How to Become a Physician-Scientist

How To Become a Physician Scientist

To become a physician-scientist you must complete college, medical school, and a residency program. You are becoming a doctor, so you must go through those proper channels first.

You can specialize in any field of medicine you want, or get your dentistry degree. To specialize in a field you have to complete a fellowship program after/during your residency.

In all, it can take from 13-15 years to complete all the school necessary. You can get a Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or another Ph.D. in a field of interest as well which could take five more years and some postdoctoral training.

1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree (4 Years)

Academic requirements for a physician-scientist are predictably complex, with a bachelor's degree with coursework in premedical subjects such as biology, physics, and chemistry required.

Proven success and enthusiasm for research and a minimum 3.5 GPA greatly assists in acceptance into higher-level research-related programs.

Your college coursework might look like the following:

Grade Level Example Courses
  • General Chemistry I & Lab
  • General Chemistry II & Lab
  • Physics I & Lab
  • Physics II & Lab
  • Biology I & Lab
  • Calculus I
  • Humanities Requirements
  • Electives
  • Organic Chemistry I & Lab
  • Organic Chemistry II & Lab
  • Fundamentals of Microbiology & Lab
  • Genetics
  • Physiology
  • Humanities Requirements
  • Electives
  • Cell Structure & Function
  • General Virology & Lab
  • Microbial Genetics & Lab
  • Biochemistry I
  • Biochemistry II
  • Physics
  • Humanities Requirements
  • Electives
  • Upper Level Biology
  • Upper Level Chemistry
  • Upper Level Physics
  • Upper Level Psychology
  • Upper Level Kinesiology
  • Remaining Requirements & Electives

2. Take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) or Dental Admissions Test (DAT)

The Dental Admissions Test (DAT) or Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) follows for most candidates.

Following this, the physician-scientist may pursue a clinical medical or dentistry degree or (in many cases) set out to earn a dual degree, either a DO or MD-PhD or a DDS or DMD-PhD.

These programs award both a research PhD and a medical or dental degree. Several of these programs benefit from NIH funding.

A combined degree can shorten education by 2-4 years compared to the 10 years needed to earn a medical or dental (MD or DMD) and PhD separately.

If you want to go to dentistry school, you must first take the DAT, which consists of the following:

Section Breakdown
Survey of the Natural Sciences
  • 100 questions
  • 90 minutes
  • Tests biology, organic chemistry, and general chemistry
Perceptual Ability Test
  • 90 questions
  • 60 minutes
  • Tests non-verbal visual acuity and perception
Reading Comprehension
  • 50 reading items
  • 60 minutes
  • Covers comprehension of science and dental topics
Quantitative Reasoning
  • 40 questions
  • 45 minutes
  • Tests ability to reason with numbers

The MCAT is divided into four sections:

Section Breakdown
Biological & Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • 59 multiple-choice questions
  • 95 minutes
  • Tests biology, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and biochemistry
Chemical & Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • 59 multiple-choice questions
  • 95 minutes
  • Tests biochemistry, biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics
Psychological, Social, & Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • 59 multiple-choice questions
  • 95 minutes
  • Tests introductory psychology, sociology, and biology
Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills
  • 52 multiple-choice questions
  • 90 minutes
  • Tess reading comprehension, humanities, and social sciences

You can find study materials, MCAT registration, and your test scores on the MCAT website. If you are unsatisfied with your score on any of the aforementioned exams, you are free to retake them. Depending on the school, some will average your scores and others will simply take your most recent.

3. Earn a Medical or Dental Degree (4 - 5 Years)

You have two program choices in medical school to become a physician-scientist: a Doctor of Medicine (MD) program or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) program.

Each degree focuses on the same methods of treatment, but a DO degree also focuses on osteopathic manipulative medicine. Whichever path you choose, you are facing 4-5 years in medical school.

Your first couple of years will focus on the following:

  • Basic pathology
  • Anatomy
  • Biology
  • Other life sciences

In the second half of the program, you will work with doctors and other healthcare professionals to advance your skills and focus in on an area of focus.

You can (and should) participate in research programs, if you get the invitation. Since your career will be heavily focused on research, you want to be as involved in that aspect as possible.

If you go into dentistry, you will have 4 years of dental school where you will learn the practices to become a dentist and hone in on skills that cater to this area.

You will focus on the anatomy of the mouth and diseases and illnesses that can exist in the mouth. You learn how to make and execute implants, reconstructive practices, cleaning, and many other specialties.

4. Complete a Residency Program

After medical school, you have to complete a residency program. It's important to determine the area of medicine you want to work in to find a residency program that will suit your needs.

During this time, you will be supervised by other healthcare professionals and get hands on training to build upon your skills and confidence, to allow you independent practice.

Throughout your residency, you can expect to work from anywhere to three to five years in a clinical or hospital setting. It's here you can really hone in on your skills and build upon your knowledge.

At least one year of residency will be focused on laboratory practice, but you should prepare for more depending on if you want the short-track or the long-track residency program and what you will specialize in.

Once you have completed your residency and have figured out what path you want to specialize in, you can complete a fellowship program that can be postdoctoral work if you have a Ph.D. or more clinical and laboratory training. It readies you for a faculty position and launches you into the field.

5. Earn the Required License & Certification

After you complete your residency you have to apply for your medical license and board certification.

If you graduate from a MD program, you can take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). If you graduate from a DO program, you can take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA).