Seven Differences Between Getting a PhD and Going to Medical School

As I mentioned in a now deleted post, I'm currently getting a PhD. It's something I never used to like to talk about on this blog, and really in real life too. But more recently, and mostly inspired by the amazing Ijeoma Kola, I've been more inclined to talk about my experiences. The main reason is because over the course of my own journey, I've had sooo many questions and not enough people to ask. I usually sometimes resort to Google but frankly most questions go unanswered and I just figure stuff out as I go. Not to mention, there is sooo much to say about academia and while I can't quite go all in yet because ahem, I'm not fully anonymous, I can at least be a resource person, right?

So I thought to create a [grad school and academia] series addressing such questions, and this will mostly be for black girls like me or someone that belongs to a minority group (So really anyone that isn't white) as academia was not created for us.  And if you have any question, feel free to ask. Especially if you're just about to start (you need to know what you are getting into before you begin, please). That's not to say if you are white, you can't read any of this; certainly not, but you might not relate to any of what I say. And for my non-academia friends and readers, don't worry,  I will still be blogging about regular life stuff and all. This is definitely not a academic blog (yuck). Plus who knows, you may be able to apply some of these principles to your life too. I'm excited about this, yay!

the view from my sister's apartment is breathtaking

Now on to the very first post in the series. Last week was my sister's White Coat Ceremony for medical school (Yay! Still so hyped). Anyway, all through the event, I noticed some things about medical school that differ extensively from grad school (getting your PhD), and thought about writing about those differences. Now of course, substantively, they are vastly different. An MD is a medical degree and medical students are being trained to become physicians. On the other hand, a PhD can be obtained in a vast array of fields: from the humanities to STEM fields, you can get a PhD in numerous degrees. In a nutshell, a PhD from a reputable program (not those online nonsense, sorry if you're a recipient of one of those!) is mainly research. In the U.S., after taking a few years of classes, taking comprehensive exams, defending a qualifier, defending a dissertation proposal, giving your sanity, giving your kidney, giving your eyes, giving your heart and your liver (kidding for the last four points, or am I?!), you are expected to produce original research and contribute to your field. So in that sense, of course they differ. But I'm talking of something else, and you'll see below. Here goes:

1.) Collegiality: There seems to be a more collegial atmosphere among medical students. I think they are more likely to support each other and work together as colleagues than grad students are. By its nature, a PhD is very isolating and so it's less likely that grad students are close friends. There is also the fact that the entry classes of medical programs are notoriously larger than PhD programs. At most, a PhD cohort might be, what, 30? And it's usually less than that, with some cohorts having only 5 students. Meanwhile, MD cohorts can be as large as 200. So of course, there is more opportunity for nurturing friendships in medical school. Interestingly, I think in both, it can be cutthroat with too much competition among students, so this depends largely on context and school. Also PhD programs have a lot of attrition rates: fifty percent of doctoral students leave without finishing. Medical schools on the other hand, have an attrition rate of about 5%. I'm not saying collegiality solves anything, I'm saying there is something medical schools are doing that PhD programs aren't.

2.) Concern for students' wellbeing: my family and I were somewhat late for my sister's White Coat Ceremony. Right as we were walking in, the person giving a speech (might have been their dean?) was imploring new medical students to not only focus on school and academics. He said they needed to diversify their time; that if they like movies, they must keep watching films; if it's writing; if it's art; if it's getting manicures and pedicures; that they needed to still exercise; eat well; whatever it was they liked to do, they must do, otherwise they would be on a fast track to burning out. I was so impressed that someone that high up on the food chain showed concern for the most basic welfare of their students. But is it really basic though? The problem is, in academia, it's the opposite. No one cares about your life outside of your dissertation and publishing, or if they do, they never show it. In fact, the trope is that if you are not doing work for 80 hours a week, you are doing it wrong and you are already a failure. It is expected that getting the PhD should consume your entire life. Case in point: there are soooo many medical students and doctors who blog or who are social media influencers. They always have this picture perfect life on Instagram and perfectly curated timelines on Instagram. I used to always wonder how the hell these women have the time to even post. I sometimes forget I even have an Instagram account. I struggle to even keep up on this blog or to focus on my numerous other hobbies. It's not that medical students/doctors are not busy (they take some of the toughest tests and exams in the world), it's that they prioritize doing fun stuff. They prioritize doing things that bring them joy. That is basically nonexistent in academia.

