As directors of the Medical Scientist Training [M.D.-Ph.D.] Program (MSTP) at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, the two of us spend a lot of our time talking with undergraduates, medical students, residents, and fellows about career choices. We both have found that the life of a physician-scientist is incredibly rewarding, but we recognize that it is often daunting to navigate the long path toward becoming one, particularly if you are not exposed to mentors or role models in college or even earlier. Here we have addressed some common questions that arise when considering a career as a physician-scientist.

What is a physician-scientist?

A physician-scientist is an individual with an M.D. degree (with or without other graduate degrees) for whom research and discovery are at least a major commitment. Physician-scientists are likely to spend time in a clinical setting related to their research, but clinical care is not their major role. If in academia, he or she is likely to teach and have administrative roles as well. Most physician-scientists are employed at academic medical centers or universities, but some work at research institutes such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Again, wherever they work, research and the discovery and application of new knowledge are their focus, rather than the application of existing knowledge. For example, physician-scientists are more likely to focus on the development of entirely new approaches to killing bacteria or curing cancer than on prescribing existing antibiotics or chemotherapy agents. No one knows precisely what the future holds, but physician-scientists of the future are likely to still be working in academia and to be encouraged to spend an even larger percentage of their professional time focused on discovery.