Medical Scientist Training Program (MST)

The Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) is a multidisciplinary program in medicine and biomedical research.  Its mission is to provide students with the breadth and depth of training necessary to excel as academic physicians. The curriculum combines classroom and clinical training in the UCSD School of Medicine  with research in a Graduate Department. 

Flexibility is a hallmark of the UCSD MSTP, and each student’s program is individualized.  By its nature, medical school education is quite broad, encompassing subjects from biochemistry to cultural anthropology. In contrast, graduate education provides a narrower focus and greater depth, both in terms of exposure to current thinking in a specific discipline and in the development and execution of a doctoral thesis problem. Since 1974, continuous funding by the National Institutes of Health has enabled the training of physician-scientists who, because of their multi-faceted and rigorous education, are equipped biomedical investigators.  The Program culminates with the award of both medical (MD) and graduate (PhD) degrees, signifying skills in each of the three domains of an academic physician: research, teaching, and clinical care.

Diverse Training for a Diverse Student Population

Trainees enter the UCSD MSTP with a diverse range of academic backgrounds and life experiences.  Currently there are 75 students.  The Program is committed to recruiting a diverse student body.  Out-of-state applicants are considered on an equal basis as in-state residents.  Approximately 8-10 entering students join the Program each year, including underrepresented minorites, disabled, and economically disadvantaged trainess. All trainees receive full support for stipend, tuition, and health insurance during all years of the Program. Students generally complete both MD and PhD degrees in about eight years.  Multiple career paths are available to graduates, but 90 percent will obtain further training in one of the specialty areas of medicine.  Our graduates uniformly achieve their first or second choice residency.  Over the last 12 years, approximately 90 percent of graduates have subsequently accepted positions in academic health centers.

A Rich Research Environment

UCSD, located in La Jolla, California, is a campus of unusual strength in the biological sciences.  The UCSD School of Medicine, the contiguous UCSD general campus, and adjacent research institutions (the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Scripps Research Institute, the Burnham Institute) are all readily accessible to interested students. Clinical training and research opportunities are available in many different hospitals including UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest, UC San Diego Jacobs Medical Center, Veterans Administration, Rady Children’s, Naval Medical Center, Scripps Green Hospital, and Scripps Mercy Hospital. The San Diego area is home to one of the largest biotech industries in the world.  San Diego is a particularly fertile location for the Medical Scientist Training Program because of these extensive resources in  basic science, clinical and translational research, and medical practice.


The curriculum of the UC San Diego MSTP integrates research training with medical education.  The chart below outlines the SOM and Grad Program Curriculum of the MSTP.  Most trainees earn both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees in about eight years.

Graduate Programs

The La Jolla biomedical community is home to a cadre of talented and innovative researchers who investigate a spectrum of topics, ranging from mechanisms of signal transduction to phenomena such as phantom limb pain.  Trainees have the option to rotate through labs either on or off campus at one of the several affiliated research institutes.  The variety and quality of the science in the San Diego area provide opportunities for collaborative and interdisciplinary research.  Moreover, the proximity of the UC San Diego hospital system speeds the bench-to-beside translation of research discoveries. Students in the MSTP can select from the following PhD graduate programs:


The MSTP provides multiple opportunities for advice from students and faculty.  Trainees interact with other students, MSTP faculty advisors, the MSTP Director and Associate Directors, and the MSTP advisory committee. Venues where the majority of advising takes place are social hours, semi-monthly evening seminars, and annual retreats.  This plethora of sources for advice enables individualized assistance for each trainee in planning the course of study.

Sib Trees – A Unique Peer Advising Program

Some of the most valuable advisory resources are older trainees, who have completed coursework, selected a lab, published a thesis, and returned to clinical training.  Peer advising is aided by assignment of a “big sibling” from the preceding class who is matched to each incoming student.  “Sib Trees”, that include students from all years in the MSTP, provide advice, support and on-going mentoring through Sib Tree dinners and other interactions.

Career & Research Mentoring

Discussion of career paths and research takes place at evening seminars, open only to program trainees.  MSTP trainees and faculty members share dinner and discuss research opportunities and career choices.  In the second hour of the seminar, the faculty member gives a research presentation.  MSTP seminars also serve as practice sessions for trainees soon defending their theses.  There are many UCSD faculty with MD and PhD degrees available for mentoring.

New Student Retreat

There is an annual MSTP retreat held in August to assimilate incoming trainees into the Program and their Sib Trees.  The retreat’s agenda consists of scientific and career presentations and discussions about program issues.  However, the main focus is to promote bonding between trainees in different phases of the program.

Leadership Support

The Program Director, Dr. Paul Insel, and Co-Associate Directors, Dr. Chris Glass, Dr. Lori Wan and Dr. Neil Chi, are easily accessible to trainees. They hold annual luncheons with each class, providing an opportunity to discuss Program issues. The Program administrator, Mary Alice Kiisel , is always available to answer questions or “lend an ear”.

