MD vs MD PhD: How to Choose your Best Path

May 13, 2024


Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 5/13/24

You’re a prospective med student, and you’ve started your preliminary research on how to choose a medical school that will cultivate your interests and teach you the skills needed to be a leader in healthcare. Perhaps you greatly enjoy biomedical research and would like to combine your two passions: practicing medicine and conducting scientific research. 

So, what is the Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree versus the MD PhD, and how do you choose your best path? This blog will comprehensively review the similarities and differences between the MD and MD PhD degrees, including the application process and the education you can expect to receive for each program. 

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What is an MD?

An MD is simply a Doctor of Medicine or physician who obtained their MD degree at an allopathic medical school accredited by the LCME (Liaison Committee of Medical Education). Allopathic medicine focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of disease. When people think of physicians, they generally think of MDs. 

To become an MD, you must:

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree at an accredited university and complete all required prerequisite courses for medical school. Your pre-med major doesn’t need to be in the sciences, but you need to complete science prerequisite coursework, including labs. Every school has specific requirements regarding which prerequisites to take, so check with the schools to ensure that you fulfill all undergrad requirements. If you need help with selecting and scheduling your prerequisite coursework, connect with a pre-health advisor. 
  • Take the MCAT and earn a competitive score. The MCAT is one of the most important selection factors for medical schools, and it is a strong indicator of your academic performance. Matriculated students often exceed the school’s minimum required MCAT score, so you should aim to fall within or exceed the school’s median MCAT score. In addition to the MCAT, some medical schools require the CASPer test.
  • Graduate from an accredited allopathic medical school. Most MD programs are four years, with a few exceptions. For example, some schools have accelerated MD degrees that you can complete in just three years.
  • Complete a residency. Residency programs typically last from three to eight years. Residents perform extensive duties in a clinical setting, such as interpreting charts and lab work, taking patient histories, attending conferences, and conducting physical exams. Residency applicants are matched to programs depending on their personal preferences via the National Resident Matching Program.
  • Obtain licensure. MDs must obtain a license to practice medicine by passing the USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Examination). Each state has different requirements to become licensed. For example, some states limit the number of times you can take the USMLE, while other states have no such restrictions on exam attempts. 
  • Continue your education. Generally, physicians must complete state-required continuing education before renewing licensure every couple of years. 

What is an MD PhD?

An MD PhD is also a Doctor of Medicine who additionally holds a PhD in scientific research. MD PhDs are known as physician-scientists or medical scientists. There are over 100 MD PhD programs affiliated with medical schools, and approximately 40 programs are partially supported by training grants known as MSTPs (Medical Science Training Programs).

Physician-scientists focus on both scientific research/discovery and treating patients in clinical settings. They have the unique skill set to research healthcare topics, including biomedical sciences, biochemistry, cell biology, microbiology, immunology, genetics, physiology, pharmacology, and neuroscience. 

In short, MD PhDs blend scientific research with clinical medicine. 

To become an MD PhD, you must:

  • Complete all of the requirements for medical school to obtain your traditional MD degree. 
  • In addition to attending medical school for your MD, you must also attend graduate school for your PhD. Because you are completing both programs dually, the duration of your education is seven to eight years (four years for the MD; three to four years for the PhD).
  • Complete medical training and conduct mentored, integrated, and mechanism-based research throughout the PhD program and for your thesis. 

MD PhD programs actively seek applicants who exhibit the core competencies of entering medical students and have an aptitude for biomedical research. Applicants must have strong critical thinking and analytical skills to conduct and interpret research. Lastly, and most importantly, prospective candidates should have substantial research experience.

MD Vs MD PHD Differences

MD vs MD PhD: Application Process and Education

The application process for the MD and MD PhD programs is very similar. For most allopathic medical schools, you will use the AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service).

There are exceptions; for example, Texas medical schools use the TMDSAS (Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Service). As always, follow every school’s individual requirements to use the appropriate application service portals. 

In the AMCAS, you will have to select which degree you’re applying to and enter all required information. For the MD program, there are nine sections:

  • Sections 1-3 are where you will input background information, such as your name, biographical information, identifiers, and the schools you’ve attended. 
  • Section 4 is where you will enter your school transcripts and undergraduate coursework. 
  • Section 5 is the work and activities section where you will enter relevant extracurricular activities, work experience, and appropriate hobbies
  • Section 6 is where you will upload your letters of evaluation. 
  • Section 7 is where you will enter the school’s information, such as the program to which you’re applying and whether you’re applying for an early decision. 
  • Section 8 is the personal statement
  • Section 9 is where you will enter your test scores, such as the MCAT. 

To apply to the MD PhD program, you will have to complete all nine sections of the AMCAS. Additionally, you will have to complete two additional essays that describe your reasons for pursuing the MD PhD degree and your research experience.

Here is a general idea of what the MD PhD education looks like, year by year, according to the AAMC:

image of general idea of what the MD PhD education

Discover how Patrick got into six fully funded MD/ Phd programs in the video below.

MD vs MD PhD: Career Outlook and Salary

A benefit of the MD PHD vs MD debate is that both enjoy lucrative, rewarding careers in medicine. Typically, MDs become physicians who practice medicine in hospitals, private practices, clinics, and other medical centers. MD PhDs become physician-scientists, and according to the AAMC, nearly 80% of them follow career paths consistent with their training, which include working in medical schools as faculty members or in other research institutions, such as the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and other federal agencies. 

