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M.D. vs. PhD. Degrees: What Are the Differences? 

By Cait Williams

Cait Williams is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cait recently graduated from Ohio University with a degree in Journalism and Strategic Communications. During her time at OU, was active in the outdoor recreation community.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Posted: June 13th, 2023
M.D. vs. PhD. Degrees: What Are the Differences? 

Chances are, when you hear PhD and MD, you at least know that there is a difference between them. Since both are the titles of doctors, there’s still a lot of ambiguity as to what those specific differences are. In this article, we will look at how MDs and PhDs differ from one another and which one might be a better fit for you. Let’s jump in!  

Doctor of Medicine (MD) 

We’ll start by taking a separate look at MDs. An MD is a medical doctor. Their primary job is to work with patients in a variety of settings such as hospitals, clinics, and a variety of other places where having medical staff is necessary. 

School 

In order to become an MD, students must complete their undergraduate degree and then attend a four year medical school. Medical School is then followed by a residency, where a new doctor completes training under a senior physician. From start to finish, becoming a doctor takes around 8-12 years to finish undergrad, medical school, and residency.  

Area of study 

As a medical doctor, you will generally choose one area of medicine that you would like to focus on. Specialties can be based on a certain part of the body, such as cardiology, podiatry, or neurology. Aspiring medical doctors can also specialize in working with a select group of people, such as geriatrics or pediatrics, or finally, you can specialize in researching things like oncology. The possibilities are plentiful for MDs! 

Where they work 

Where you work will depend on what you choose to specialize in. Again, this could be in a hospital, a smaller clinic, or even across the globe with various organizations that work to provide medical care to underserved populations. Medical expertise is needed in many capacities, meaning that there is never a shortage of places that a medical degree could take you! 

A word about DOs 

Before we move on to PhDs, we have one more thing to clear up that you might have questions about. In addition to MDs, there is also another type of doctor called a DO, or a doctor of osteopathic medicine. DOs perform largely all the same functions as MDs, but with a more holistic approach. They attend undergrad just like MDs and then attend a four year DO program that is structured very similarly to a regular medical school.  

The only difference between these two is where they receive their medical school training and how they approach studying medicine and treating patients. If you are thinking about becoming a medical doctor, you should take some time to explore DOs and what they do!  

Doctorate of philosophy (PhD) 

Okay, now onto PhDs! A doctorate of philosophy, known also as a PhD, doesn’t actually have anything to do with philosophy in most cases. A PhD can be completed in pretty much any field and is the highest level of education that one can receive.  

School 

In order to complete your PhD, you will need to first complete your undergrad, then a master’s program, and finally apply to PhD programs. Not all PhD programs require that you finish your masters. There are some schools that offer programs that allow you to complete both your masters and your doctorate at the same time.  

Generally, schooling for your PhD takes anywhere from four to eight years to complete. The first year or two of your PhD is spent on coursework, while the remaining years are spent doing research and completing your dissertation.  

Area of study 

There are endless areas of study that offer PhD programs. You can study everything from physical therapy, business management and psychology to health administration, engineering, social work, and so much more. The gist is pretty much that if you can think of a field of study, you can earn your PhD in it!  

Where they work 

Based on the examples of fields you can study, it’s safe to say that what you study will determine where you decide to work. PhD holders are highly educated people, meaning that finding a job when you hold a PhD in your field will look pretty good to most employers.  

Common places where you find a high concentration of PhDs are in hospitals, corporate offices, college campuses, and other educational institutions. Remember, though, that’s not a full list of where you could work–the list of places you could work is endless! 

Tuition and Costs 

It’s true, pursuing either one of these degrees is not the cheapest thing, but don’t let numbers scare you off! If anything in this article sounds like it is right for you, explore it thoroughly. There are lots of ways that you can pay for your education, including scholarships, organizations, and programs out there that want to help you do it!

Okay, so for some real talk, the price of either of these degrees can vary a lot. Medical school will generally cost between $45,000 – $65,000 a year, while PhD programs cost on average about $30,000 a year. But, again, this does not mean you have to be able to pay these costs out of pocket. There are a lot of programs for PhDs that work with you to help you pay for some of the costs. There are even some fully funded PhD programs!

Similarly, there are tons of medical scholarships and even tuition free medical schools that you can apply to help offset the costs of a medical degree. There are also options for student loans that you can take out as well. The point is, there are tons of ways to find your education. If a degree like this is right for you, it is possible to achieve with proper planning and determination.

Related: Top scholarships for graduate students

Shadowing 

Before jumping all the way in with either of these degrees, shadowing is a great tool that can help you explore your intended field or job. It’s highly encouraged that students who want to attend medical school shadow at least a few different MDs and DOs prior to applying to medical school.  

But the benefits of shadowing are not just for the medical world. You can ask to shadow just about anyone. Maybe you’d like to shadow a professor who you had during undergrad, a social worker, or someone you know of who works in business. There are no rules about who you can and can’t shadow, you simply have to ask and go from there!  

What is right for you 

Below are some basic questions to help you get your mind started thinking about whether an MD or PhD is right for you. The first set of questions pertains more to MD or DO degrees.  

If you’re thinking about an MD or DO degree… 

Questions To Consider

Questions To Consider

  • Do you like working with people and helping them during difficult times?  
  • Do you love studying biological sciences?  
  • Does working in a hospital or clinic sound like an environment you would enjoy? 
Questions To Consider

If you’re thinking about a PhD… 

Questions To Consider

Questions To Consider

  • Is there a specific area or field you would like to study? 
  • Do you have a specific job in mind that you would like, and does it require a PhD? 
  • Have you already earned your undergraduate and master’s degree? Questions To Consider

The answers to these questions won’t instantly help you decide, but they should help you think a little deeper about these degrees. 

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • Both MDs and PhD holders are highly educated in their field of study, holding the highest degrees that you can earn 
  • The only way to become a practicing MD is to first obtain your bachelor’s degree, then attended a four year accredited medical school, and then successfully complete all the proper exams to practice medicine 
  • To earn a PhD, you do not have to attend medical school, but you will need to attend a PhD program, complete your undergrad, and usually complete your master’s degree before doing so 
  • There are lots of ways to fund both a PhD and an MD, including scholarships, grants, loans, and partially and fully funded programs for each 
Key Takeaways

Frequently asked questions about the differences between MD and PhDs 

Is a PhD higher than an MD?

Neither a PhD nor an MD is higher than the other. They are both higher education degrees that require extensive schooling and training. PhDs and MDs will have varying areas of expertise in their fields.

Who gets paid more an MD or a PhD?

There’s really no one straightforward answer. It all depends on where you choose to work and what you choose to study. A PhD holder who has worked their way up to a high position at a college may make more than a family medicine doctor, but a cardiac surgeon may make more than someone with a PhD in business administration. There’s really no one answer here, and you should remember that salary shouldn’t be your driving force for this type of degree.

Is a PhD harder than an MD?

Again, this question will vary from person to person. Some might argue that because PhDs take longer, they are harder to do, but it really depends on your level of drive and interest in what you are studying. Students who are highly engaged with the material they are studying and are passionate about completing their education might find things easier than others. It all depends on you! Both of these paths are very demanding, but neither will be impossible if it’s what you truly want to do. 

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