Becoming a Scientist
While medical education is broad and diffuse, graduate education is narrow and focused. This concentration consists largely of intensive work in a research laboratory. The choice of research focus and department, exploring labs and meeting principal investigators, can be at once frightening and exciting. Our MSTP uses multiple approaches to aid trainees in making optimal choices for thesis labs and advisors at UCSD or affiliated institutions.
Trainees utilize School of Medicine elective time to do lab or “reading” rotations with faculty. In these rotations, trainees evaluate prospective lab mentors and earn medical school elective credit. These rotations usually count toward Graduate Programs’ requirements. The best times to accomplish rotations through research laboratories are summers prior to School of Medicine year one coursework and between years one and two. Two rotations, each lasting about 5 weeks, can be done in a summer. Trainees are encouraged to arrive the summer before School of Medicine classes begin to do rotations in one or more laboratories. Some trainees also do rotations during the academic year.
Trainees generally select a thesis lab before joining a Graduate Program. MSTP trainees are accepted, in principle, into any of the major Graduate Programs, even though they formally apply to such Programs in the middle of School of Medicine year two. Lab dynamics are important in choosing a lab. The size of the lab, level of technical support, organization, and general feel of the lab are all factors to consider. Some feel that an interesting scientific problem is the most important factor in deciding in a lab. However, a good Principal Investigator may be able to design a variety of interesting projects and a good lab environment can facilitate rapid progress on a thesis project.
Each Graduate Program has several requirements. These include lab rotations (usually three) and completion of certain courses. In certain Graduate Programs, there is an expedited curriculum (e.g., entry as a second-year trainee, some classes are waived, and leniency with respect to TA requirements). Advancement to candidacy generally occurs in two to three years, with the PhD work completed on average in four years or less.