Physician-scientists are highly valued for both their medical training to treat patients and their extensive knowledge of public health, disease, treatment, and hot topics in healthcare. They can work in academia and teach, or they can combine clinical service with independent research. According to the AAMC, over 80% of graduates said that they would choose the MD PhD program again if given the chance. This should give you an idea of how passionate physician-scientists are about biomedical research.

For MDs, depending on their specialty and setting, the average annual salary is around $220k. For MD PhDs, depending on the type of role and place of employment, the average annual salary is about $100k.

Which is Better? Tips for Choosing Between the Two

So, now that you know a bit more about the MD and MD PhD degrees, which is better? To make the best decision for your goals, keep the following tips in mind:

Examine your passions honestly.

Are you excited to work with patients, but research doesn’t motivate you as much? Then you should stick with the traditional MD degree. Students who pursue the MD PhD do so because of their equal passion for clinical medicine and research. Keep in mind that the MD PhD has additional years of school, so it is not a decision that should be made lightly. 

Use your experiences and extracurricular activities to guide you.

Think back to your medical shadowing or clinical experience. Compare your insights to your research experience. Which experience was the most rewarding to you? Which did you enjoy the most? Can you see yourself conducting research your entire career? It would be helpful to use your experiences and extracurricular activities as a measure of your interests.

In short, students who don’t absolutely love research should consider pursuing an MD degree, while those who do love research should look into the MD PhD dual degree.


1. What Are the Top MD Programs In the United States?

According to the US News & World Report, the following medical schools consistently rank the highest:

2. How Do I Know Which MD PhD Program Is Right for Me?

Ultimately, you will have to decide for yourself which program is the best fit for your particular interests and career goals. However, take a look at the US News & World Report’s list of signs that an MD PhD program is a great fit:

  • There is ample funding.
  • The location is desirable for your requirements.
  • There is a good balance between clinics and research.
  • The school has a history of strong publications/research.
  • The program’s academic breadth is multi-disciplinary, ensuring that students will have a good selection of topics to research.
  • Clinical training is introduced early in the program.
  • There are numerous mentors available to oversee research projects.
  • Current MD PhD students are satisfied with their program.
  • The program’s alumni perform high-level research and publishing, which is a strong indicator of future success.
  • The program’s mission and culture align with your academic and career goals.

3. Can I Apply to the MD Program And the MD PhD Program at One School In the Same Cycle?‍

In the AMCAS, you must indicate the program to which you are applying, and it cannot be both for one school in the same application cycle. However, if you indicate that you are applying to the MD PhD program, most schools will first consider you for the dual degree program, and if you are not accepted, they will consider you for the MD program. Please reach out to your selection of schools to learn more about their application procedures regarding dual degrees and final decisions.

4. What Topics In Healthcare Do MD PhDs Research?

According to the AAMC, MD PhDs can research various topics in the following disciplines:

  • Biochemistry and Macromolecular Biophysics 
  • Cell and Developmental Biology 
  • Immunology 
  • Molecular Biology and Genetics 
  • Microbiology and Infectious Disease 
  • Neuroscience 
  • Pathology and Mechanisms of Disease 
  • Pharmacology 
  • Physiology
  • Bioengineering and Biomedical Imaging 
  • Chemical and Physical Sciences 
  • Computational Biology and Bioinformatics 
  • Public Health, Epidemiology, and Preventative Medicine 
  • Social and Behavioral Sciences 
  • Bioethics

There may be variations among different programs, so verify with the school before you apply.

5. Is Financial Assistance Available For MD Programs?

Generally, yes. The cost of attendance is an important consideration when applying to medical schools. There is federal assistance through FAFSA, in addition to scholarships, grants, and loans. To learn more about financial planning, please reach out to the Student Financial Services office for every school you apply to discuss your options. 

6. Is Financial Assistance Available For MD PhD Programs?

One of the most significant perks of MD PhD programs is that most either partially cover or completely waive tuition for students. Stipends are also very common to cover the costs of living expenses for students. Because of this, many MD PhDs graduate with little to no debt. Although this shouldn’t be the only deciding factor for pursuing the MD PhD degree (remember to keep your goals in mind), it is a benefit that may spare you from, on average, $200k in debt.

7. What Counts As a Substantial Research Experience?

Substantial research experience involves some effort and commitment on your part. Before applying to the MD PhD program, be sure to have multiple summer research projects. You are also encouraged to have one or more years of pursuing research after completing your bachelor’s degree. This may mean that you have to take a gap year to bolster your application with research experience, but don’t worry. 

Many students take a gap year for this very reason, to gain relevant experiences and strengthen their application. You should also strive to have publications, and it’s important to list them in your application materials. You must also have experience in accurately testing a hypothesis. It is also important to note that gaining more research experience will strengthen your skills in this field, but you will work with supervisors and mentors who can become potential letter writers for strong letters of recommendation

8. Where Can I Find More Information About the MD PhD Degree?‍

For more information about the MD PhD degree, please visit AAMC’s MD PhD authority site.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, both the MD and MD PhD programs will lead to lucrative careers in medicine. Whether you pursue the MD degree or the MD PhD dual degree depends on your interests, motivations, passions, academic goals, and career aspirations. When you’re applying to either program, be sure to follow the medical school’s specific application guidelines and procedures.

Make sure your research experience is substantial. It’s important to have a competitive edge over other MD PhD candidates who undoubtedly will have their own strong research experiences and publications. No matter which path you choose, we wish you the best of luck in your efforts. 

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