Navigating the Sea of Opportunity: Selecting Dual Degrees in Medicine

Students entering the wonderful world of medicine are faced with a multitude of incredible opportunities and options. One of these opportunities is additional education. In discussion with colleagues from around the country, it appears the popularity of dual degree programs is rapidly increasing in the medical field.

In a sea of dual degree options, it can be difficult to navigate and anticipate the best option for each individual. This important decision is personal and presents many unique pros and cons that are different for each person. In discussions with multiple students, attending physicians, mentors, and medical leaders, I have gained insight into common questions surrounding this important topic, in particular, opportunity cost, value, ideal timing, and career opportunities.

There is an opportunity cost in everything we do yet there is no specific and validated formula to calculate life opportunity cost. In short, opportunity cost can be viewed as what someone sacrifices divided by what someone gains. When I was deciding on pursuing a dual degree, I was told that I should project how much money I would make the last year in my career and that figure would tell me my opportunity cost per year while pursuing a second degree. 

I disagreed with this since I believe opportunity cost is not strictly a monetary value — it is more dynamic. There are other forms of value in opportunity including time, satisfaction, intellectual worth, and generating additional career opportunities to name a few. It is important to consider all forms of opportunity cost that are involved in spending an additional 1-5 years pursuing additional education and training. The concept of truly understanding opportunity cost will also aid in decision-making regarding medical specialty selection, career positions, financial investments, and personal decisions.

The idea of value is subjective of course. My mentor in medical school holds MD, PhD, MPH, and MBA degrees and completed two competitive residencies. When discussing my possible options for a second degree, our conversation was mainly focused on value. Like opportunity cost, the value of a life decision is not strictly monetary based. Generally, obtaining a second degree in combination with a medical degree provides great personal and professional value. There are several (and increasing) options for second degrees for medical student and medical professionals, but according to an article published by The Princeton Review, the more popular dual degrees include MBA, PhD, MPH, and JD. However, people pursuing dual degrees have diversified into academic sectors such as health policy, bioengineering, ethics, population health, occupational health, and global health.  

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer, but it is important to find a degree that adds value to a medical degree and aligns with long-term goals. If an individual does not have a specific plan to use an additional degree to augment individual and professional value, one may reconsider the timing or general pursuit of a second degree.

The question about ideal timing varies drastically. However, possible options can be broken down into four main categories: before medical school, during medical school, before residency, and after residency.  Pursuing a graduate degree before medical school is usually seen in people who became interested in medicine later in education or early career. If the degree is commonly known to be challenging or used in a unique or effective way, it can be a benefit for admission into medical school and, if maintained, may also advance one’s career.  

Pursuing a second degree during medical school primarily happens between the second and third years. Although this timing may vary, the gap provides a transition from basic science learning to clinical rotations and application. A dual degree in a specific medical field including PhD, public health, and bioengineering has many benefits in being pursued during medical school including networking, research, and intellectual application.  

In my experience, pursuing a dual degree after medical school and before residency seems to be less common and may provide similar benefits as previously noted. However, there are certain risks that need to be considered. Having spoken to multiple program directors from around the country in multiple specialties, I have noticed a common potential concern regarding a residency applicant who takes a leave of absence after medical school to pursue a dual degree. Programs are looking for candidates who are reliable and will not create a situation of uncertainty.  Therefore, if one pursues an additional degree between medical school and residency, it is vital to take advantage of that time to demonstrate the benefit of personal development — becoming a better asset to a residency program and a better physician in the long run.  

The last option is pursuing a dual degree after training is complete. There are multiple pros and cons of pursuing a second degree during any stage of a medical career, so it becomes important to delineate and project the best time to pursue this during a long career. Usually, individuals who pursue a second degree while working full-time in their careers are laser-focused on their goal toward obtaining additional education. Traditionally, medical professionals that pursue an MBA, for example, wait until a point in their careers where additional training in business will launch them into leadership and administration opportunities.                                                   

Ultimately, the decision to pursue a dual degree should center around the goal to improve self, others, community, and patients. During the decision-making process itself, it is extremely important to consider all options in a thorough and forward-thinking manner. With no previous interest or experience in engineering, my primary goal was to learn how to identify clinical problems and develop effective, affordable, and innovative solutions. Through the help of multiple mentors, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in bioengineering during medical school. This decision has opened many doors that I didn’t even know existed.      

The decision to pursue a dual degree is multifactorial and extremely difficult and personal. Albert Einstein said it best: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

Tyson Schwab, MD, MS is a clinician at Intermountain Healthcare. He practices at Utah Valley Hospital as part of the Utah Valley Family Medicine Residency Program. His medical interests includes primary care, innovation, technology, health policy, and improving medical quality.

Dr. Schwab is a 2019-2020 Doximity Fellow.

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