MD/PhD Students: How to Transition from Research to Clinical Rotations

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • So you’re nearing the end of your graduate work. You’ve published (or nearly published) your research. You’ve attended conferences, presented posters, and blazed through committee meetings. You are an expert in your field. With your defense on the horizon, you’ve started to consider the next phase of training: transitioning to clinical clerkships.

    Of all transitions in MD/PhD programs, the transition from research to clinical work gives students the most anxiety. Worries about re-learning information forgotten during research training, competing with medical students fresh from taking a board exam, and finding support with new peer groups are all valid concerns that many (if not all) MD/PhD students face when nearing this transition point.

    While simply biting the bullet and jumping into clinical rotations may work for some, taking time prior to the transition to prepare yourself can ease much of the anxiety and create a much smoother return to clinical duties.

    Here are 5 tips to help MD/PhD students prepare for clinical rotations upon return from graduate work:


    1. Create a plan with your Primary Investigator (PI).

    In an ideal world, all your research is wrapped up nicely by the time you defend your dissertation. In reality, that is not the case for many students. Manuscripts are still being submitted, reviews are still coming in, and experiments may still be required.

    Because it can be challenging to balance completing research tasks while succeeding clinically, it is important to create an explicit plan and set expectations with your PI as you transition out of the lab.

    When do you anticipate having time to complete rewrites?

    Will you need assistance from other lab members completing experiments?

    Will you need to ask for extensions from journals?

    Make sure to consider using flexible elective time, as well as intensity of rotations (inpatient and surgical rotations versus outpatient rotations) when making commitments. Creating a plan and communicating openly with your PI will allow you to focus on your clinical duties while still ensuring you can get peer-reviewed recognition for your research achievements.

    2. Refresh your skills.

    Take time in the final few months or weeks before your research defense to refresh your clinical skills. Complete a clinical skills refresher course at your program, join first or second year students learning physical diagnosis, ask a mentor to attend a few of their clinics, or even practice with a fellow MD/PhD student.

    These activities can also serve as a great way to break up the time spent writing your dissertation, helping you stay focused longer.

    Simple things like practicing taking a history, listening to heart sounds with a stethoscope, or testing reflexes on a friend can give you a boost of confidence walking into the hospital or clinic on your first day.

    3. Prepare your resources.

    Chances are, it has been three or more years since you completed a multiple-choice exam, used flashcards, studied a Sketchy drawing, or read a review textbook.

    Because learning in the lab as a graduate student and learning on the wards as a medical student are very different experiences, you’ll likely need to reframe how you study and learn to be successful clinically.

    To ease that transition, it is helpful to begin familiarizing yourself with resources commonly used by clerkship students to prepare for the wards and exams. Additionally, dusting off any old resources from your pre-clinical years can jumpstart your mind to transition back to that style of learning.

    4. Connect with your peers.

    As you’ve likely been in lab for three or more years, all your medical school classmates have graduated, matched, and are off to their next stage of training. Because the support of other students can be extremely helpful during clinical years, it is important to connect with some of your new classmates.

    Get on the class email listserv, attend clubs and events, and rejoin specialty interest groups. It can be challenging to make some new friends, but in most cases, it is worth the effort. Having a few familiar faces on your first day can help alleviate some anxiety. And it always helps to have a buddy to rant with after a tough day on the wards.

    5. Relax!

    Most importantly, relax! Regardless of the preparation you do before the transition, most MD/PhD students are able to adapt to clerkship life within a few weeks of starting clinical work full-time and are highly competitive with their peers. These tips are simply to help you hit the ground running.

    The academic adversity that most MD/PhD students face completing a dissertation make you well prepared to face all the challenges of medical clerkships and continue to be successful through the remainder of your training.


    If you are still feeling anxious about starting your clinical rotations, see our rotations survival guide blog post.