There is clearly a need in modern medicine for clinical researchers. MD/PhD programs are designed to give students a medical education as well as training in scientific research. Most of these programs offer full stipends and tuition allowances. Application is competitive as the number of positions available is somewhat small (there are about 1,000 MD/PhD trainees in the US, compared to about 65,000 medical students).
MD/PhD students typically complete the first two years of medical school with the regular medical students. Some time during this period, the MD/PhD students also complete rotations in 1-3 research laboratories in an effort to choose an area in which to do PhD work; often the first rotation can be done during the summer before starting medical school. After completing basic medical course requirements, students choose a research laboratory and begin work on a Ph.D. thesis; occasionally additional course work is also required. This portion of the degree normally takes 3 or 4 years. Finally, the student would participate in clinical rotations, just as other medical student do, in order to complete their medical curriculum.
Research experience is essential for potential applicants. Most successful applicants have had at least one summer of research, and often two or three summer research experiences. The topic of the undergraduate research experience is not as important as one might think. The important consideration is that you have enjoyed research in an area that genuinely interests you, whether it is studying the mating behavior of dragonflies or development of polymerization catalysts. Admissions officers will be able to assess your potential for medical research based on your performance in other research areas.
Applicants to MD/PhD programs need to take the MCAT and complete an AMCAS application, just like other MD applicants. In addition, applicants usually must fill out an additional application for the MD/PhD program at each school. The general GRE is usually not required but is often recommended.
A number of MD/PhD programs are directly supported by the National Institutes of Health, which has an interest in training future medical researchers. There are about 30 NIH-funded Medical Science Training Programs at institutions across the US. In addition, a number of other schools have similar MD/PhD programs of their own.