MD Vs. PhD: Difference & Salary

Jan 13, 2021

What's the difference between a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)? Holders of both types of degrees are referred to as 'doctors', but only MDs are practicing medical doctors. PhDs can be obtained in a wide range of fields, including medicine, and usually focus on academic research.

MD vs PhD in Medicine

An MD program consists of formal training in patient care. The training for physicians is usually longer and more intensive training than for other patient care roles (such as a nurse or a technician). What sets medical doctors apart from these other roles is that their MD training prepares them for a focus on overall diagnosis and decisions about the direction of patient care. Medical doctors can also specialize in highly skilled sub-fields that other patient care professionals are not trained for, such as different types of surgery.

PhD programs can be offered in nearly any academic field, from anthropology to zoology. A PhD holder is considered a doctor in that field. The purpose of pursuing the PhD is usually to move into a role that involves doing original research, often in academia.

It is possible to obtain a PhD in medicine. In fact, some medical programs offer a dual MD-PhD track for students interested in becoming physician-scientists. Students exit these programs able to both practice medicine and do research in an academic or clinical setting. It is also possible to obtain a PhD in medicine without becoming an MD; a student going this route would most likely earn a bachelor's degree in a science field, such as biology or biomedical science, before applying to a PhD program.

MD and Medical PhD Options

Several options are available to those interested in a graduate degree in medicine. If you're interested in practicing medicine as a doctor, the quickest path is an MD program leading to work as a general practitioner. It is also possible to take MD programs that specialize in a certain area of practice. Students interested in doing academic or clinical research can either try for a dual MD-PhD program, or simply take a PhD in Medical Science if they just want to do research without practicing medicine.

Doctor of Medicine (MD)

An MD program generally runs for four years. Students need to complete a bachelor's degree from an accredited university as a prerequisite. While MD programs usually don't ask for the bachelor's to be in a specific field, they do usually have a list of specific coursework that must have been completed in areas like the natural sciences and math. Applicants will also usually be required to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) sometime shortly before applying. Coursework covers the systems of the body, the different fields of patient care, medical techniques and a residency period of on-the-job training at a patient care facility.

The standard four-year MD program generally provides little to no surgical training. Surgery is instead usually taught in an area of specialty through an extended residency that builds on the core MD program. The exact length of this residency varies by field but is generally at least five years. Slots in surgical programs are usually very limited, and there is strong competition for them.

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)

A DO is a variant of the MD that focuses more on whole-body treatment than on diagnosis of individual symptoms or specific areas of the body. DO programs are very similar to MD programs but add significant class time covering how the skeletal system and the body as a whole responds to diseases. To illustrate the difference between the two, while an MD might prescribe appropriate medication in response to a patient's condition, a DO might ask probing questions about their lifestyle to come up with a long-term comprehensive treatment plan. Students can expect the added requirements of the DO program to add one to two years to the program completion time.


MD-PhD programs combine standard medical doctor training with preparation to do research and teach in an academic setting. As with surgery programs, there are usually limited slots available, and there is strong competition for them. In addition to the requirements of the standard MD program, applicants to these programs can expect there to be minimum GPA and MCAT scores as well as demonstrable experience requirements in research, leadership, patient contact and/or community service.

PhD in Medical / Biomedical Science

Students who wish to do medical research but do not wish to practice patient care as a doctor of medicine have the option of skipping the MD and applying directly to a PhD program. Students in PhD programs often pick a specific field of research to focus on, such as genetics, neurology or rehabilitation. Acceptance to these programs usually requires either a bachelor's degree in the natural sciences or at least a strong profile of coursework completed in the sciences.

MD vs. PhD: Jobs and Salary

The job outlook for medical doctors is consistently good, thanks to high salaries, an ongoing need for skilled physicians and placement in a first job (in the form of a residency) as part of the training. All types of medical scientist positions are experiencing similar job growth, though average salaries are lower, and academic positions may be harder to find.

Job Title Average Salary (2019)* Expected Job Growth (2019-2029)*
Family Medicine $205,590 6%
General Practitioner $201,590 -1%
Surgeon $208,000 or higher -2%
OB / GYN $208,000 or higher -1%
Medical Scientist $88,790 6%
Pharmaceutical Medical Scientist $115,900 6% (all types of medical scientists)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The MD and PhD are both viable options in medicine, although only the MD allows students to actively practice as a medical doctor. MD-PhD programs are also available, and while they are difficult to get into, they allow students access to an extremely broad spectrum of work in the medical field.

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