Choosing Your MD/PhD School List

As you might imagine, one of the first steps in MD/PhD applications is to select the programs to which you will apply. This may sound trivial, but I have found that forming your school list is a very time-consuming and crucial part of the process. You’ll need to do lots of research to find programs that give you the best chances of acceptance and that you would be thrilled to attend!

You should begin with as wide of a base as possible, so we suggest compiling a big list of MD/PhD programs. While there are many ways to narrow this list down, we propose making gradual eliminations with three major considerations:

  1. Environment/Lifestyle
  2. Science Opportunities
  3. Stats/Competitiveness

Please read below for more information about the questions you might want to ask for each category and why it is important to heavily consider these factors.


Elimination 1: Environment – Examine what matters to you personally

Start by picturing yourself at a new school, and identify one factor you value most. For many, this tends to involve lifestyle or family. What does your ideal environment look like? Keep in mind that this should only cut the list of potential programs about in half, so don’t get too specific here. There are still many academic factors to consider, and we’ll need to keep our options open!

Here are some questions that might help you figure out what is important to you:

  • Do you strongly prefer the big city over a more quaint or suburban area?
  • Are you vehemently opposed to the frequent snow in the North or the heat (or cockroaches, ew) in the South?
  • If you have a spouse who will be moving with you, can he/she find work?
  • Do you need an easily accessible area where your parents can come visit you often?

To use my case as an example, I was miserable with noisy dorm/apartment living in college. I also have an irrational fear of public transportation, so being able to take my car was a must. I wanted a program where I could rent a house just a short drive from work. I narrowed my initial list based upon this vision, searching for neighborhood-living within the budget of the MD/PhD stipend.


Elimination 2: Science – Find schools that excel in your areas of interest

The first elimination was intended to ensure that you could be happy in your new environment. Next, you will need to see which of your remaining schools can offer you the tools necessary to succeed in your desired specialty. Now it’s time to dig into the science!

If you are stuck on ways to determine whether a program can exceptionally train you, we will share an example. Let’s say I’m interested in cancer immunology. I might wonder:

  • Does the school have a comprehensive cancer center or other excellent clinical resources?
  • How strong are its immunology and cancer biology (or related) departments?
  • Have any researchers at the school initiated new clinical trials in the field, particularly as a result of something that was discovered in their labs?
  • Is the program actively receiving any grants to do this type of work?
  • As I read through the biographies and current projects of faculty in various departments, are there at least 3+ researchers whose labs might be a good fit for me?
  • Will I be supported by the MD/PhD directors to pursue a degree that connects multiple disciplines? Are any other students at the institution doing similar work?


Elimination 3: Competitiveness – Craft your list to maximize your chances!

Once you’ve found schools that fit your personal and academic needs, the next step is to determine your chances of acceptance. This primarily involves assessing your GPA and MCAT score (stats), but you must also consider the depth of your research experience. An excellent final list should contain about 15 programs: 5 schools with average scores above yours (“reach”), 5 where your stats match their average (“target”), and 5 with average stats below yours (“safety” – although I use this term very loosely, as nothing is safe when you’re applying to programs with ~5-10 spots!).

I truly cannot overstate the need for a well-balanced, broad school list. You can always turn down interviews, but you can never reclaim time to add more programs. If you are set on applying to tons of reach schools, remember that it is dangerous to take away slots from target/safety schools and end up with a top-heavy list. Thus, you should add these dream schools to the initial 15 programs. This may seem costly, but it will ultimately be less expensive than reapplying in the worst case. By nature, all MD/PhD programs are very competitive… be safe and always prepare for the worst!

While the 15-school backbone is often the best way to stay broad, it can also be modified based on your personal circumstances. If your stats are exceptionally high, for example, you’ll likely stand out almost anywhere numerically and can have less “safety” schools (but I still suggest being cautious!). Conversely, if your metrics are more borderline in any of the three major selection factors (GPA, MCAT, research), please know that you can still succeed. I found myself in the same boat last year! This just made it crucial for me to include more “safety” schools on my list in terms of stats. While my lower score sometimes caused me stress, it also helped me realize the importance of highlighting my strengths and applying thoughtfully to programs I loved!



In the end, remember that you are selecting your future home. Each school should be on your list with a clear purpose. While this task may seem daunting, your critical thinking should pay off when you need to explain why you chose a program on a secondary or at an interview. Remember that being accepted to any MD/PhD program is an incredible honor. You’ve already accomplished a lot by making it this far, and we hope these tips will help you push through the finish line!

My best to all,
Emily Hayward
Incoming MD/PhD Student


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