3.) Work life balance: given my last point, it is no surprise a lot of people in medicine talk a lot about the need for achieving a work-life balance. I don't want it to look like I'm romanticizing the medicine profession because I'm not, but at least they are having the conversation. You see a lot of mamas in medicine (there is literally a hashtag like this that exists!) struggling, but trying nonetheless to achieve some semblance of balance. In academia, there is  literally an active discussion to keep you from having kids either in grad school or even when you're on the tenure track. In fact, if you mention not wanting to do something work related because it might be detrimental to your family, they look at you like you're crazy. This recently happened to me. It's like how dare you? And no one really takes you seriously if you are factoring your romantic life or family life into a work decision in grad school. But I have read about medical students who chose resident spots based on where their partners can live or where is close to their family. In fact, they know they need the support system. My sister's school had a completely separate orientation for families, because they believe the support system in necessary. The dean of student affairs personally told my family that we needed to support my sister. No on cares about that in academia. And the truth is we will never be better doctors without our families. I could never have survived these past grueling years without my family. I know this without a doubt.

5). Your identity: by this I mean, the idea that you are more than a doctor. Basically, the sense that there is more to you than what you do; than being a doctor. This is  somewhat related to the above too. I find that it looks like many medical doctors try to be more than doctors.  In academia, there is a weird fixation on the PhD itself. A lot of grad students have their identities wrapped around getting a PhD. Because of this, failure is often personal since it is hard to disentangle who you are from what you do. This thing is so destructive.

6.) Duration of study: This part is tricky. Yes, a medical degree takes four years, whereas a PhD can take anywhere from 4 to 10 years in the United States, with an average of 8 years. This means getting a PhD can translate to losing a lot of opportunity to build wealth, save for retirement, and well live a good life, only to graduate and not get a job because there are no jobs in academia. However,  while a medical degree is just 4 years technically, their training usually takes longer, depending on the field. Residency can take anywhere from 3 to maybe even 7 years. But the different is, once you finish your  medical degree, I believe Residents actually earn a salary, albeit not much. And of course, when they are done, you earn a whole lot to cover for lost years. So go figure.

7.) Support: there is an inherent kindness I noticed, either among medical students or between medical students and their teachers, which was surprising because I had always heard of lots of bullying in medicine. But it's worse in academia: the hazing, just because; the caustic, toxic way of providing  feedback is so prevalent, it's worrisome.  Due to some of the aforementioned problems, it is no surprise we have an alarming rate of suicide among graduate students.

Okay I know I said seven, but I will give one bonus, which is ranking. When it comes to prestige of medical schools, I do not think it matters so much. In other words, I can't imagine a medical doctor not getting hired because they did not go to Harvard Medical School. As long as you go to a good medical school (that is accredited, this should be needless to say but hey, you never know), you will be fine. A PhD on the other hand, erm rankings matter A LOT. Whether your school is top 15 or top 20 might determine where you end up post-PhD. This is particularly important if you want a job in academia. You have to pay real attention to which type of school you go.

So that's it...for NOW. The truth is a lot of this depends on individual contexts, personal circumstances, and your program. I don't think this should sway your decision to go for one instead of the other haha.  I mean deciding to go for either is a huge decision by itself, but these were just some differences I noticed. What about you, ever noticed any difference I missed here? Or did I overstate anything here? In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions or anything you want me to address in this series.


Love,

I

3 comments

  1. I really appreciated reading your post as I am coming to the end of undergrad and not really sure what I want to do with my degree(psychology).Would you say this is the case with psychology as well, or do you know of anyone who has pursued a doctorate in psychology? What was their experience? I like research but I don’t know if that’s enough of a reason to get a doctorate.

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    1. Hi Tina!
      Thanks for stopping by. I can definitely understand that worry and confusion about what to do next after undergrad (not sure it ever completely goes away, to be honest haha). But yes, I would say a lot of the challenges that come with getting a phd apply to getting a PhD in psychology as well. I know getting into a psychology PhD program is quite competitive, but it is also true that it is a very versatile degree. I don't personally know anyone with a doctorate in psychology. But I can assure you they are not that hard to find: check out grad cafe forum and you will see a ton. Generally speaking though, I like to say the PhD can be very challenging and also rewarding (on some days). And sometimes the work itself is not what's so terrible, but perhaps other issues like who you work with etc. If you like research but aren't sure about getting a PhD yet, I would recommend getting some research experience: perhaps as a research assistant, working in a lab or some form of experience. That way you will see if the day to day suits your lifestyle, but you will also narrow down your research interests, which makes for a great application. But I really would not advise going straight to a PhD program from undergrad. But again, ultimately you know your situation best and I'm sure you'll make the right decision. Please let me know if you have any more questions at all. Also feel free to send an email if you're not comfortable posting the questions on a public place like this :) Good luck!

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