Jewish Alliance for Women in Science
JAWS Highlighted Feature
JAWS Highlighted Feature
Visit Mentors' Round Table to read our interviews of women in the fields of science and health. These are women of varying levels of experience and backgrounds, brought to the table to answer your questions about everything from work-life balance to financial management. Read on, be inspired, and leave them (and us!) a comment!
Check back soon! More to come!
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MD-PhD Programs are designed to produce physician scientists. They are a lot longer than M.D. programs and have a different focus than PhD programs. Students in these programs often face some particular challenges including length of training and loss of stamina. For more on what and MD-PhD program is, please see the career page.
We hope the interview below, with a female, Orthodox, fourth year MD-PhD student, will help those trying to decide if MD-PhD is right for them get a good sense of what they are signing up for. We also hope it will help explain to those interested why someone would choose this type of training.
Interview with an MD-PhD Student
How did you choose your career?
MD-PhD’s are notorious for being indecisive. We cannot choose between medicine and science. I had been involved in several clinical and laboratory experiences during undergrad and I loved them both. I could not see myself choosing one or the other. I also knew I wanted to do clinically related research with the ability to take a discovery all the way through clinical trials if needed. The MD-PhD seemed like a good option for this.
Were there any obstacles you had to face in your training or later career?
Sure. There was a lot of discouragement early on when people heard I intended to pursue this path. It is still unusual for an orthodox female to pursue and MD, and I wanted to take on a PhD too. There were some people who told me I would never get married. They also told me if I found someone desperate enough to marry me my children would grow up with behavioral problems because they would feel I neglected them and should be at home more.
Luckily those dissenters are getting fewer and fewer in number. I have a great respect for stay at home moms, but I knew this was not the right path me. People are coming to appreciate the fact that not everyone can fit the same cookie cutter mold and it can be very harmful to force others to do so. My husband and I realize the value of a two-income household in which both the mother and the father feel fulfilled and happy.
I was also told any religious girl going into medicine would lose her faith in G-d. This seemed to be a particularly female problem as no one mentioned it to any male who said he was considering medicine. I can only say that people who hold that opinion are laughably wrong. This career has strengthened my appreciation for G-d and his work more than any shiur (religious class) or book ever could. I get to see His work daily and marvel at it.
Most people who frown upon my choice, usually end up supporting my decision after they meet me. They realize that my husband and I are completely normal people. We just know this is the right path for us. If you have an open mind and are willing to listen and get to know me, we’ll get along just fine.
Have there been any problems in your work life or training that have arisen because of your religion?
Absolutely. In undergrad a lot of professors had never heard of some of the Jewish holidays and thought I was making them up. This got worse in medical school where I was one of very few students in the entire school who observes all the Jewish holidays. I find in these cases it is very important to know your rights and to let professors know on time that you will have a scheduling conflict. Exams are scheduled in advance and by just bringing a calendar with you to the first day of class you can tell if there is going to be an issue. If you show up two days before an exam and suddenly remember you have a holiday of course it is going to look like you are making it up. And frankly, you can’t expect people to accommodate you at the last minute for something that should have been taken care of a long time ago. This timely approach has helped me tremendously.
I did once have a professor tell me to get a “dispensation” from my Rabbi and come anyway. Luckily there was an orthodox professor in the room at the time who looked at her like she was from Mars and told her “it doesn’t work that way”. My school is also very careful about not stepping on anyone’s legal religious rights. We have students who need to take off for things like Ramadan and Halloween so they tend to be pretty accommodating. You just have to make up the work on your own precious time.
I also had some trouble when I got married and began covering my hair for religious reasons. The USMLE test center has very strict rules against wearing any sort of head covering. When the proctor tried to prevent me from entering the room while wearing a bandanna I explained that I had to cover my hair for religious reasons. She claimed I still could not wear it. I stood my ground and told her I thought she was mistaken. Her supervisor came over and said I was correct. You merely fill out a report explaining why I was allowed to wear my head covering. It seems the proctor was trying to avoid having to fill out some paperwork by trying to force me to remove my bandanna. When I see patients I typically wear a wig or bandanna and they do not seem to mind.
What do you like best about your career? What do you like least?
I like the variety of things I get to do. I like the challenge. I get to go to conferences in many exotic locations. I love working with people. However science can be very slow and many experiments just don’t work. I do not know when I will graduate. This can be very frustrating. I do not love the length of training. I also do not like how much healthcare costs people and how many under-served people there are.
Are you married?
Yes, to a wonderful man.
Do you have children, how many?
Not yet but hopefully soon!
How do you balance family and work life?
I am fortunate to have a spouse that completely understands what I am going through. We have dinner together every night and we can discuss things like how our days went and solutions to problems that have arisen. Occasionally this means one of us has to bring dinner to the other person who is still at work. We’re OK with that.
