Difference between an MD and a PhD

By: | Updated: Nov-19, 2017
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Although people who have obtained both an MD or a PhD carry the title “doctor,” only one can actually treat patients. This fact alone shows that an MD is distinct from a PhD. Let’s go ahead and find out more.

Summary Table

Degree in medicine and allied medical courses Higher degree in the arts and sciences
2 years of coursework and 2 years of residency 4 to 7 years of coursework; a thesis or dissertation defense
Optometrist, pharmacist, dentist, physician, physical therapist University professor, scientific researcher, economist


A pediatrician examining her young patient

The term MD stands for Doctor of Medicine, which is a medical degree for medical practitioners. The meaning of the degree differs depending on where you are. In the US (and in countries following its system), it is a professional degree awarded upon graduating from a medical course. However, in regions that pattern themselves to the UK system, an MD is a research doctorate, honorary doctorate, advanced clinical course, or higher doctorate awarded only to medical graduates.

Medical schools are typically expensive and take four years to complete. Admission to a medical school is very competitive in the US. There are schools that may require students to obtain undergraduate coursework while others require completion of a four-year course. Prior to graduating and obtaining an MD, students are required to take a medical licensing examination and a clinical knowledge and skills assessment. After graduation, physicians who prefer to practice in the US are expected to complete another medical licensing exam and at least a year of internship. They also have to go through a residency, which is a specialized training to make them board eligible in practicing specific fields such as internal medicine or general surgery.

university professor
A university professor teaching a political science class

A PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is a doctorate degree awarded for completion of any of the various programs in the sciences such as chemistry, mathematics, biology, and physics. It also covers graduate programs in engineering and the humanities. University professors, scientists, and researchers are often required to complete a PhD. A doctorate award can be in recognition of completion of a course (i.e. earned doctorate), or it can be to “honor” a significant person who has not completed doctoral academic work or university dissertation.

An individual who has earned a PhD automatically receives the academic title of “doctor.” A student who is taking a PhD course is a PhD student, or a “doctoral candidate.” When a student is finally working on his dissertation or thesis, the term “Candidate of Philosophy” is already applicable to that person.

MD vs PhD

So what’s the difference between an MD and a PhD? While both MD and PhD degree holders are called “doctors,” only an MD is involved in treating patients. An MD, or a Doctor of Medicine, is a medical degree for individuals who wish to build a career in the medical field. A PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is a doctorate degree in the sciences, engineering, or humanities.

The MD title is usually awarded to a student who has finished a four-year medical course in a medical school. This includes two years of hospital work (i.e. residency) and another two years of coursework. A PhD can be earned in at least four to seven years, which includes getting his/her thesis or dissertation approved .


For more about the difference between an MD and a PhD, check out this YouTube video.

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