The Harvard M.D./Ph.D. program will offer a social sciences track to complement its program in the biomedical sciences, Harvard Medical School (HMS) announced earlier this month.
The track will allow students to combine fields including anthropology, health policy, government, and psychology with clinical medicine. It will also offer a prime resource for students interested in such areas as health population studies.
In the new track, students typically will spend two years studying medicine before completing four to five years of doctoral research at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). Students then will return to HMS to finish their degrees.
According to Kass Professor of the History of Medicine and chair of the History of Science Department Allan M. Brandt, who will direct the program, the new track aims to “create a community of future leaders” by engaging students across disciplinary lines.
Brandt added that the new track gives students more sustained contact with mentors. Students will attend regular meetings with professionals to address emerging questions in their particular fields of interest.
In addition, according to Brandt, they will have greater opportunities to receive funding for independent research projects.
“The importance of the social sciences to medicine is increasing in the public field,” said Linda Burnley, director of administration and finance for the M.D./Ph.D. program. Burnley cited a 2004 Institute of Medicine study, which stated expressly that physicians need to have more experience with the social sciences.
In addition, Burnley noted the success of former Harvard students in securing prestigious MacArthur Foundation grants as further justification for the track’s creation. In the past, the MacArthur Foundation has funded multiple researchers with joint M.D./Ph.D. and social science degrees from Harvard, including Professor of Medical Anthropology Paul Farmer, who received a joint M.D./Ph.D. degree from Harvard in 1990.
While HMS students have studied at GSAS since the 1980s, there has been no formal structure for students oriented towards careers that combine medicine and the social sciences, according to Brandt.
“The M.D./Ph.D. program has always well-served the needs of M.D./Ph.D.s working in the basic biological sciences, but it has fit poorly within the needs of M.D./Ph.D. students in the social sciences,” Brandt said.
Currently 10 to 12 students work toward medical and GSAS degrees simultaneously. Although students have been able to pursue medical studies in depth with Harvard faculty, they have had to construct their plans of study in an “ad-hoc” manner, according to Brandt.
Erica Seiguer, a sixth year M.D./Ph.D. student studying economics in the Health Policy doctoral program, said that she had long hoped for an official track and that she is “very pleased” that the new track has been formally established.
“I think it will do a great deal to attract students who are interested in becoming physician-researchers, and will provide students in the program with a core group of classmates with similar interests [who are] facing similar challenges,” Seiguer said.
Administrators began discussing plans for a social sciences track a few years ago.
University President Lawrence H, Summers expressed a desire to support an M.D./Ph.D. program in the social sciences in a fall 2003 meeting with Joseph B. Martin, dean of HMS, and Nancy Andrews, dean for basic sciences and graduate studies at HMS. In the winter of 2004, a faculty committee convened to begin constructing the social sciences track, according to Burnley.
“Consensus on the need for funding this type of training was unanimous; however, working out the details of formalizing aspects of selection criteria and the admission process tied to both the medical and graduate school took more careful consideration,” Burnley wrote in an e-mail.
The new track will make Harvard “a real center for research in social sciences relevant to medicine,” according to Brandt. Similar social science tracks are currently in place at the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins University, among other medical schools.
“The formal establishment of the track will also raise the profile of the program here at Harvard and add to the intellectual community,” Seiguer said.