Intended for healthcare professionals


Doing a higher medical degree

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 29 June 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3792
  1. Kathryn Armstrong, MD student13,
  2. E J Molloy, consultant neonatologist123
  1. 1Department of Paediatrics, National Maternity Hospital, Dublin
  2. 2Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, Dublin
  3. 3University College Dublin
  1. katey21{at}


Kathryn Armstrong and E J Molloy offer their top 10 tips for doing an MD or PhD

1: Keep in mind the good reasons for completing an MD or PhD

The concept of research is now introduced early in medical undergraduate training, with students being offered the chance to complete an intercalated research degree. A New Zealand study found that 90% of students who completed an intercalated degree went on to further research; one third completed a doctorate in medicine (MD) or philosophy (PhD), and 70% of these progressed to consultancy.1 In general an MD requires two years of full time research, whereas a PhD will take three. The management and analytical skills you will acquire from a period of dedicated research will be invaluable in your later career as a clinician.

2: Choose a committed supervisor

Committing yourself to a higher medical degree, choosing an area of research, getting funding, and securing time out from specialty training may seem daunting. Choosing a committed and experienced mentor or supervisor is vital. Mentors have an important role in guiding and supporting novice researchers and in ensuring the success and completion of any research and, in particular, the writing up of an MD or PhD thesis.2 Therefore you should choose a supervisor with a strong track record for publication and supervision of higher degrees.

3: Obtain funding

Your supervisor should have experience in seeking funding for research projects. Preparation for the MD or PhD and writing of grant applications should begin 18 months to two years in advance. Local research bursaries or charitable funds may be an option, as are the Wellcome Trust ( ) and the Medical Research Council ( However, many established supervisors will have funding in place and will not require the student’s input into the grant writing process.

4: Expect the first six months to be challenging

It takes at least six months to settle into an MD or PhD project and to move from clearly defined clinical tasks to self directed time management. You will need to acquire new clinical and laboratory skills, after which recruitment of patients or samples can begin. You may need to educate clinical teams such as nursing and medical staff about the project so that you can obtain their help in recruitment and consent. Collaboration with staff in the laboratory will also be necessary. Most MD and PhD projects require extensive management of time, teams, and budgets, all useful in the trainee’s future dealings as a consultant. You will need patience: processes may be slower than in the clinical arena, especially if you are starting a new project with no research infrastructure in place.

5: Write a review article

Writing skills are often learnt early on in school and are not nurtured in undergraduate training; students therefore lack confidence in their writing ability.2 A thorough review of the up to date literature will allow you to develop expert knowledge in your chosen subject and will help protect against duplication of previously published work, ensuring originality.

6: Seek out other research students

Many clinicians enjoy the camaraderie of working among colleagues as part of a multidisciplinary team in hospital medicine. Research, on the other hand, can be isolating, with long hours spent alone in the laboratory, at the computer, or collecting data. It helps to look for a research position in a unit with other MD and PhD students in place. A research centre will support its students, and everyone will be welcoming of you and your research project. Research units also allow cross fertilisation of ideas and techniques among the student group.

7: Submit abstracts

Although most MD and PhD projects last at least 2-3 years, and final project results won’t be available until the end of this period, interim results or findings can be submitted to national or international meetings as abstracts. It is important to keep up to date with relevant meetings and deadlines for abstracts, which will help you to set goals for completion of the research. Meetings are also good places to discuss your research and to foster collaboration.

8: Continue some clinical work

Retaining some clinical work is up to the individual; however, loss of clinical skills is often given as a reason to avoid research. Covering a shift in the hospital from time to time helps you to keep up your clinical skills and can help financially. Clinical work can also help you keep a focus on the importance of research in the training pathway to becoming a consultant.

Many funding bodies explicitly state the amount of time allowed in the clinical setting. The Wellcome Trust, for example, specifies in its postdoctoral fellowships a maximum of eight hours of clinical work a week.

9: Write your thesis as you go along

This is essential. Often the MD or PhD research will be the first time that many clinicians will have written a scientific paper, and the quicker that you can get into the swing of writing the better. The introduction to the MD or PhD thesis can be started early on. This will help you with publications throughout the research period and will mean that completing the thesis is much less daunting.

10: Enjoy the experience

Although research may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the skills acquired from the experience (interpersonal, clinical, statistical, writing, and presenting skills) are invaluable and cannot be gained without going through such a process. Completing an MD or PhD is the first stepping stone in career long research. So enjoy the experience, and when you are a consultant it will all be worth it. You can then supervise a few MDs or PhDs yourself.


  • Competing interests: None declared.


View Abstract