Career Development Programs

While the education and training of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows prepares individuals to do research, the NIH recognized the need for programs that would help such individuals go on to establish strong and productive research careers. In the 1980s they initiated programs (the K awards) to facilitate the transition from trainee to research scientist and to give established scientists the opportunity to pursue new research directions. These programs had two goals: (1) to provide Ph.D. scientists with the advanced research training and additional experiences needed to become independent investigators, and (2) to provide holders of clinical degrees with the research training needed to conduct patient-oriented research.

Dual Degree Training

The Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) was established by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) in 1964 to fund research training leading to the M.D./Ph.D. degree in order to better bridge the gap between basic science and clinical research.. Graduates complete the dual degree in about 8 years. Composing only about 2.5 percent of medical school graduates, M.D./Ph.D.s annually receive about 33 percent of the NIH grants made to physician-scientists—attesting to their impressive level of research productivity. Indeed, by 2004 the number of first-time M.D./Ph.D. applicants for NIH R01 grants approximately equaled the number of M.D. first-time applicants even though the total populations of M.D.s and M.D./Ph.D.s are vastly different. In 2009, 10.5 percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty held dual degrees, and they made up 11.1 percent of the clinical department faculty and 8.7 percent in basic sciences department faculty.

The dual-degree program started in 1964 with three M.D./Ph.D. programs—at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Northwestern University, and New York University—with 66 trainees; by 2009 the program had grown to include more than 2,000 M.D./Ph.D. trainees at more than 75 institutions nationwide, supported by a complex mix of federal plus diverse institutional and extra-institutional funding sources. MSTP graduates receive training in a diverse set of fields, including not only the biological sciences but also the chemical and physical sciences, social and behavioral sciences, economics, epidemiology, public health, computer science, bioengineering, biostatistics, and bioethics.

Although the fact that the program is expensive has repeatedly led to concerns about whether it is justified in terms of the overall outcome, several reports suggest that the MSTP has delivered on its promise to create a strong workforce of physician scientists. In 1998 NIGMS published a matched sample study that compared individuals who completed a MSTP program with those who had an M.D., Ph.D., or M.D. /Ph.D. from a non-MSTP program and found that MSTP recipients were more likely both to publish and to apply for and receive grants from the NIH.1 Graduates from a non-MSTP dual-degree program were also found to be highly productive.

Most recently, a report by Brass et. al. has provided strong evidence for the success of this approach in supplying a dedicated and well trained cadre of clinician biomedical scientists.2 This report examined the graduates of 24 M.D./Ph.D. programs including 4 that were not receiving NIH MSTP support. Twenty of the programs were among the 42 receiving MSTP support. Their finding that 82 percent of the program graduates are doing research and have funding is consistent with that of the NIH study of MSTP graduates. An important observation was that program graduates pursue a broad range of research areas and that many are conducting translational and patient-oriented research as well as basic research. Already such individuals are making major contributions both in terms of new discoveries and also in infusing research strength into major clinical departments in medical schools across the country. By any criteria this program can now be judged a success. In Chapter 3 we recommend an expansion of the program and encourage that it be diversified to a degree into non-bench-oriented disciplines.

Minority Programs at the NIH

NIH has been active in the recruitment of underrepresented minorities into careers in research for nearly 40 years, working through a constellation of support mechanisms targeted at specific populations under the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program and the Minority Biological Research Support (MBRS) program.

Both the MARC and the MBRS programs are housed in NIGMS, which encourages cooperation with the other parts of the institute and regularly promotes MARC and the MBRS program activities through conferences and other events. In addition, there are special initiatives that promote training and career development for minorities, such as the Bridges to the Doctorate Program, which provides support to institutions to help students make the transition from master’s to Ph.D. programs. Minority graduate students working toward the Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. degree are also supported through the MARC program by F31 fellowship awards. The full range of minority programs for graduate students and post-doctorates housed in NIGMS and other institutes is described in detail in Chapters 4 and 5 of the 2003 National Research Council (NRC) report3 Assessment of NIH Minority Research and Training Programs, Phase 3.


National Institute of General Medical Sciences, 1998. Available at


Brass, L. F., M. H. Aabas, L. D. Burnley, D. M. Engman, C. A. Wiley, and O. S. Andersen. 2010. Are MD-PhD Programs Meeting Their Goals? An Analysis of Career Choices Made by Graduates of 24 MD-PhD Programs. Academic Medicine 85(4):692-701.


NRC. 2005. Assessment of NIH Minority Research and Training Programs, Phase 3. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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