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The Difference Between a PhD & an MD

by Amy Whitmyre, studioD

A Ph.D. is a Doctor of Philosophy, the highest degree you can earn in any subject. Doctorate degrees are offered in many subject areas including the arts, sciences, humanities, technology, education and business. An M.D. is a Doctor of Medicine degree, for students who want to become physicians in any medical specialty. Both degrees require significant work and a long educational process.

M.D. Educational Path

Medical students start by earning a four-year bachelor’s degree and then move on to medical school. Medical schools are also four years in length and require both lecture courses and clinical training. Students in these programs spend their first two years doing mostly lecture and lab work in advanced science subjects. In years three and four, medical students continue with some lecture courses, but spend much of their time performing clinical rotations, working in a hospital setting in various medical specialties. After completing medical school, students continue their training in an internship and residency, a three- to four-year on-the-job training program where the doctor is able to practice medicine under the supervision of more senior doctors.

Ph.D. Educational Path

After earning a bachelor’s degree, students may pursue one of two educational paths toward the Ph.D. Some doctoral programs admit students with just a bachelor’s degree, while others require a master’s degree first. In both situations, students can usually expect their post-bachelor’s degree education to take a minimum of five years. Doctoral programs include a combination of lecture-based courses and research and many programs require that their students work as teaching assistants, teaching undergraduate courses. Nearly all Ph.D. students are required to complete a dissertation, a paper detailing the extensive research they’ve done in their field, which they must defend to a committee of experts.


Medical doctors can be generalists or specialists. Specialists include pediatricians who specialize in the health of children, OB/GYNs who specialize in women’s reproductive health and childbirth, and cardiologists who specialize in the heart. Ph.D. professionals can specialize in almost any subject area, such as languages, literature, music, management or psychology.


People who earn M.D.s usually hold jobs practicing medicine. They may have their own practices or work for larger healthcare organizations, clinics and hospitals. Most M.D.s are involved in direct patient care. Depending on their specialty, they may diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries, perform surgeries and prescribe medication. People who earn doctorates often work in higher education, in teaching or research positions or administration. Some Ph.D.s are hired to work in government or private business, depending on their subject specialty.

About the Author

Amy Whitmyre has been a writer for more than 10 years. Her career experience also includes work as an educator and market researcher and a librarian in the legal and medical fields. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Science in library science and is currently working on a Master of Science in education.

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