PhD vs MD vs MD PhD - Which program is right for you?

PhD vs MD vs MD PhD – What’s right for you?

For some students, choosing between a career in medicine and one in science seems like an impossible task. Many times, students will engage in research during college and develop an interest in medicine and do not want to give up the ability to do both by pursuing either a PhD or MD. Recognizing this desire, many medical schools have also created MD-PhD combined programs that allow students to get both degrees. With the plethora of options offered for graduate degrees coming out of college, many applicants are unsure of which program is best for them.

In this blog post, we will cover the following topics:

Our Students Were Accepted at These MD PhD Programs!

PhD vs MD vs MD PhD

Before we analyze the differences between these programs, we will clearly define what each program consists of.

What is a PhD? PhD programs are funded graduate doctoral degree programs ranging from 4-8 years offered by research universities to teach and mentor graduates to contribute to research in their field, develop societal solutions, and train the next generation of scientists.

What is an MD? MD degrees are granted by allopathic medical schools in the United States, last four years, and prepare graduates to enter the world of medicine as physicians, usually through continued training in residency and fellowship programs.

What is an MD PhD program? MD/PhD programs are funded programs that last 7-9 years and train graduates to be clinical and academic leaders as both physicians and researchers who work closely with patients but also dedicate a significant amount of their time to researching areas adjacent to medicine to improve knowledge and treatment protocols.

What are the differences between PhD vs MD?

When deciding PhD vs MD vs MD PhD, most students will first need to decide what aspects of science are most interesting to them – do they enjoy the interpersonal interactions or working with the biology itself to make new discoveries? First, let’s look at the differences between a PhD vs MD. There are three core differences between getting a PhD and an MD: career opportunities, admissions and training, and cost.

Career Options

As rigorous and prestigious degree programs, both MDs and PhDs have a plethora of career opportunities available to them. Most graduates from MD programs elected to continue their training by completing a residency and fellowship to become specialized and practice medicine. Nonetheless some graduates also choose to pursue alternative careers in public health, business, or education. In fact, 32% of graduates from Stanford’s MD program [1] chose not to a pursue a residency, many drawn by the allure of alternative ways to produce impact in society.

PhD graduates tend to have slightly more options, in both the academic and professional spheres. Many PhD candidates choose to pursue the established path of joining a research university to perform their research while teaching undergraduate and graduate students. This path often is best suited for those extremely passionate about their research topics who seek to mentor younger researchers and students but suffers from department politics attached to rising up professorial ranks and difficulties in receiving funding in certain disciplines.

Many other graduates choose to pursue non-academic work, whether it is joining an established industry company, starting their own companies, or working in public sector agencies. In these endeavors, they are able to leverage much of their subject matter expertise to conduct research, assess business operations and growth options, and contribute to public health or public works initiatives. At the same time, many graduates who take this path may find themselves drifting away from their academic routes and may find a slightly more fast-paced lifestyle than in academia.

Whether you pursue and MD degree or PhD degree, there are several post-graduate career options. 

Admissions and Training

Admissions and training processes and timelines are also highly variable between MD and PhD paths, and require different planning for each.

MD Admissions and Training: MD programs often have extremely long admissions timelines, often starting two years before matriculation when many students begin studying for the MCAT (the medical school admissions exam). In addition, the increasing expectations of applicants has resulted in an increasing number of students taking gap years to adequately prepare to apply. After applying and matriculating, medical students have four years of medical school, followed by anywhere from 3-10 years of post-graduate specialization training. Furthermore, applications often have multiple components, require in-person interviews, and have delayed decision timelines.

PhD Admissions and Training: In contrast, PhD programs have relatively simpler timelines, with most students applying the winter before they plan to matriculate, with many schools not requiring standardized testing (GRE) to apply. After applying, many students receive interviews within a few weeks and an admissions decision soon after. After matriculating, program length can differ significantly, but usually consists of 5-8 years of graduate research and training before one is able to complete their degree.

