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About Ethan Cottrill and Olive Tang

Ethan Cottrill is a fifth-year MD-PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. His PhD research is in biomedical engineering and centers on developing new bone graft substitute materials. Prior to medical school, Ethan completed a bachelor of science in chemistry from Ohio University and a master of science in education from Johns Hopkins University.

Olive Tang is a fifth-year MD-PhD student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her PhD research is in cardiovascular epidemiology with a focus on the use of biomarkers in risk stratification. Prior to medical school, Olive completed a bachelor of arts in molecular and cellular biology from Harvard University.


  • During your PhD training, actively seeking out opportunities to maintain your clinical skills is the best way to stay sharp and be ready for the transition back to medical school.

  • Keep in touch with the clinical world to stay aware of your unique position as a future physician-scientist, a bridge between the worlds of research and the bedside.

  • Clinical enrichment opportunities that you can do on your own include: reviewing the most high yield of your preclinical notes/resources, practicing your physical exam and interviewing skills, reading high-impact medical journals, and subscribing to medical news feeds.

  • Clinical enrichment opportunities that are available at your medical institution include: shadowing attending physicians; participating in elective clerkships; attending departmental grand rounds; engaging with your medical school’s student interest groups; participating in clinical research opportunities; and attending medical school/resident lectures, workshops, and skills-building sessions.

  • Clinical enrichment opportunities that are available outside of your medical institution include: attending professional conferences and professional society meetings.


For most students in an MD-PhD training program, the PhD training is sandwiched between MD training years. Despite this, the PhD training can feel relatively isolated from any clinical exposure. It is often a concern among students that they will become rusty on the clinical knowledge and skills acquired during the preclinical years of medical school. These include physical exam skills, interviewing techniques, and general medical knowledge outside the student’s specific graduate area of research. As the first years of medical school grow more distant with progression of the PhD, a student’s medical acumen may decline, making the transition back to medical school (a topic of Chapters 1822) somewhat challenging and daunting. This chapter focuses on ways to maintain—or even enhance—clinical knowledge, skills, and understandings during the graduate school years.

This chapter is broken up into three categories. These are opportunities that (1) can be done relatively independently, (2) are likely available at one’s medical institution, and (3) are available outside of one’s medical institution. Our list is not exhaustive, and these opportunities may vary depending on the medical institution and training environment. That said, we hope that this can serve as a guiding framework.

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