Becoming a Scientist

While medical education is broad and diffuse, graduate education is narrow and focused. This concentration consists largely of intensive work in a research laboratory. The choice of research focus and department, exploring labs and meeting principal investigators, can be at once frightening and exciting. Our MSTP uses multiple approaches to aid trainees in making optimal choices for thesis labs and advisors at UCSD or affiliated institutions.

Faculty Rotations

Trainees utilize School of Medicine elective time to do lab or “reading” rotations with faculty. In these rotations, trainees evaluate prospective lab mentors and earn medical school elective credit. These rotations usually count toward Graduate Programs’ requirements. The best times to accomplish rotations through research laboratories are summers prior to School of Medicine year one coursework and between years one and two. Two rotations, each lasting  about 5 weeks, can be done in a summer. Trainees are encouraged to arrive the summer before School of Medicine classes begin to do rotations in one or more laboratories. Some trainees also do rotations during the academic year.

Thesis Selection

Trainees generally select a thesis lab before joining a Graduate Program. MSTP trainees are accepted, in principle, into any of the major Graduate Programs, even though they formally apply to such Programs in the middle of School of Medicine year two.  Lab dynamics are important in choosing a lab.  The size of the lab, level of technical support, organization, and general feel of the lab are all factors to consider. Some feel that an interesting scientific problem is the most important factor in deciding in a lab. However, a good Principal Investigator may be able to design a variety of interesting projects and a good lab environment can facilitate rapid progress on a thesis project.

Program Prerequisities

Each Graduate Program has several requirements. These include lab rotations (usually three) and completion of certain courses. In certain Graduate Programs, there is an expedited curriculum (e.g., entry as a second-year trainee, some classes are waived, and leniency with respect to TA requirements). Advancement to candidacy generally occurs in two to three years, with the PhD work completed on average in four years or less.

Community Involvement


Outreach to Under Represented Students

We encourage applications from students from groups under-represented in medicine.  MSTP faculty and trainees visit and interact with prospective applicants at schools that have substantial numbers of URM students.  We have contacts with Premed Advisors at UC Riverside, UC Los Angeles, UC Santa Cruz, Universities of New Mexico and Arizona, California State University at San Diego, Chico, Sonoma, San Francisco, San José, Fresno, Fullerton, Dominguez Hills, and Long Beach–all schools with substantial numbers of URM students.

MSTP representatives (students, faculty and staff) attend activities that are geared toward URM participation, including Minority Recruitment Fairs, SACNAS, the Medical and Allied Health Careers Conference, The California Forum for Diversity in Graduate Education, the Minority Trainee Research Forum and the National Minority Research Symposium, and the ABRCMS recruitment conference.  Dr. Insel has made presentations to the URM-oriented Health Professions Program at UCSD and several MSTP students participate in conferences targeted to URM students.  We have learned it is important for student “recruiters” to stay in contact with possible applicants and invite them for visits to UCSD. Such contacts have led to applications (and in some cases, ultimately matriculation) in our MSTP by applicants from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.

Outreach to High School Students

We also work with other UCSD outreach and grad programs, including the Preuss School, a charter school located adjacent to the UCSD campus.  The UCSD SOM Hispanic Center of Excellence (HCOE) supports the development of scientific knowledge and research skills of Hispanic students so as to increase the number of Hispanic health professionals and faculty in health profession schools; HCOE medical students have research experiences that include research as well as presentations of research papers.

Program Funding

The UCSD MSTP is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) / National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) and other UCSD funds. Trainees receive full fee support as well as a competitive annual stipend during their medical school training.  Non-residents are expected to fulfill requirements to become a California resident in order to qualify for resident fees by the second year of medical school.  This will require a petition to become a California resident through the UCSD Registrar 4-6 weeks before the Fall term of the second year begins.  Information on establishing residency can be found by following this link.

The Graduate Program and/or thesis advisor are the primary source of funding during the graduate years. However, MSTP trainees are strongly encouraged to apply for private and public grants during the graduate years.  Please see the list of Predoctoral Funding Opportunities, as well as the list of Funding Sponsors provided by the UCSD OCGA (Office of Contract and Grant Administration).

Please note: The UCSD SOM does not withhold taxes; all students should make quarterly payments to avoid penalties.  Use forms (F1040ES/540ES) to file Federal and CA State Quarterly Estimated Tax Payments.  For more detailed information, please use these links: and  For instructions on accessing your 1098-T, please go to this website:

There are other fringe benefits to being in the MSTP. The Program encourages and provides funding for trainee travel to scientific meetings and conferences. Trainees who will be presenting research results are given top priority for travel funds. Trainees also receive journal subscriptions and library copy cards, as well as health insurance, payments for licensing exams and graduate application fees.

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