Cost

Despite recruiting students with similar skillsets and backgrounds, medical school and graduate PhD programs have radically different cost structures. While pursuing an MD is a costly endeavor (often ranging from $200-400k), PhDs are usually fully funded and most students receive a generous living stipend. With this in mind, one would assume that most students would naturally gravitate to a PhD. However, while the median biology PhD starting salary is $100k [2], the median starting salary for a physician is double – at $200k [2] – such that many physicians recoup the cost of their education in the long term. Although the ultimate decision will depend on your desire to take on loans and your career and training area preferences, cost is undoubtably an important component of this decision as well.

What are the differences between MD vs MD PhD

Differences between MD and MD-PhD admissions are neither widely discussed nor well understood, mostly because only 6-7% of students applying to medical school choose to pursue this path.[4] 

MD-PhD programs are one of many dual-degree programs offered by medical schools and allow you to receive medical training while developing expertise in a particular research area. Your research focus can range from hard science like molecular biology and genetics to the social sciences like sociology. Since you would be getting two degrees, a MD-PhD program is designed to take 7-8 years, instead of 4 years for medical school and 5-6 years for a PhD. Usually, MD-PhD candidates will spend their first two years doing pre-clinical coursework with MD students. After completing their pre-medical requirements and taking the STEP 1 exam, MD-PhD students will usually take 3-5 years for their doctoral studies before they return for their final two years of clinical rotations.

In the United States, there are approximately 130 MD-PhD programs and 45 of these programs are known as Medical Scientist Training Programs (MSTP) programs. MSTP programs are funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and are very competitive as they offer full tuition coverage, support with living expenses, and a stipend. While some MD-PhD programs are funded by institutions, many of them may not offer the same financial support as an MSTP program.

Since the key difference between the MD and MD-PhD program is the emphasis on research, make sure that you will be able to demonstrate a longstanding commitment to research and that you have tangibly and significantly contributed to research projects, which can take the form of presentations or serving as an author on papers. Also, make sure that your research mentor is prepared to submit a strong recommendation to attest to your readiness for such a rigorous program.

Only 6-7% of medical school applicants apply as an MD PhD candidate

AMCAS most meaningful activity example #2: This applicant chose to write about his work in the emergency room. You can see both the 700 character AMCAS activity description and the 1325 character AMCAS most meaningful essay.

Pros and Cons of Applying MD PhD

Pros of Applying MD PhD vs MD
Why MD PhD #1: Tuition Funding 

There is no doubting it – medical school is very expensive. Since many MD-PhD programs are fully funded with a living stipend on top, many MD-PhD candidates feel that they are being “paid” to pursue this education. While many of their medical school classmates will graduate with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, most MD-PhD candidates will not incur any cost during the course of their degree, attracting many looking to avoid accumulating further debt in addition to whatever was accrued during college. Although this funding seems attractive at first, it is important to remember that it comes at the cost of four more years, which could be time spent earning an attending’s salary. Depending on your choice of specialty, receiving this funding could actually be a negative if you aren’t interested in research.

Why MD PhD #2: Allows you to pursue 2 passions

If you are unable to decide between science and medicine, or want to pursue both, applying to an MD-PhD program will allow you to bridge these two disciplines and enjoy the best of both worlds. Many MD-PhD candidates believe that their professional careers would be incomplete without both research and medicine or seek to combine these two passions in their career. These are the exact candidates that MD-PhD programs exist for as they open up many opportunities that may not be available for regular MD students. Especially if you hope to have a career in academia or research-based medical universities, the skills and competencies of doing research and applying for grants is highly prized.

Why MD PhD #3: Receive great research and medical training in a shorter time period

It is undeniable that the condensed time frame of the MD-PhD program is highly appealing to those who seek to pursue both degrees. Instead of taking 9-10 years if completed separately, an MD-PhD program is highly integrated and structured to allow you to focus on one pursuit at a time while still providing continuity so that you can do research during your medical training and medical volunteering while completing your doctoral work. This blend allows for the shorter time period and still allows you to benefit from receiving high quality science and medical instruction.

