An MD or PHD, what is the best path for you?

On the American Heart Association Research Committee, you can see 9 of 30 members marked having a Ph.D. Furthermore, you’ll see that all programs the committee members are affiliated with have some medical association.

This example of the committee brings the question “Can an MD do what Ph.D. does?” The short answer is yes. Ph.D.’s may not necessarily have all the training an MD has, so the profession cannot provide exactly the same opportunities. So does the difference lies with patient care? Many PhDs work with MDs, so maybe a Ph.D. can have a similar clinical care experience.

How do people with an MD (Doctor of Medicine) differ from those with Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)? The most common answers are likely:

  • “MDs make more money.”
  • “MDs prescribe medications.”
  • “They’re the real doctors”

Some Differences and Similarities:


  • On average, about 4-6 years to complete the degree
  • Purpose – to develop original work
  • Considered an academic degree
  • Contribute new theory and knowledge to the field


  • On average, about 4 years to complete the degree, not including residency
  • Purpose – trained to give patient care
  • Considered a professional degree
  • Apply the existing theories and knowledge practically.


  • Referred to as Doctors
  • Both can specialize in fields.
  • Both perform research and apply for funding

The foundational difference may be related to assuming that Ph.D.s advance knowledge and MDs apply existing knowledge. It is not required for MDs to produce original research, whereas PhDs write up a dissertation (includes original work).

Okay, so obviously the training for doctor degrees are different. But, who is more up-to-date on cutting edge knowledge? Maybe, this sways your opinion?

PhDs are required to do original work, so wouldn’t they be?  What about MDs that conduct clinical trials? Do they use cutting edge knowledge?

It begins to get cloudy when you look past the path of earning your MD or Ph.D. Both professions can conduct clinical trials. Both professions can conduct translational related work.  Which route is better for you? How do you choose?

The path to the degree prepares you for what is ahead in your career. Hence the obvious difference of original work vs patient-related work. This is how many view it. However, the cloudiness between which path to choose increases when ideas like a specialty in biomedical research come to mind. Acceptance into MD/PhD program absorbs expectations into a research-oriented career. The program is expecting you to make medical advances through your training as a researcher.

Ask yourself  “What is the next step after obtaining my terminal degree (MD and Ph.D.)? “

You can pursue research opportunities with just an MD degree. This can occur through a fellowship type of training. Sort of similar to post-doctoral training, an option after completion of a Ph.D.

Overall the training and mentorship past your terminal degree will maximize your opportunities. There is a lot to mull over for choosing a path. Make a Pros and Cons list? Or better yet, maybe just go observe both types of professions?  Find a lab to work in or do some volunteering over the summer, Maybe get involved in a big project. Do something that is even just solely preparing materials for a particular procedure. See if you like the environment. I suggest looking beyond obtaining the terminal degree. Look for people you admire and learn their stories. Keep your eyes up to see all the open doors.


“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”