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What’s the Difference Between MD and PhD Programs?

Written by Nassim on Jul 13, 2022

What’s the difference between MD and PhD programs? Both an MD and a Ph.D. are doctorates awarded to people who finish the highest level of graduate education. However, MD and Ph.D. holders have quite distinct professional paths. Understanding the difference between MD and Ph.D. will help you choose the one that best matches your academic and career goals. Here, we’ll go through the similarities and distinctions between an MD and a Ph.D., as well as some pointers on how to decide between the two. Here are these medical degrees explained:

The Difference Between MD and Ph.D.

MDs are medical doctors who treat patients, whereas PhDs are researchers who specialize in a particular field of study. The Latin phrase medicinae doctor, which translates to teacher of medicine, is where we get the English acronym MD. People who have earned an MD, also known as a Doctor of Medicine, have participated in clinical training during their time in graduate school in order to become physicians upon completion of their studies.

The title philosophiae doctor, from which we get the name Ph.D., literally translates to teacher of philosophy. However, the term is applicable to a wider variety of people than merely philosophy teachers. Students pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy degree, sometimes known as a Ph.D., follow a curriculum distinct from that followed by those pursuing a Doctor of Medicine. Ph.D. candidates are required to undertake research in their respective fields of study rather than getting experience in the workforce. Graduates with PhDs usually find employment in a field relevant to their major or the specialized field they studied.

Dual MD/Ph.D. Programs

An MD/Ph.D. is a dual doctorate. The curriculum alternates between clinical and research-oriented components. This is perfect for people who want to learn both clinical and research-focused aspects of medicine. Approximately 600 students enter MD-PhD programs annually, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

MD/ Ph.D. vs MD 


MD Ph.D. graduates are also known as physician-scientists or medical scientists since they hold a Ph.D. in addition to their MD degree. Medical professionals with an MD degree and a Ph.D. are both considered medical doctors. To obtain this additional degree, you will need to participate in a program that is longer and structured differently than MD programs. MD Ph.D. programs typically last anywhere from seven to eight years and require students to attend both medical school and graduate school. On the other hand, medical doctor (MD) programs can be finished in just four years, which is just half the amount of time required for MD Ph.D. students.

Although the initial two years of instruction in both programs take place in classrooms, MD Ph.D. students continue to graduate school to work on their dissertations for an additional three to four years after those first two years. After that, they will return to medical school to complete their clinical training for another year or two. To obtain a license to practice medicine, graduates with an MD or MD Ph.D. degree must first finish a residency program that lasts between three and seven years.

Application and Cost

The application process is the same whether you are interested in an MD Ph.D. or an MD program. Most programs require you to apply through AMCAS. You will fill out all application sections (including the AMCAS work and activities section) and upload your coursework, letters of recommendation, and medical school personal statement. Find out if the CASPer test is required for admission to the schools of your choice. If so, begin practicing with CASPer sample questions as soon as possible. Students will be required to write two additional essays to explain why they want to pursue an MD Ph.D. degree as well as their research experience. 

In public medical schools, the annual tuition and fees for MD students are about $37,000; in private or out-of-state medical schools, the annual tuition and fees are about $62,000. In contrast, students enrolled in MD-PhD programs have access to reduced or even free tuition, as many programs waive tuition and provide financial aid to cover living costs. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) funds 49 MD Ph.D. programs through the highly competitive Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP).


Both MD Ph.D. and MD programs are notoriously difficult to get into, with acceptance rates ranging on average from 1 percent to 4 percent. The number of available MD Ph.D. programs is significantly lower than the number of MD programs, and the advantage of significantly reduced or waived tuition contributes to an even higher level of competition, particularly in MSTPs compared to MD programs.

To be a competitive MD Ph.D. applicant, you should have a higher GPA and MCAT score than if you applied as an MD applicant. MD programs have varying levels of competition, and there are MD programs that receive a large number of applicants competing for a limited number of spots. It is entirely dependent on the school, the program, and the application cycle to determine whether or not some MD programs are more competitive than MD-PhD programs.

Salary and Career Prospects

Although it may appear obvious that students who graduate from MD programs become medical doctors and the majority of them practice medicine in hospitals, clinics, medical centers, and private practices, some students are unsure of what a career as a physician-scientist entails. Although many MD Ph.D. graduates choose to complete their residency training in internal medicine, pathology, pediatrics, and neurology, there are also graduates working in a wide variety of other medical specialties, including surgery, radiology, and emergency medicine. Other typical specialties for MD graduates include pediatrics, emergency medicine, and family medicine. One study by the American Association for Medical Education and Research (AAMC) found that nearly 80 percent of MD Ph.D. graduates are employed as professors at medical schools or in research institutions such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), pharmaceutical companies, and other government agencies. More than 7,000 MD-PhD alumni participated in this study, and 82% said they would do it all over again, even if they could go back in time and do it all over again.

