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Nov. 05, 2010

Medical Anthropology — Dana Starts the PhD of her MD, PhD

by Linda Brodsky

“Doctor”→ someone who cares for you when you are sick.

Lots of others have the title of “doctor”. They have PhDs, AudDs, PsyDs and other “Ds”, doctorates which indicate they have obtained the highest of the advanced degrees. Literally, the ultimate pursuit of wisdom through acquisition of in-depth knowledge.

Medical doctors (MDs) sometimes also obtain PhDs, usually in biology, chemistry, physics, and biomedical engineering, to name a few. Those who do might be planning a career in research; others might want to have a deeper knowledge of one of the medical sciences. They want to know, they want to learn.

Dana’s PhD is in medical anthropology. Never heard of it? Neither had I until Dana found one of her several passions. It all started in college, at Barnard, when she took an anthropology course. She loved it. And she also loved biology. And she wanted to become a medical doctor. And she found a way to do it all.

She is becoming a medical anthropologist. She will study and advance the knowledge of the many ways in which “culture and society are organized around or impacted by issues of health, health care, and related issues.”
Sounds complicated? It is. It requires the reconciliation of the science of medicine with the culture and society in which people experience their medical problems. This intersection takes a very special personality—one who can think in the scientific world at once with the social/cultural world. Go Dana!

So now, after her first 2 years of medical school, heavily immersed in science, she has started her 4-5 year “graduate” program in anthropology. It is joint program that is jointly degreed between UCSF and UC Berkley. Switching gears from the enormous amount of memorization of facts of disease, she now reads and digests theories in the thousands of pages of the highly analytic subject matter needed to gain the “wisdom” that will eventually bring her the degree of PhD.

At first a fish out of water, she is now happily ensconced in the rhythms and thought processes of graduate school. She left the second year of medical school, after exciting times in surgery, otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) and dermatology with some regret. But now she has re-discovered her love for the study of anthropology. And now she has some idea on how it will fit into the medical world she tasted, albeit briefly.

How long does it take to get a PhD? That depends on the subject and the school. But for Dana, at UCSF/Berkley, 2 years of course work, one year of field work and then 1-2 years writing her thesis.
Self-direction in graduate school has been replaced by the highly directed “what do I need to learn” of medical school. She has already started thinking about and planning the project for her dissertation—that piece of work that is specifically and uniquely hers. She will bring new knowledge and ideas to medical anthropology.

In “the field” she immerses herself in a culture and observes, reports, analyzes and gains knowledge. The “field” can be found in her own backyard or a far-away place half-way around the world. Health and healthcare knows no geographic boundaries.

Dana will then re-enter medical school and finish her clinical courses. Then off to 3 to 7 more years of residency training. It takes a long, long time.

So becoming an MD, PhD is not easy. When finished, Dana will become unique in the medical field. She will be able to lead in helping medical doctors, policy makers and healthcare advisors bring together the science and culture to deliver to us and the entire world, the best health and medical care.

About Linda Brodsky

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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