Cons of Applying MD PhD vs MD
Why not apply MD PhD #1: Time to complete degree 

Although the condensed format is ideal for those who have their hearts set on getting both an MD and a PhD, if you are unsure about pursuing both degrees or have a clear preference for one, the significantly longer educational period is a major factor to consider. A major aspect of the admission process for the MD-PhD is determining if you are prepared to make an almost decade-long commitment to a discipline, institution, and city. The projected 7-8 years to complete an MD-PhD is just that – a projection. Many times, there are factors both inside and outside of your control that can cause this number to vary greatly and increase to up to 10 years. Furthermore, since many people start their MD-PhDs at 23 or 24 years old, they often complete their residency in their late 30s, a fundamentally different time of your life where many of your friends from college may already have families and have been in the workforce for over a decade.

Why not apply MD PhD #2: You can still do research without a PhD

Although MD-PhD students learn how to apply for grants and the research skills necessary to drive their future academic careers, many MD students often pick up these skills if they take a research year, pursue a master’s degree, or spend a significant amount of time doing research in residency and beyond. In fact, while many researchers in academic institutions are PhDs or MD-PhDs, there are also numerous MDs who spend a large amount of their time dedicated to both clinical and basic science research. Furthermore, if your research interests are solely clinical in nature, you may be better served developing these skills in a residency or pursuing a master’s degree than pursuing an MD-PhD, which is usually more suited for basic scientists. Another downside to the MD-PhD is that while you will be focused on trying to pursue two separate paths as a clinician and scientists, many of your peers will be spending all of their time focusing on one of the two, which may put you at a disadvantage compared to them.

Why not apply MD PhD #3: May limit specialty choice

Finally, while MD-PhD students can technically pursue any residency after they graduate medical school, there is often a push to place them in less competitive and non-surgical specialties where they will have less clinical time and therefore more time to dedicate to their research work. Since surgical specialties are highly procedural, research is often a secondary consideration and usually not as prized as surgical dexterity. Furthermore, since you are more valuable to an academic center as a surgeon performing high value elective procedures than as a researcher, there is often a push to have surgeons focus on their clinical work. Similarly, many MD-PhDs may be encouraged to pursue less competitive specialties where they have more time to focus on their research work or where their research funding may be more valuable than the money they bring in from being a clinician. Although an MD-PhD student is free to pursue any specialty that they desire, these pressures are commonplace and often can stifle strong clinical preferences in favor of research potential.

List of MSTP Programs

As stated earlier, MSTP MD PhD programs are fully funded by the National Institutes of Health. 

As of 2021, here is the list of MSTP MD PhD programs by state.

Alabama

University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine
http://www.uab.edu/medicine/mstp

 
California

Stanford University 
http://med.stanford.edu/mstp.html

University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
https://vstp.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/

University of California, Irvine School of Medicine
http://www.mstp.uci.edu

 

University of California, Los Angeles & Cal Tech
California Institute of Technology
David Geffen School of Medicine
http://mstp.healthsciences.ucla.edu

University of California, San Diego School of Medicine
http://mstp.ucsd.edu

University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine
https://mstp.ucsf.edu/

 
Colorado

University of Colorado Denver
http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/medicalschool/education/degree_programs/mstp/pages/MSTP.aspx

 

Connecticut

 

Yale University School of Medicine
http://medicine.yale.edu/mdphd

 

Florida

University of Miami Miller School of Medicine
http://mdphd.med.miami.edu

 

Georgia

Emory University School of Medicine M.D./Ph.D. Program
http://med.emory.edu/MDPHD

 

Illinois

Northwestern University Medical School
http://www.feinberg.northwestern.edu/sites/mstp

University of Chicago
Medical Scientist Training Program
https://pritzker.uchicago.edu/academics/mstp-landing-page

University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine
http://chicago.medicine.uic.edu/mstp

 

Indiana

Indiana University School of Medicine, MSTP
https://medicine.iu.edu/education/dual-degrees/

 

Iowa

University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine
https://medicine.uiowa.edu/mstp?

