Quit PhD for MD?


Just wondering if anyone’s been in a similar situation or can offer some opinions/advice…

I just finished my first year in a Biomedical Science/Neuroscience PhD program and I’m more and more certain I picked the wrong educational route. I did a lot of research as an undergrad but find each day I dread going to the lab. I had always known I would go into either medicine or medical research and research won out as I thought I’d have a bigger impact on medicine “behind the scenes” figuring out mechanisms for neurodegenerative diseases and ways to stem/slow their progression.

I am just not cut out for research…and I have thoroughly weighed my options and given time to see if it was just a low point as is common in grad school. But I miss the interaction with patients, the one-on-one impact you can have when working with people at the clinical level, and overall just don’t like the goals and drive that usually accompany the pursuit of a life in research.

However, is it wise to quit to pursue an MD? I still have 5-6 years left and I am already a non-trad (28yr female) so not sure its worth finishing it out before applying.

The other downsides: a lower undergrad GPA (3.4), wouldn’t be able to get LORs from current program as they would be angry about leaving, would miss this application cycle so wouldn’t start (if accepted first time around) for 2 years.

If anyone actually finished the novel; thoughts/tips/advice? Especially from anyone in similar situation?

MJ2B -

I hope some other folks chime in as I don’t have a lot of insight into research /PhD.

However, I think it might be useful for you to ask yourself how many years you are comfortable being miserable for?

I would think if you dropped the PhD program now there would be opportunity for you to work this coming year on prepping for application in the spring, including taking some courses (towards an LOR and towards med school prep), and shadowing/volunteering. Also, I’d think it likely that some of your professors from your first year would write you a letter if you explained your realization that this is not your path. “If you don’t ask, they can’t say yes.”


Wow. I’m in a similar situation in a PhD program too. I knew going in that I wanted to go to Med School.I thought I was the only person. I just joined this list-serve today and saw your question. (Looks like you posted it yesterday).The politics of making a quiet but dignified exit is one challenge. I’m so glad I’m not the only one out there. I’m wondering if there’s a way for us to exchange email addresses off-line? Do you know?

Hi MJ2B and Newsgirl,

I was just perusing the posts and came across your questions regarding whether to finish your PhD or quit and go to med school. I’m not sure I can help a lot, but I have a PhD in physiology from a medical college and had originally thought about doing medical school during college and during graduate school. It took me five years to finish my PhD and something inside me always asked “do I really want to do this for the rest of my life?”

After graduating I decided to move into ecological physiology and I now work in the public sector doing fish disease research. This field is much more laid back and less cut-throat than bio-med research, which I like. However, now I am two years out of graduate school and I really do not think research is what I want to do. I am now researching what it will take to go to Medical school (osteopathic) in my position. It will take about 2 years for me to even apply (pre-reqs, required shadowing, volunteering in the med field, MCAT all have to be done first). Keep this in mind, but it will depend on your background.

Here’s my advice - Grad school SUCKS! I know what it’s like, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows (but many more lows). As was mentioned in an earlier post - you first have to make sure you are not considering med school because you are in a low. Finishing your PhD feels GREAT! You will look back and say “I can’t believe I did that” and it really builds your character to make it through all the lows. It will also look great if you apply to med school with a PhD (it won’t get you accepted by itself though). HOWEVER - you have to think about what you want to do when you’re done. Do you want to be a PI? Essentially be your own boss? If so, you will need to write grants consistently and get them funded consistently. That is the life of a PI. Your life will revolve around grants and writing papers. If you want to teach, the grant pressure will be slightly less (depending on where you go). Yes, there are other options for PhD’s (industry etc.). Do you want to do the things that are available to a PhD?? If it is a solid “yes,” then stick with the PhD (especially if you only have 1 or 2 years left). One thing I will tell you is, MD’s can do pretty much everything a PhD can do, and more, especially if they get some research experience during medical school or thereafter. I knew MD’s that were PI’s - lots of work with clinic - but it can be done. Don’t get me wrong, there are many cases where PhD’s would blow an MD out of the water in their field of interest, but overall, an MD is more versatile career wise. If you have 3-6 years left of graduate school and you know FOR SURE you want to treat patients and maybe do some research on the side, then I would suggest leaving graduate school (try not to burn too many bridges, they will not be happy) and immediately begin working into the medical school pre-req/application process. In MY OPINION there is not much sense in sticking out a PhD if you know you want to work with patients unless you have an end in sight for your PhD. Alternatively, keep the idea of med school to yourself and try to squeeze in some MD shadowing at a weekend clinic or something while continuing your PhD. This might help solidify your thoughts of going to med school - making it easier to decide. I could probably write many pages on this topic, but those are my immediate thoughts. If you have more questions or comments I can try to address them.