I also chose a laboratory that is very supportive of family. Several members have had children while working here and my boss has been very supportive of them. I know he will be supportive of me as well. The same cannot be said for every boss out there, and I made sure not to join such labs. This is a very important criterion that some students forget to consider.
What does your spouse think about your career?
I am pretty sure he thinks it is a good choice. He is very supportive of me.
What does your family think about your career?
Originally, I think they were scared I was taking on more than I could handle. However they are extremely happy about it now. They keep calling me for medical advice and I am still a student!
I can also say that my career has greatly impacted my family for the better. It saved my fathers life. Last year he had a serious lung disease that no one was able to diagnose. I used my connections in this hospital to get him an appointment with a specialist. This physician squeezed him in despite the fact that he had no open appointments for weeks. No other specialist in the area was willing to take him so soon. The day after the appointment my father’s condition deteriorated and he was admitted to the hospital. He was in such a precarious state it was deemed too risky to do any further tests on him. Were it not for the biopsy that the specialist had taken the day before, a diagnosis never would have been made. His condition was extremely rare and he did not meet any of the risk factors for it so it never would have entered anyone’s mind. Thankfully they were able to administer an extremely dangerous medication that is the only possible treatment for the disease my father had. Without it, he would have not had a chance. With it, he survived.
Things were pretty scary for a while. I had my mother living in the living room of my small one bedroom apartment for four months (I know, every newlyweds dream). Had I not been so close to the hospital she would not have been able to be with my father as much as she was, she would not have had the support of one of her daughters 24 hours a day or a place to stay on Passover while my father was still being treated. The whole family probably would have been devastated by my fathers long treatment and recovery. I am still very involved in his ongoing health care and complex management and I do not know how our family would be able to cope with this had we not had someone medical in the family. I am incredibly grateful to have been where I was at the right time to be able to help my father in this way.
I also owe much of my happiness to my career. Had it not been for my enrolling in this program and living in this area I never would have met my husband. On paper, we are not a match. Our familys are too different for any shadchan (matchmaker) to ever have thought of the match. In fact, many people who knew both families were totally confused when they heard of our engagement. But the truth is, when you get past the superficial things our families actually have very similar values. I get along great with my in-laws and my parents adore my husband. Each family is grateful for the new child they have received.
It seems extremely obvious to me that G-d has guided my footsteps in choosing this career, and my family now believes that too.
How do/did you handle the financial stress of training?
The good news is that MD-PhD programs come with a full tuition scholarship and a stipend. The bad news is that the stipend is designed to be livable for one person. Add children to the mix and things go haywire pretty fast. My husband and I live a very frugal lifestyle and are therefore able to save a decent portion of our stipend. We know we will not be buying a house for quite a few years, as we need to be mobile for residency.
I think it is important for every couple to be aware of what it really costs to live. When I started graduate school I thought my stipend was huge simply because it was the greatest sum of money I had ever had before. I had also never lived away from my parents and never had to deal with budgets and rent and food bills before. I quickly learned just how much living can cost. Having this experience before I was married was crucial. And for those who are wondering, no I do not think it counts if you are living on your own but Mommy and Daddy are paying your bills. It is very different to see a bill that someone else is paying and to see a bill and know exactly what percent of your salary is going towards it. Our parent’s work very hard for the nice things they have, It is unrealistic for a young couple to expect to live on the same standard while they are still starting out.
It is very common for people to struggle. Just keep doing your best, live frugally and make a plan. We refuse to live by anyone else's standards and that has made all the difference. People tell me I need to have cleaning help. Well, I think I am more qualified to say what I need and what I don’t. And what I need is to put that money towards savings. You might be different. You may have serious allergies that make you unable to vacuum. Don’t let anyone bully you into spending what you don’t want to or more than you have.
Are things turning out the way you planned or are they different? Is your career different than what you expected when you chose it?
I could never have guessed that I would meet my husband, that my father would get sick or the lab that I would join. But that’s life. You have to roll with it.
Do you have any advice for students aspiring to be where you are?
Do not do things just because you think they will help you get into medical school. Admissions committees want you to do things you are interested in and can show passion about.
For those considering the MD-PhD make sure to get lots of research experience as it will help you know if this is really for you. Read over the financial offers from different schools carefully as they are not all the same. And do not do this for the free tuition and stipend. It is not worth it.
Chose a lab that is family friendly and will support you. Make sure your boss is approachable and looks out for his or her students.
If you could do this over again would you? Is there anything you would change?
I would do it again. I would probably get more lab experience in undergrad. I would also save more in undergrad. And I would try harder to appreciate each and every day, because when you see some of the patients I work with, you realize how important that is.
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