For Prospective Students

This page is a work in progress, but as application season is coming up, I wanted to put this out there! Updates forthcoming.

I often receive emails from students who are wondering whether they should pursue medical school, a PhD in anthropology, or both. Because I often have these conversations, I have a sense that there is a dearth of information out there about this career path despite a growing interest in it. This page is an attempt to collect some of my thoughts about dual careers in medicine and anthropology. My thoughts on this are certainly neither exhaustive nor sufficient, but I hope this is one of many resources you can consider as you think about whether to embark upon this path. The other resource I would recommend is the list of physician-scientist programs in anthropology, which you can find here. While the list is always changing, this will give you a good starting place from which to see what schools you might consider attending should you want dual training.

Here are some answers to the questions that people ask me about this path:

Should I get an MD/PhD in anthropology? Is it a good idea? Is it worth all the time?

By the time you talk to someone in my position, they will likely have a polished answer to this question, giving you the impression that MD/PhD anthropology students were always certain that this is what they wanted to do. While this might be the case for some people, it certainly wasn’t the case for me. Deciding to do this was complicated, and at least for me, involved a lot of uncertainty. Here are some questions I normally pose to students when they ask me whether this is the right fit for them:

  • What kind of research do you want to do? Which discipline asks the questions you like to ask and answers them in a way that excites you? (Is it possible that you prefer similar – but different! – disciplines like public health, health policy, or bioethics?)
  • Do you want to see patients, or would you be happy if you worked in the sphere of health? Do you want to be a clinician, researcher, or both?
  • What are your personal life goals? In ten years, what things would have to be true in order for you to be happy?
  • Graduate school and medical school, in most places, will be very culturally different. Do you prefer your time to be structured by other people or by yourself? Do you feel flexible about switching between the two?
  • What kinds of skills will you need to do the things that you want? What are your strengths, and where do you have room for growth?
  • What specialties are you interested in? Are these specialties traditionally ones which allow for robust careers in research?
  • What kinds of financial resources do you have, and what are your financial goals? Are they compatible with an extended period living on a graduate student salary? What benefits do your prospective programs offer?

The answer to these questions can absolutely be I don’t know! but they are starting points for reflection about what might be right for you. I also often suggest to students that they take a period of time to read from different fields and ask themselves what kinds of scholarship they enjoy reading. Books? Short articles? Qualitative or quantitative work? Research papers or advocacy? Journalism or scholarship? Remember that enjoying reading a particular kind of scholarship is not the same as wanting to produce it, so thinking about the process of research in different fields and whether it suits you can be important as well.

Ultimately, I love being an anthropologist, and I would highly recommend training in anthropology. If you need to talk through whether it’s right for you – and whether a dual career makes sense for your goals – reaching out to mentors who are faculty that you admire and students you hope to emulate is a great first start.

Do you think I’m competitive for programs?

I sincerely wish I knew the answer to this, but being competitive for these programs is multi-factorial. I’m happy to talk through your concerns with you and establish a plan for getting you towards your goals.

Where do you recommend I look for community and mentorship?

As a first step, I highly recommend that, if you are able, you attend the National Conference for Physician-Scholars in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Every other year, trainees and faculty gather to discuss research & strengthen our community. While there is strong representation from anthropology and history, each year an increasing number of sociologists, public health scholars, epidemiologists, and other social scientists or humanists attend. If you are unable to make it, one resource which could show you the diversity of careers and research are the programs from prior years of the conference. Through the lists of presentations, you are likely to find scholars doing work that’s interesting to you and it may point you to people and institutions that share your interests.