Johns Hopkins to establish an endowed professorship in his name for research on the effects of psychedelics on spirituality and well-being. At his death, he was completing a paper about a study he had conducted in which clergy from a wide range of faiths received a high dose of psilocybin to see how it would affect their life and work.
Notably, his laboratory’s first therapeutic study with psilocybin was with cancer patients, but Dr. Griffiths said he waited a bit before using a psychedelic to investigate his own condition. When he did — he took LSD — he approached the session like a reporter, and queried his cancer: What are you doing here? Is this going to kill me?
“The answer was,” he told Mr. Marchese, “‘Yes, you will die, but everything is absolutely perfect; there’s meaning and purpose to this that goes beyond your understanding, but how you’re managing that is exactly how you should manage it.’”
Long before his cancer diagnosis, Dr. Griffiths told Mr. Pollan that he hoped his own death would not be sudden, that he would have time to savor it. “Western materialism says the switch gets turned off and that’s it,” he said. “But there are so many other descriptions. It could be a beginning! Wouldn’t that be amazing.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
An earlier version of this obituary misstated when Dr. Griffiths was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. It was November 2021, not November 2022. The error was repeated in a picture caption.
How we handle corrections
Penelope Green is a reporter on the Obituaries desk and a feature writer. She has been a reporter for the Home section, editor of Styles of The Times, an early iteration of Style, and a story editor at the Sunday magazine. More about Penelope Green
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About the PhD in Epidemiology Program
The doctoral program in Epidemiology is anchored in public health and population research and analysis. Students approach research using epidemiologic methods to understand complex human health problems. The PhD requires two years of coursework followed by two (or more) years of research. Students are required to complete a teaching training curriculum and serve as a teaching assistant for methods and topical courses. Additionally, students must complete a written comprehensive exam, a practice oral exam, a preliminary exam, multiple oral and poster presentations, and a final dissertation including presentation and defense.
PhD in Epidemiology Program Highlights
Train with renowned faculty.
100+ faculty across 8 research tracks in epidemiology
Access to wide range of coursework
Explore your interests with a wide variety of courses taught by our faculty
Write and publish
All of our doctoral students get training in writing papers and proposals through didactic learning and mentoring
Participate on research teams
The School is the leading recipient of NIH research funding among U.S. schools of public health, providing robust hands-on research opportunities
What Can You Do With a Graduate Degree In Epidemiology?
- Faculty Member
- Science Director
- Health Commissioner
Curriculum for the PhD in Epidemiology
Browse an overview of the requirements for this doctoral program in the JHU Academic Catalogue and explore all course offerings in the Bloomberg School Course Directory .
Current students can view the PhD in Epidemiology requirements in the student handbook on the Epidemiology portal site.
The Department's current research tracks in the PhD program include:
Cancer Epidemiology offers a rich, vibrant and dynamic environment for masters and doctoral students, and postdoctoral fellows to actively participate, learn, explore and conduct cancer-related population-based and clinical research. The track has a long and successful history of training masters and doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows. Past students continue to conduct population-based cancer research and have made successful transitions to positions in academia, government and private sector organizations.
Cardiovascular and Clinical Epidemiology focuses on the use of epidemiologic methods in clinical research and practice as well as interdisciplinary training on the epidemiology of cardiovascular disease. The program integrates knowledge on all aspects of the disease: biology, behavior, treatment, and prevention. Training emphasizes active participation in research and translational epidemiology using a collaborative approach, which is enhanced by the close relationships between the Department of Epidemiology and clinical departments of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Clinical Trials and Evidence Synthesis offers students a unique educational experience in clinical trial and evidence synthesis methodology. Methods are applied to a variety of clinical areas including respiratory-, eye- and infectious diseases, and mental health. Student-faculty discussions, journal clubs, research-in-progress meetings, seminars and active participation in research add to both the depth and breadth of the program.
Environmental Epidemiology concentrates on the impact of environmental exposures on health and disease states in human populations. This track integrates epidemiological methods, assessment of environmental exposures and understanding of specific disease processes to identify the health consequences of environmental exposures. Environmental Epidemiology provides basic information for risk assessment, risk communication, and environmental health policy decisions and has a central role in identifying, implementing and evaluating strategies for the prevention and control of environmental exposures. Training in Environmental Epidemiology emphasizes active participation in large population research projects, with close collaborations across the School and with national and international collaborators.
Epidemiology of Aging focuses on the determinants of physical and cognitive health, disease, and function in older adults. Offers multidisciplinary training in methods and theories needed for the study of older populations. Strong ties exist with several multi-departmental training grants and programs. This training program also is connected to numerous large research projects.
General Epidemiology and Methodology offers research and training opportunities in almost all areas of chronic disease epidemiology, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer and diseases of childhood and includes advanced methodology training in epidemiologic methods as well as providing individualized or customized training in statistical epidemiology, pharmacoepidemiology and social epidemiology.
Genetic Epidemiology focuses on the study of genetic and environmental factors, and their interaction in disease and normal variation. Emphasis is on understanding the methodology and approach to designing, executing and analyzing genetic studies. Training is broad-based and collaborative and encourages participation in research from faculty in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Institute of Genetic Medicine, and the School of Medicine.
Infectious Disease Epidemiology provides training in the fundamentals of infectious disease epidemiology with an eye toward preparing graduates to work in teaching, research and practice. The program emphasizes principles and methods that can be used to understand the dynamics and control of transmissible diseases by all classes of organisms. The curriculum builds on the faculty's extensive and diverse experience researching and combating infectious diseases, ranging from hospital acquired infections, to neglected tropical diseases and sexually transmitted infections.
For general admissions requirements, please visit the How to Apply page. This specific program also requires:
College-level math through pre-calculus, a biology course, and one additional science course
Prior Graduate Degree
Not required, but highly recommended
Prior Work Experience
One year of full-time work experience in a related field
Standardized Test Scores
Standardized test scores are not required and not reviewed for this program. If you have taken a standardized test such as the GRE, GMAT, or MCAT and want to submit your scores, please note that they will not be used as a metric during the application review. Applications will be reviewed holistically based on all required application components.
All full-time PhD students will receive the following support for the first four years of the program: full tuition, individual health insurance, University Health Services clinic fee, vision insurance, and dental insurance.
Need-Based Relocation Grants Students who are admitted to PhD programs at JHU starting in Fall 2023 or beyond can apply to receive a $1500 need-based grant to offset the costs of relocating to be able to attend JHU. These grants provide funding to a portion of incoming students who, without this money, may otherwise not be able to afford to relocate to JHU for their PhD program. This is not a merit-based grant. Applications will be evaluated solely based on financial need. View more information about the need-based relocation grants for PhD students .
Questions about the program? We're happy to help.
Academic Program Manager Frances S. Burman [email protected]