What's the Difference Between MD and PhD Degrees?

Both the MD and the PhD are advanced degrees, but they often represent very different subject areas. Individuals with MD degrees are medical doctors, while those with PhD degrees have expertise in one of many academic or medical subject areas.

MD and PhD Degrees are Very Different

What is an MD Degree?

Someone with an MD, or Doctor of Medicine degree, is a medical doctor, and the process for earning an MD is a long one. First, the future medical doctor must complete a bachelor's degree with an emphasis in sciences such as chemistry, biology, or physics; pre-med; or even humanities, arts, social sciences, or other liberal arts areas. This typically will take about 4 years for full-time students. The next step is to apply for medical school, which is about 4 years in length with the first 2 years, called the pre-clinical phase, concentrating on subjects like physiology and disease processes. The second 2 years are spent in clerkships that rotate through specializations while preparing for and taking licensing examinations. After graduating from medical school, medical doctors can spend up to 7 years in residency programs gaining additional on-the-job training in the specialization of choice.

Is an MD the Only Type of Medical Degree?

A Doctor of Medicine degree is not the only type of medical degree. There is also the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. While the educational and experiential requirements may be the same, students pursuing a DO degree will focus more on holistic approaches to health and preventative medicine. While there are not as many medical doctors with DO degrees as there are with MD degrees, between 1991 and 2016 the number of DOs increased year after year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

What is a PhD Degree?

A PhD is a type of research doctorate known as a Doctor of Philosophy degree. PhD degrees can be earned in many specializations, such as higher education or biochemistry, and usually take a minimum of 3 years to complete. To start the process of earning a PhD, a student must first earn a bachelor's degree, which takes approximately 4 years to complete for full-time students. A master's degree, which takes approximately 2 years to complete for full-time students, is often required, as well, but may be earned along with the PhD. Upon acceptance into a doctoral program, a PhD student takes courses in an area of specialization and participates in residency or colloquia programs. When all coursework has been completed, PhD students often must successfully complete comprehensive exams before they can proceed to researching, writing, and defending their dissertations.

Can I Earn MD and PhD Degrees at the Same time?

Yes, you can earn MD and PhD degrees concurrently. This is the kind of program for individuals who want to be both physicians and scientists. The requirements for each degree often remain basically the same, although the sequence of courses may be slightly different. While the length of time to complete the bachelor's and master's degrees remains the same at 4 years and 2 years, respectively, it can take approximately 8 years to complete combined MD/PhD degrees.

Are There Other Kinds of Doctoral-Level Degrees?

There are many designations of doctoral degrees, and they cover the gamut of subjects. Each doctoral degree is different, but here are a few of the more common ones that are recognized by the National Science Foundation:

  • DA - Doctor of Arts
  • DBA - Doctor of Business Administration
  • DDes - Doctor of Design
  • DEng - Doctor of Engineering
  • DFA - Doctor of Fine Arts
  • DNSc - Doctor of Nursing Science
  • PsyD - Doctor of Psychology
  • DPH - Doctor of Public Health
  • ThD - Doctor of Theology

Degree ProgramProgram LengthProgram RequirementsRelated Careers
*Medical Doctor (MD)
*Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)
*4 years undergraduate
*4 years medical school
*Up to 7 years in residency
*Bachelor's degree
*Medical school
*Residency
*Licensing
*Family Medicine
*Cardiologist
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)*4 years undergraduate
*2 years graduate
*3+ years as a PhD student
*Bachelor's and master's degrees
*Comprehensive examination
*Dissertation
*College administrator
*Mathematician
Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Philosophy (MD/PhD or MD-PhD)*4 years undergraduate
*8 years medical\PhD studies
*Bachelor's degree
*All MD and PhD program requirements
*Medical scientist
*Biochemist

Doctor of Medicine (MD) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees represent two of the highest levels of academic achievement. Some of the most notable differences between them are in the program requirements, program lengths, and related careers.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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