Transitioning from a PhD to Medical School

Brian Ogendi
Published on Aug 3, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

Pursuing an advanced degree is challenging and comes with its risk of burnout. Aiming to pursue two doctoral degrees is a huge undertaking that will test your mental toughness and push you beyond your limits. In today’s blog, OMEF Brian Ogendi shares his experiences so far on his journey towards the finish line. 

Traditionally, if one wants to pursue dual doctorate degrees, such as an MD-PhD, you apply to programs that have already streamlined the process. In these programs, every class is intentional and directed towards maximizing your time, allowing you to expeditiously complete the program. The difficulty of gaining admission into such prestigious programs speaks volumes to the excellence and intellect of those accepted. 

In contrast, individuals who pursue two doctoral degrees independently, especially from different institutions, face some unique challenges. 

Graduate school

Applying to PhD programs involves taking the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) and then completing applications to institutions of interest a year prior to your intended matriculation. Several months later, you interview at the schools you applied to and interview with several members of the faculty to discuss your interests.

Once accepted, you spend the first year taking various basic science classes all while rotating in various laboratories as you seek to find a good fit. After selecting a laboratory, you begin your second year with advanced electives to help you streamline your knowledge base in order to help you maximize your efforts. The goal is to master the knowledge in your chosen field, conduct successful experiments, and push the envelope of knowledge by contributing to new scientific findings. 

This process, on average, takes around 5.5 years, but can last as long as 7 years for some. I was able to write and defend my dissertation after three years. By the end of my tenure, I was completely broken and burned out from the culmination of working long hours in the lab and writing manuscripts. 

Osmosis illustration of a PhD student feeling burnt-out in a lab.

Re-defining yourself

Ordinarily, once you near the end of your PhD, you begin looking for postdoctoral positions where you pursue more training before finally beginning your career. I, however, chose to apply to medical school after my second year because it had been a passion of mine to pursue medicine. After a grueling application process with primary and secondary applications, interviews, and graduate school responsibilities, I successfully received admission to my current medical program. 

In the beginning, medical school was both exciting and scary. After going through a program where I had risen through the ranks, here I was again at the very beginning. It was so interesting how I could, in one moment, feel that the content we were learning was too shallow, and in the next minute, feel completely out of my depth. Impostor syndrome was very real, and in my first year, I often had nightmares about missing my dissertation defense. 

This new journey came with its own set of rules about learning and viewing the world. My objective with medical school was about learning and mastering voluminous knowledge in a way that allowed you to apply it to save lives. Whereas, my predoctoral tenure was more about mastering knowledge then forming investigative questions in hopes of contributing new knowledge. 

Osmosis illustration of dissertation nightmares.

Adapting to new situations

My first year-and-a-half of medical school was tumultuous because I struggled with figuring out how to apply my previous training. Eventually, I began to realize that I needed to completely switch my way of thinking, learning, and approaching knowledge. Surely, the two roads would eventually meet. 

I had to work through feeling burnt out because I was inefficiently applying my efforts and I did not take any breaks between the two programs. I sought help from others who had walked the PhD to MD route and their insight began to shed light for the path that I was trying to pursue. Additionally, I reached out to academic achievement, an inhouse program for helping students become better learners, and began exploring different learning styles that would help me maximize understanding and retention. 

Ultimately, I am still learning, but I have a profound appreciation for both disciplines and the fortitude required to see the journey through. To anyone who is contemplating pursuing this road, don’t be afraid to ask for help in navigating it; having a mentor who has done this before is invaluable and makes all the difference. 

Osmosis illustration of successful mentorship.

About Brian

Brian Ogendi is a rising third year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was born in Kenya and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of nine. He was awarded his Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences: Chlamydial Immunology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in August of 2017. Brian hopes to pursue either Internal Medicine or Gynecology after completing medical school. Brian enjoys mentoring minority students, is a newlywed, and has two small dogs.

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