From PhD to MD: The value of a postdoctoral fellowship in undergraduate medical education

As I embark on my journey into medical school I wanted to share some thoughts on how the academic training (MSc, PhD, postdoc) I received, and how the many great mentors I was fortunate to have, will provide me with a unique perspective in clinical care. So here we go…

Science can be described as the pursuit for lawful relations. We, as scientists and researchers, organize knowledge and attempt to test our understanding of nature through the scientific method. This is the cornerstone of research and pivotal to applying the concepts of evidence-based medicine. However, gaining insight to such proprietary knowledge is, for the most part, unique to graduate school and significantly augmented as a postdoctoral fellow.

Understanding how knowledge is generated, having the ability to critically appraise medical research, and being able to triage scientific evidence to ensure high quality, reproducible findings get the attention they deserve, are just some of the skills that postdoctoral fellows acquire as they advance their training. These fundamentals will prove to be invaluable as an MD candidate inundated with high volumes of information; especially when a decision needs to made quickly and carefully.

Efficient communication is necessary for building a trusting relationship and community of support with a patient when they are faced with adversity and asked to make difficult decisions that affect their health. As a fellow I regularly spoke at conferences and to public health groups and this helped hone my ability to convey complex messages simply. Getting involved with community outreach and knowledge translation events (e.g., CIHR Café Scientifique) were lessons in teamwork, project management, and public health education. Although I must formally redirect my focus away from research and learn the clinical skills necessary to provide optimal patient care, I firmly believe that 7 years of research training will never be left behind. The technical skills learned (e.g., laboratory, statistical, writing), the friendships forged, and the experiences gained will indirectly help me serve patients by adapting to difficult situations, by engaging in simple, but meaningful dialog, and by providing the best possible evidence-informed care.

To trainees considering a PhD or fellowship, know and understand why you want to do it. This will ensure that your project, responsibilities, and the experiences you are exposed to during your 4+ years align with your career goals. Whether this be a tenure track position, working in industry, government, or a completely different transition all together, the diverse set of skills learned throughout a fellowship are largely transferable and will prove to be assets to many employers. Past are the days of ‘academic silos’. The future of science and medicine requires multidisciplinary teams that engage in collaborative efforts to solve complex problems with human health as the focal point.

My advice: Do not enter graduate school for the sole purpose of ‘spicing up’ your MD application. Rather, embark on a quest for the unknown if your intellectual curiosity organically propels you towards an MSc, PhD and/or Postdoc. This way you are much more likely to enjoy your journey through academia, appreciate the highs (e.g., having your first manuscript accepted, defending your thesis, etc.) and the lows (e.g., responding to that darn 3rd reviewer!). This will help keep you focused on your goal – to enhance your understanding of all that is unknown in the natural world of science and medicine. After all, every one of us pursuing higher levels of postgraduate education are truly life-long learners on a journey to understand.

Zach Ferraro, PhD
CIHR Postdoctoral Fellow  –  MD Class of 2019
Faculty of Medicine –  University of Ottawa
twitter: @DrFerraro