Physician-scientists are trained to not only have in-depth knowledge of the medical field but also of population health and disease, as well as the ability to conduct research and analysis independently. With a dual degree, physician-scientists can treat patients, detect health threats, and develop new treatments, therapies, or cures. When employed in academic settings, physician-scientists have the opportunity to teach, provide clinical services, and conduct their own or joint research. Physician-scientists typically earn between $60,000 and $115,000 per year, depending on the type and location of employment.

Physicians are responsible for managing and supporting the health and wellbeing of the patients in their care. They can manage and significantly improve their patients’ health through physical exams, diagnostic tests, treatment, and communication. Surgical procedures and treatment of illness and disease, either on a general or a specific level, may be performed by doctors of different specialties. The range of annual salaries is usually between $180,000 and $280,000, depending on the level of specialization.

Which Option Is the Most Suitable for You? MD or MD-PhD?

For some students putting on the safety glasses in science class or reviving a childhood teddy bear was a defining moment in choosing the medical field as their future path. However, not everyone is blessed with an immediate passion or the typical “aha” moment. Sometimes, a student’s interest in medicine or research develops later in life through experiences or education, which is perfectly normal. So what if your interests lie somewhere between the two fields of science and medicine? What factors should you consider when deciding between obtaining a degree in medicine (MD) and a joint degree (MD-PhD)? It is essential to choose only after you have considered various factors and are one hundred percent sure about your decision. The reality is that neither choice will be easy, and you’ll need to be willing to invest the necessary amount of time, money, and effort to achieve success.

Why Do Some Students Choose an MD-PhD?

Here are some reasons why people want to be both doctors and scientists.

As a physician-scientist, you’ll have a unique career path. One of the most rewarding aspects of working as a medical researcher is solving a patient’s medical issues while pursuing scientific research that could lead to a clinical cure for that particular disease.

MD-PhD trainees are medical researchers who also have a strong desire to practice medicine in a clinical setting.

The MD-PhD curriculum is designed to integrate the scientific and medical education of the future physician-scientist effectively and efficiently.

In the years leading up to their Ph.D., MD-PhD students complete coursework and receive formal training in research methodology.

Most MD-PhD programs offer trainees financial support in the form of stipends and scholarships to cover tuition costs. This financial support acknowledges the amount of time a student must devote to training in order to pursue a career in both medicine and research (MD-PhD). However, each program’s level of financial assistance varies, and some may provide assistance to only United States citizens and permanent residents.

MD-PhD Training Areas of Research

When applying to specific MD-PhD Programs, one essential factor to consider is the variety of the available graduate degree programs.

Most candidates for MD-PhD programs earn their Ph.D. in a biomedical laboratory discipline like cell biology, biochemistry, genetics, immunology, pharmacology, physiology, neuroscience, or biomedical engineering.

Students in some MD-PhD programs may also complete graduate work in non-laboratory disciplines such as computer science, economics, epidemiology, health care policy, or even the history of medicine and its social and cultural influences.

How to Choose Between an MD and a Ph.D.

Figure Out What Motivates You the Most

It would help if you first consider what you’re interested in and what drives you. This will help you figure out what you’re passionate about. Suppose you are confident that you are interested in medicine and assisting other people but are only slightly interested in research. In that case, it is probably a good idea to pursue medicine on its own rather than research. The MD Ph.D. program isn’t easy because it takes almost twice as long as an MD program. Students should only go for this joint degree if they are serious about both medicine and research. The joint program may be a good fit for you if you have a strong interest in disease mechanisms, are curious about the unknown, and can’t imagine a career that doesn’t involve research in some capacity.

First and foremost, decide if you want to become a medical doctor or a physician-scientist. People driven by their passions are more likely to find fulfillment in their work because they are doing what they truly want to do. You’ll have a rewarding career only when you have enough motivation to put in the necessary time and effort.

Think About the Dynamics of Your Preferred Job

Doctors spend a lot of time talking to their patients and families, and they need good communication skills. In hospitals, doctors may work unusual hours, even on weekends and holidays; in offices, they can have a more conventional schedule. If you decide to get a Ph.D., you might spend a lot of time working alone in a lab, or you might decide to teach students in your field. Whether you want an MD or a Ph.D. can depend on what kind of work environment and schedule you want.

Trust Your Own Experience

Is it possible to know for sure which path is the best for you? Before submitting your applications, get some hands-on experience in the field. This is the best opportunity to see whether you’ll like your future career path. If you’re torn between an MD and an MD Ph.D. program, make sure you get some clinical and research experience before making a decision. This is an excellent opportunity for you to gain practical experience in both fields and determine which ones pique your interest the most. You could sign up for volunteering opportunities that will give you first-hand experience in medicine or research. These experiences will be crucial when applying to medical school, but they’ll also help you narrow your interests.

Finally, remember that if you are still unsure which path is the best, you could always reach out to our Academic Advisors and seek their guidance.

By setting up a free one-on-one meeting with our friendly and knowledge advisors, you will be able to gain the valuable insight as to which career path you would like to take and how to get there. CLICK HERE TO GET STARTED.

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