MD-PhD in Health Economics Admissions – Coursework

This is a continuation of my series on joint degrees in medicine and social sciences, in response to the frequent asked questions I receive from undergraduates.

The coursework requirements to be eligible for a joint program are substantial. The MD and the PhD each have their own set of pre-requisites. And unlike standard MD-PhD programs, there is essentially no overlap between the two sets of courses. For medical school, the pre-requisites are highly official and easy to find information about. For PhDs, the pre-requisites are equally binding, but often not laid out as explicitly.

Required Pre-Med Coursework: You can find information about pre-med requirements in many locations, but to quickly summarize:

  • 1 year of Biology
  • 1 year of General Chemistry
  • 1 year of Organic Chemistry
  • 1 year of Physics
  • 1 semester of Biochemistry
  • 1 year of English
  • Some combinations of basic, univariate calculus and/or non-calculus-based statistics

Bonus Pre-Med Coursework: Additional upper-level biology courses. Medical school classes (e.g. histology).

The only classes here that (sort of) prepares one for a PhD are the calculus and statistics. However, the PhD preparation requires much more advanced calculus and statistics.

Required Pre-PhD Coursework: I will speak to requirements for programs in Health Economics, Public Policy, Health Services Research and other related fields. These requirements are just as firm as the pre-med requirements, but less official, as PhD programs do not have a central governing body (like the AAMC for MD programs) to issue explicit rules.

  • Multivariate calculus (1 course)
  • Linear Algebra (1 course)
  • Econometrics (1+ courses)
  • Statistics and Probability Theory (Calculus based, ideally)
  • Intermediate undergraduate level economics

Helpful (but not strictly required) pre-PhD Coursework: These courses will strengthen a student’s PhD application and prepare the student for graduate school

  • Real Analysis: This course is essentially a requirement for admissions to a straight Economics program. Public Policy schools’ value it highly but it is not a strict requirement. I suspect health services programs value it but do not require it.
  • Additional math at the advanced undergraduate level, e.g. differential equations.
  • Additional statistics courses, at the advanced undergraduate level or master’s level.
  • Economics major.
  • PhD level Econometrics coursework.
  • PhD level Economics Coursework.

These courses will help in both being prepared for a PhD and in being admitted to a PhD.

Useful (but not evaluated) Coursework: The following coursework have proved invaluable to me as a PhD student. However, they are not hard or even soft requirements for admissions.

  • 1 year of introductory programming/computer science.

PhD classes expect you to perform statistical programming. All empirical research requires substantial programming. Programming is a core part of the work I do day-to-day. Yet for some bizarre reason, programming coursework is not required of incoming students or officially taught to current students.

I highly recommend taking a programming course in undergrad, if possible. If not, I recommended taking one in the very first elective spot available in your PhD coursework.

  • Academic and Professional Writing.

Writing effectively is a critical part of being an effective academic. Read any paper from a well-known academic and chances are that it is beautifully written. I don’t mean beautiful as in florid metaphors or oblique symbolism. I mean the writing is impeccably crafted: precise, succinct, and extremely well-organized. There are no extra words or redundant sentences. The paper is quick and easy to read, despite containing complex concepts. It takes you on a journey, and makes you think there was a clear path from point A to evidence B to conclusion C.

Yet for some reason, PhD programs typically don’t have courses on effective academic writing. I took a course on academic and professional writing as a senior in college. I use the principles I learned in that class every time I write something academic.