 

Maryland

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
https://mdphd.johnshopkins.edu/

University of Maryland School of Medicine
http://mdphd.umaryland.edu

 

Massachusetts

Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts Institute of Technology

There are two MD/PhD programs through Pathways and HST. Read more about Harvard Medical School here: https://crackingmedadmissions.com/how-to-get-into-harvard-medical-school/
http://www.hms.harvard.edu/md_phd

 

Tufts University School of Medicine
http://sackler.tufts.edu/Academics/MSTP-Welcome

University of Massachusetts Medical School
http://umassmed.edu/mdphd

 

Michigan

University of Michigan Medical School
http://medicine.umich.edu/medschool/education/mdphd-program

 

Minnesota

University of Minnesota Medical School
http://www.med.umn.edu/mdphd

Mayo Medical School
https://college.mayo.edu/academics/biomedical-research-training/medical-scientist-training-program-md-phd/

 
Missouri

Washington University School of Medicine
http://mstp.wustl.edu

 

New York

Albert Einstein College of Medicine
http://www.einstein.yu.edu/education/mstp

Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/mdphd

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
http://icahn.mssm.edu/education/graduate/md-phd-program

New York University School of Medicine
http://www.med.nyu.edu/sackler/mdphd-program

Stony Brook University
https://medicine.stonybrookmedicine.edu/mstp

University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry
http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/education/md/md-phd

Weill Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional MD PhD  Program
http://weill.cornell.edu/mdphd

 

North Carolina

Duke University Medical Center
https://medschool.duke.edu/education/degree-programs-and-admissions/medical-scientist-training-program

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine
http://www.med.unc.edu/mdphd

 

Ohio

Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine
http://mstp.cwru.edu

Ohio State University College of Medicine
http://medicine.osu.edu/mstp

University of Cincinnati College of Medicine MSTP
http://www.med.uc.edu/MSTP

 

Oregon

Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine
http://www.ohsu.edu/mdphd

 

Pennsylvania

Penn State College of Medicine
http://www.pennstatehershey.org/web/mdphd

University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine
http://www.med.upenn.edu/mstp

University of Pittsburgh
http://www.mdphd.pitt.edu

 

South Carolina

Medical University of South Carolina
https://education.musc.edu/colleges/graduate-studies/academics/dual-degree/mstp

Tennessee

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine MSTP
https://medschool.vanderbilt.edu/mstp

 
Texas

Baylor College of Medicine MSTP
https://www.bcm.edu/education/programs/md-phd-program

University of Texas Health Science Center Houston
Department of Internal Medicine
https://gsbs.uth.edu/mdphd/

University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio
Department of Neurology, Pharmacology, and Physiology
https://lsom.uthscsa.edu/mimg/

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas
https://www.utsouthwestern.edu/

 

Virginia

University of Virginia Health System MSTP Program
http://mstp.med.virginia.edu

 

Washington

University of Washington School of Medicine
http://www.mstp.washington.edu

 

Wisconsin

Medical College of Wisconsin MSTP
https://www.mcw.edu/education/medical-scientist-training-program

University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health
http://mstp.med.wisc.edu

 

Read our medical school profiles to learn more about each individual school. 

Resources

Now that we have reviewed what MD, PhD, and MD-PhD degrees consists of and how to apply, as well as some of the pros and cons of pursuing a MD-PhD program, we hope that you can make an informed decision about your graduate education! Even if you choose not to pursue an MD or PhD, many institutions have accelerated programs that allow MD or PhD graduates to complete the other degree in a shorter timeframe. Similarly, many medical schools even allow students to apply to add a PhD portion onto their education before they begin their clinical training. Regardless of whichever path is right for you, all three offer incredible opportunities to pursue scientific passions and work towards solving societal issues.

Here are some Cracking Med School Admissions Resources you will find helpful as you think about MD PhD programs:

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact us down below.

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