Craig E. Grossman, MD, PhD
"I want to be a doctor because I enjoy science, helping others and problem-solving," I said when I entered college as a biology major.
Flash forward to 1997, as I sat in a chair at SUNY Upstate Medical University, trying to justify why I should be offered a position in the MD/PhD program.
"I am interested in not only using current treatment modalities to eradicate disease as a practicing clinician, but also searching for the mechanisms for how and why the human body goes awry," I emphatically proclaimed.
When applying for residency, I knew that I wanted to apply my doctoral training to advance the fund of knowledge in Radiation Oncology, in the hope of it leading to enhancements in treatment modalities and patient outcomes. Now as a Post-Doctoral NIH Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, my career goals are a bit more specific: an academic clinician conducting translational research in the field of Radiation Oncology.
The long road through academia to my current position could never have been forecast. As I encounter new opportunities in my medical career, I am continuously reminded of its roots in the MD/PhD program at Upstate. Relative to other things in the program, the medical curriculum is fairly straightforward…studying hard gets you good USMLE board scores and honors in your classes! And these numerical measures of academic success can easily be applied to assess one's candidacy for a postgraduate position.
However, it's the PhD years that set you apart from the other "Mudfuds"! While your friends are graduating from medical school and you're still in the lab, trying to troubleshoot an unsuccessful experiment, you can't stop dreaming about writing your thesis in a timely fashion. Publication…no, graduation, is what one is thinking! But the old adage, "Father knows best" can be transcribed to "Mentor knows best!" Despite wondering if staying an additional year at the recommendation of my mentor, Dr. Andras Perl, so that I could publish a first-author paper (in my case multiple papers) rather than completing my thesis and moving on was really worth it, I now look back and realize that it was one of the best career decisions I could have made.
Although obtaining a medical degree from a large, well known academic institution is certainly helpful to advance your career, a well-published study is worth more. Dr. Perl always told me, "No one is ever going to ask you about your thesis. They’re going to look up to see what you’ve published!"
And so my Upstate mentor, Dr. Perl, was correct. He knew that "publish or peril" not only refers to faculty, but also to future physicians. The environment at Upstate is small enough where everyone knows one another, facilitating the spirit of collaboration. There is an abundance of resources, both intellectual and tangible, for one to be successful in the research years – if you have your heart in it and work hard! These days, I can look back on those years at Upstate with much joy and little regret. It gave me the framework to take my career in the direction of interest, and opened many doors that I may not have been able to walk through otherwise!
Becky Lewandowski started in the MD/PhD program at SUNY Upstate after earning a bachelor's degree from Colgate University and working as a researcher for the National Institutes of Health and at Harvard Medical School. She earned her PhD in 2008, and her MD in 2010.