Definitely quit. I was in the same situation when I started my program (PhD in Neuroscience) 6 years ago. Pretty soon I discovered that bench work is not for me and medicine is my true passion. I talked to my advisor right before my qualifier exam (during the beginning of my 3rd year) just to be honest with him and to give him an option of kicking me out without MS (it is a part of our PhD program) in case he chooses to do so. Instead, he convinced me, that it is in my best interest to stay and finish. First, he said I should be done in 2 more years (oh, this permanent trap of any PhD program – just 1-2 more years… just one more… it last forever, by the way), second, he told me, medical schools would not like the fact that I am jumping from one program to another. I was new to the country (I am from Eastern Europe) and thought he must know what he is talking about. Well, I am starting my 7th year and I am still here. The thing about research is that it is hard to predict, when you will be truly done. Check with your department to get an idea what is the average length of the PhD (it turned out to be 6-7 years in my department). And in reality, it should be much easier for you to quit now than at any other point. You tried it, you didn’t like it - you quit. While I am stuck and of course, I can’t quit after 6 years! I felt it would look weird after 4-5 years too, just because if I didn’t like it - why didn’t I quit earlier?

It is scary to tell your PI about it, and they would probably try to keep you. However, at the end, it is your life and you own it to yourself. I do not regret not leaving the program back then just because I have gotten married to a wonderful guy and we are now expecting out second child. I found out that graduate programs with their flexible schedules are made to have kids and am taking full advantage of this. However, if I would have had nothing else going on in my life, I would have been desperate for all these years wasted!!! As I am still not planning on a career in neuroscience and hoping to apply to med schools next summer.

Oh yeah, and another thing to keep in mind… it might sound like a great deal to get a free PhD in couple years and then apply. But remember, your family situation might change and you might have a lot less energy and time to pursue your dream in couple years comparing to now. I am grateful for my wonderful family, but medical school at 31 with 2 little kids should be A LOT harder both physically and financially than with no kids and family at 24 :))))

Good luck with your life and do not let other people’s expectation hold you back!

The general “philosophy” for a medical school application is a concise, coherent and compelling narrative showing a pattern of commitment, motivation and achievement.

It is generally considered a negative/strong red flag when dropping from a graduate program to apply to medical school. Medical admissions officers can/will question the following

  1. is the candidate really committed to when they have just shown lack of commitment to a PhD program (ie is the candidate “lost” in what to do)?

  2. is the candidate up to the workload of medical school (ie did he/she drop graduate school because they couldn’t hack it)?

  3. is the candidate truly motivated to medicine?

    Knowing these issues, individuals who are considering dropping grad school must present a very compelling narrative in their applications to overcome them. I push this issue with every student, that you must be able to articulate “why medicine?” This is even more so for those considering moving from a PhD program to medicine. “why medicine?” “why now?” “why should we take you when you have shown issues with commitment and motivation to grad program?”

    Understand these challenges when making your decision

Gonnif, I’d add a #4 to your list because I know of a couple adcoms it’s an issue for probably because they felt

“burned” when their PhD students dropped out to attend med school (and I’ve heard it myself):

4) Did the candidate use PhD program as a back-door into an MD program and/or matriculate in the PhD program as a result of having been unsuccessful getting admitted to an MD program?

I personally don’t think there’s much wrong with applying to both MD and PhD programs at the same time, but apparently some people do have a problem with it citing “commitment” issues.

Thanks to everyone’s advice/thoughts/opinions- really appreciate everyone’s time and various perspectives. I am only in my first year so getting out now is better (and my program does not offer an intermediate Master’s for finishing part of the program so it’s all or none) at this point then any other time. I am positive this is not just a “low” point. I started doubting my fit as a researcher almost right after the “newness” of starting disappeared, but really wanted to give it a chance and have put 200% into everything I do in the program. I did not try applying to medical school alongside applying to graduate school but do have the grades and pre-reqs so both options were open to me. I cut it in grad school quite well: the PI’s I’ve worked for have all offered me permanent positions (we rotate labs our first year) and I’ve gotten A’s in all the coursework (all heavy sciences).

I understand it looks very bad to quit, but at the same time, is it better to finish another 5-6years not liking it? This program did not require a master’s to get accepted and while I did a lot of research during my undergrad, I guess I never truly understood what life in academia (or even industry) would actually be like. I have clinical experience (as a paramedic for quite some years both on an ambulance and in a hospital as well as in hospice) and truly miss the relationships you develop with patient, the illnesses and injuries of HUMANS and the actual acute care provided. I have made up my mine quite firmly and will be applying to medical school next cycle. And this has not been made easily or lightly: my family and all my mentors that I really look up to are very disappointed and not very supportive not to mention I hate quitting! I’ll just have to work on my personal statement as well as be aware that some programs might not consider me just for this reason. Any schools I should avoid ;)?

