MD/PhD Training

ISB is associated with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Medical Scientist (M.D./Ph.D.) training program. The emphasis of our core Approaches course on the molecular basis of disease, and the disease-based research of our faculty make ISB an ideal program for those seeking an M.D./Ph.D. degree. 

Key features of the ISB curriculum include:

  • Innovative Approaches in Molecular Biology course that skips the basics and explores how cross-disciplinary approaches can be used to understand complex disease processes such as cancer, heart disease, and viral infections.
  • An accelerated path to dissertation topic selection and completing Ph.D. requirements
  • Cross-disciplinary coursework and research opportunities
  • Selection of advanced study electives in a personalized training experience
  • Cutting edge, mentored research
  • A low student-to-faculty ratio, which promotes personal contact and fosters individual scientific mentoring
  • Careful guidance to ensure that a complete repertoire of scientific skills is acquired for a seamless transition to independent physician-scientist status.

Required Course Work and Training

The chart above describes the ISB requirements for M.D./Ph.D. students and gives a general time line for how these requirements can be satisfied. While all students must take a minimum of 32 credit hours of course work, M.D./Ph.D. students receive 16 credit hours for their classes in medical school.

Scientific Ethics: Training in Ethics, including Course in Ethics (1 credit) - Summer Term

Successful science rests on a foundation of ethical conduct. Given the competitive nature of access to positions, resources and materials, and the commensurate demand for high productivity, students may one day find themselves in a situation where a violation of ethical conduct may occur. Thus, instruction in the responsible conduct of research is an essential part of doctoral training. This instruction will be accomplished using the following experiences:

  • Upon entry into the program, students will be provided copies of the Guidelines on Academic Integrity and the Research Integrity Policy.
  • Students will be required to take Scientific Ethics (INTBP 2290), a one-credit course introducing the basic ethical issues that arise when conducting research. A key part of the course is to provide the students the tools for ethical reasoning.
  • The students must complete the University-mandated Education and Certification Program in Research Practice Fundamentals, a web-based course presenting required of all faculty, staff and students.
  • All students will be strongly encouraged to participate in the Survival Skills and Ethics Workshops directed by Drs. Michael Zigmond and Beth Fischer at the University of Pittsburgh.

Laboratory Rotations (9 credits total) - Summer or Fall Term

M.D./ Ph.D. students perform their rotations during the summers preceding the first two years of medical school and an additional rotation in the Summer prior to their first year of graduate school. Where possible these students are encouraged to to distribute the rotations between the Department of Biological Sciences and the School of Medicine. At the end of the third rotation students are expected to choose a dissertation advisor with whom they will complete their dissertation research. If necessary, students can perform one additional rotation to identify a dissertation advisor.

Approaches Course (5 credits total) - Fall Term

All students are required to take a common one-term, 5-credit hour, course in Approaches in Molecular Biology. The semester-long Approaches in Molecular Biology course is divided into three separate modules and meets three times a week. Each week there are two 1.5-hour lectures and a 2-hour discussion section at which one or more papers from the primary literature are analyzed. Although each module is distinguished by its focus on the molecular basis of a human disease, we will use the disease paradigm as means to explore questions of fundamental significance in the field of modern molecular biology. The titles of the three modules are: Cancer: Regulation and Mis-Regulation of Cell Growth and Control; Heart Disease: Molecular and Cellular Foundations, and Viral Diseases: Life Cycle and Evolution of Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Viruses. The course will be taught by members of the ISB faculty with expertise in each area and will emphasize the use, design, and interpretation of diverse and cross-disciplinary experimental approaches used in modern biomedical research.

Program Research Seminar (1 credit each Term) - Fall & Spring Terms

Students attend a conference every other week during each Fall and Spring terms of training. Students discuss their current research projects and receive feedback.

ISB Journal Club (1 credit per Term) - Fall & Spring Terms

Students attend the ISB journal club every other week and present, in a summary form, new research relevant to modern-day molecular biology. Students are required to enroll in journal club each Fall and Spring Terms.

Advanced Courses/Electives (6 credit hours)

Beginning in the Spring Term students select from a menu of advanced lecture and seminar courses currently offered by several schools including the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine. At least one advanced course of 2-credit hours or more should be taken during the Spring Term. The other credits can be taken in subsequent terms. The course selections will be left to the discretion of the student with guidance from the dissertation advisor. However, to benefit from the scientific breadth of the program, students shall be required to select courses in more than one of the following disciplines: molecular genetics, biochemistry, cell biology, and developmental biology.

Biostatistics Course (3 credits) - Summer Term

Students are required to have proficiency in statistical analysis and methods. Students with significant prior course work can satisfy this requirement by taking a "placement exam". Other students are required to complete BIOST 2041, Introduction to Statistical Methods, or an equivalent course.

Annual Evaluations

At the end of the first year, students will be evaluated by the Academic Affairs Committee on the following criteria:

  • Satisfactory completion of three laboratory rotations
  • Ability to identify a mentor for doctoral training and performance in the mentor's laboratory
  • Overall performance in core and seminar courses
  • Maintenance of a grade point average of 3.0 or greater

At the end of each subsequent year students will be evaluated by the Academic Affairs Committee in the following areas:

  • Academic performance
  • Progress towards completion of required coursework
  • Participation in required program activities
  • Research performance (this will be largely based upon a written evaluation provided by the dissertation advisor)
  • Completion of dissertation committee meetings as prescribed by the program
  • A student self-appraisal

Comprehensive Examination and Submission of Grant Proposal

At the end of the first year and no later than the beginning of the Fall Term of the second year, students will take the comprehensive examination. The specific goals of the comprehensive examination are to test the student's ability to:

  • Independently evaluate and critique a body of literature
  • Integrate the acquired information into broad conceptual schemes
  • Develop testable hypotheses
  • Devise experimental approaches to test the hypotheses
  • Demonstrate the communication skills required to present and defend scientific ideas in oral and written formats

The examination will require completion of a research proposal in grant format (10-15 pages in length). The topic of the proposal is expected to overlap with the student's research interests and dissertation goals and must be original in concept and scholarly in execution. A completed fellowship application will be distilled from the proposal and submitted to an appropriate funding agency during the second year of study. The proposal will be orally defended before a Comprehensive Examination Committee comprised of three members of the training faculty.

Dissertation Advisory Committee and Directed Study

Upon completion of the comprehensive exam, students must form a Dissertation Advisory Committee, and complete 40 credit hours of Ph.D. Dissertation Research credits to graduate from the Program.

The Dissertation Advisory Committee shall contain five members: the mentor, three faculty members from within the Program, and one faculty member from outside the Program. The Dissertation Advisory Committee will provide mentorship and guidance while critically evaluating the progress of the dissertation project. To accomplish this objective, a student will be required to meet regularly (preferrably twice a year, but at least once a year) with their Dissertation Advisory Committee.

Postdoctoral Career Guidance

A goal of the program is to train students to become leaders in academic and biomedical research. In their third year, students will submit a career development plan to their Dissertation Advisory Committee, detailing their goals for obtaining a postdoctoral position. The Dissertation Advisory Committee will guide the students in identifying, applying for, and securing top postdoctoral positions. Students will also be given the opportunity to participate in numerous career-development workshops already established at the University including the Survival Skills and Ethics Workshop. Read more about ISB's career planning initiatives.