I think the first thing you should do is make sure you spend some time shadowing a real physician, talking to an admissions director at a real medical school, and generally doing what you probably regret NOT doing before grad school: get a really good look at what you’re signing up for, from the perspective of physicians and med students. That is probably the best way to alleviate concerns that if you quit grad school you would quit med school, too.

Good luck!

  • MJ2B Said:
I'll just have to work on my personal statement as well as be aware that some programs might not consider me just for this reason. Any schools I should avoid ;)?

Above all, keep Richard's advice in mind*, and plan your narrative. Perhaps your story is one of doubt - you doubted the road to medical school, went to research and now want to be sure medicine is the right place for you. Show them in this next year that you are certain - and perhaps, if you are not, the experiences will help you choose the path you need to be on.

Spend this year getting clinical experience in areas other than paid hospice/hospital work. I would suggest shadowing some type of primary care and maybe a specialist. Do volunteer work both in your community (non-med) and in a clinic setting, or continue such efforts if you've already started. Be sure a service profession is what you want.

I'd also second samenewme about getting in touch with advisors at a medical school.

Good luck!

*"Knowing these issues, individuals who are considering dropping grad school must present a very compelling narrative in their applications to overcome them. I push this issue with every student, that you must be able to articulate "why medicine?" This is even more so for those considering moving from a PhD program to medicine. "why medicine?" "why now?" "why should we take you when you have shown issues with commitment and motivation to grad program?" "

Another issue that comes to mind is in application mechanics: how do you go about getting fresh LORs? Asking your grad faculty advisor is out.

One possible avenue may be, as you do volunteering or physician shadowing start building a basis for a possible future LOR.

Also, how do you find time/energy to prep for MCAT while in grad school, especially essentially in secret?

Sorry for seeming to be posting challenges but I see why it is difficult to leave a PhD to a go to MD or DO. But on OPM accurate info and identifying challenges is part of our mission. Having all of us trying to help you find a path to successfully overcome these challenges is also part of our mission.

I am/was worried about LOR’s as well. Especially because my primary mentor from undergrad was ecstatic that she was “producing” her first scientist (I was the first from her lab to go on for a PhD in her discipline) and wrote me an outstanding LOR. I did meet with her and was honest that maybe this wasn’t the best fit for me. She was actually more ok with it then I expected though not sure that will go as far as another stellar LOR. Definitely no LOR’s from current program as they will unhappy about my decision. I do have several fantastic MD contacts from my time in the ED and am shadowing 3 of them over the next 5months so am hoping that will produce letters.

As for studying for the MCAT. I currently am in two heavy science classes that contain a lot of relevant material. Also, if I make the plunge as planned, I will quit at the end of this semester (its not fair to keep tying up funding) and take relevant science classes during the spring semester at my local university (12credits) and study my butt off for the MCAT taking it in late April.

And I’m grateful for any thoughts, advice, ideas, and support! I am not a fickle person (despite what it seems) and I feel completely awful about leaving but know that ultimately it is the right choice for me.

I don’t think anyone around here would call you fickle. It doesn’t sound like you are making this choice lightly. (It’s not like you just got up last week, had a bad day, and decided to quit!) There’s nothing wrong with giving something your best efforts and finding out that it just isn’t for you. If that’s really the case here, then the mistake would be continuing to swim upstream instead of acknowledging the truth.

In my experience, once you see a truth for your life, it’s hard to not see it. So consider your PhD experience to have been one of revelation and learning (not time wasted), and move on to the target at hand…medicine…which sounds like what you really want to do.

Best of luck as you take the plunge! I’ll be taking the MCAT at the same time you do, so we’ll be in the same application cycle. I’ll be rooting for you either way!

Carrieliz-thanks and good luck to you too! Enjoy classes this semester and good luck with the MCAT. If all goes to plan hopefully we’ll both be M1’s August 2013!

Hi guys Ik this post is from a while ago, but I’m looking for some insight. I just finished my undergrad, prereqs and all with a major in neuroscience (3.4 GPA). I did one summer of research last year and I absolutely loved it, so I was leaning towards a MD/PhD program. However, due to my low GPA and limited research experience I decided to apply to some research-based masters programs in order to ensure Md/PhD is right for me and raise my credentials. However, one of the masters programs offered me a spot in the PhD program and told me I have the option of mastering out after two years If I decide it’s not for me. They need people in the PhD program for funding (due to covid) and make it seem like it’ll be ok for me to master out. This is the only way I can get my masters without paying for it. Although this seems like a great opportunity I am worried about committing to the PhD program and being looked down upon if i leave to pursue an Md or md/PhD program after 2 years. I honestly don’t know what path is right for me and I am willing to try out the PhD program but I don’t wanna be looked down on by medical school admissions committees when I tell them I’m already in a PhD program but want a spot in an md/PhD program. I obviously wanna get my education for as little money as possible but I don’t wanna cheat the system and have it hurt me later down the line. Let me know.