If you find yourself struggling between pursuing an MD PhD vs MD degree, you've come to the right place. In this blog, we'll explore the similarities and differences between medical doctors and physician-scientists to help you determine how to choose the pathway that is best suited for you.
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While those with MD PhD and MD degrees are both medical doctors, MD PhD graduates also possess a PhD and are therefore known as physician-scientists or medical scientists. Obtaining this extra degree requires a different program structure and length compared to MD programs. MD PhD programs are generally 7-8 years in length and require attendance at both medical and graduate school. MD programs, on the other hand, will be completed in four years, half the time it will take MD PhD students. While both programs are classroom-based during the first two years, MD PhD students will move on to graduate school to complete their PhD thesis for between 3-4 years. They will then return to medical school for a year or two completing clinical rotations. Both MD PhD and MD graduates will complete their residency training for between 3-7 years before being licensed to practice medicine.
Whether you're interested in an MD PhD or an MD program, the application process is similar. You'll apply to most programs through AMCAS where you'll complete all sections of the application including the AMCAS work and activities section and you'll upload your coursework, letters of evaluation, and medical school personal statement. Make sure to find out if the schools of your choice require you to take CASPer test. If so, start practicing using CASPer sample questions as soon as you can. In addition to the standard application components, MD PhD applicants will have to complete two additional essays that describe both their reasons for pursuing an MD PhD degree and their research experience. Review our medical school application timelines blog to ensure you're aware of the application process and corresponding deadlines.
The average yearly medical school tuition and fees for students enrolled in MD programs is approximately $37,000 in state and $62,000 at private or out of state friendly medical schools. Students enrolled in MD-PhD programs, however, have the benefit of a largely reduced or even free tuition as many programs offer tuition waivers and provide stipends to cover the cost of living expenses. In fact, forty-nine MD PhD programs currently receive funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) through the highly competitive Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP).
It's no secret that both MD PhD and MD programs are extremely competitive, with acceptance rates on average between 1-4%. There are far fewer MD PhD programs available compared with MD programs and the large benefit of reduced or waived tuition makes for even higher competition, especially in MSTPs vs MD programs. It's a good idea to use our medical school chance predictor to see how your grades and test scores compare with the average scores of accepted individuals into either program. Last year, MD PhD matriculants had an average MCAT score of 516 and an average GPA of 3.80 compared with the 511.5 MCAT score and 3.73 GPA of MD matriculants. So, we can see that in order to be a competitive MD PhD applicant, you'll have to possess a higher GPA and MCAT score than if you were to apply as an MD applicant. Of course, the level of competition varies between schools, and there are certainly MD programs that receive a high volume of applicants competing for few spots making some MD programs more competitive than MD-PhD programs, it's entirely dependant on the school, program, and application cycle.
Although it may seem obvious that students who graduate from MD programs become medical doctors and most practice medicine at hospitals, clinics, medical centers, and private practices, some students are unsure of what a career looks like as a physician-scientist. Many MD PhD graduates choose to complete their residency training in internal medicine, pathology, pediatrics, and neurology, however, many other specialties are also represented, from surgery to radiology to emergency medicine. Internal medicine is also a common specialty choice for MD graduates as well as pediatrics, emergency medicine, and family medicine. According to a study conducted by the AAMC, nearly 80% of all MD PhD graduates enjoy careers as faculty members at medical schools or work for the National Institute of Health (NIH), other research institutions, industry, and federal agencies with many devoting a large portion of their time to research. Also, out of roughly 7000 MD-PhD alumni that took part in this study, 82% said that they would partake in MD-PhD training again, even if they had the chance to go back in time and change their mind.
Physician-scientists not only possess in-depth knowledge in the medical field, they also have knowledge of population health and disease and will be trained to conduct independent research and analysis. With this dual degree, physician-scientists are highly valued for their ability to treat patients while also contributing to detecting health threats, developing new treatments, therapies or even cures. Physician-scientists working in academia can teach and provide clinical service, while also conducting their own, or joint, research. The annual salary for physician-scientists is usually between $60,000-$115,000, depending on the type and place of employment.
Physicians manage and support the health and well-being of those in their care. Through physical examinations, diagnostic testing, treatment, and communication, they can manage and significantly improve the health of their patients. Depending on the type of physician, they may perform surgeries and treat either general or specific illness and disease. Annual salaries generally correspond to level of training and specialization and usually range from $180,000-$280,000
For some, from the moment they put on safety glasses in science class or that time they resuscitate their childhood teddy bear, they knew what they were going to be when they grew up. Not everyone has an immediate passion or the typical “aha” moment later on in life. Sometimes, a student's drive to medicine or research develops later on in life, through experiences, education or even while overcoming hardships, and this is perfectly normal. So, what if you have a passion for both science and medicine? How can you choose whether to pursue an MD degree or a joint MD PhD degree? It's important to choose only once you've considered a variety of factors and are 100% sure in your decision, because the reality is, neither option will be easy and you'll have to be willing to invest the time, money, and effort to be successful.
Find out what drives you.
Start by thinking about what you're interested in and what motivates you to help you determine where your true passions lie. If you know that you are really interested in medicine and in helping others but only have a slight interest in research, then it's probably a good idea to pursue medicine on its own. At nearly twice the length of an MD program, the MD PhD program is no walk in the park. Students should only pursue this joint degree if they have a serious passion for both medicine and research. In addition to feeling passionate about treating patients, if you find yourself interested in the mechanisms behind disease, are curious about the unknowns and can't picture a career that doesn't involve research, it's a good sign that the joint program will be suitable for you.
Determining whether or not you are interested in becoming a medical doctor or a physician-scientist is the first and most important decision you'll have to make when deciding between the two pathways. If you're motivated by your passions, you're likely to enjoy your career because it's actually what you want to do. By putting in the time and effort to be the best version of yourself, you'll have a fulfilling rewarding career.
Let your experiences guide you.
So, how can you know for sure which path is the best for you? Gain experience in the field well in advance of filling out your applications. This will be closest you'll get to test drive your potential career choice. If you're struggling to decide between an MD and MD PhD program, be sure to gain both clinical and research experience. This will be a great way for you to get hands-on experience in both fields to see which areas really spark your interest and which areas you're not as keen on. Learn how to ask to shadow a doctor, sign up for volunteering experiences that place you in the medical or research field, and partake in scientific experiments where you'll be testing hypotheses to gain research experience. Not only will these experiences be essential when filling out your medical school applications, the key is that through a variety of different experiences, you'll be able to hone in on your interests.
Consider the affordability of each program.
According to the AAMC, approximately 76% of medical school students graduate with debt. For the students that borrow money, the median debt is approximately $200,000 at public medical schools. Of course, with an average physician salary of $300,000, this debt can be repaid, but it can be a rocky start for students as they begin entering their careers. A major benefit of MD PhD programs is the fact that most programs partially cover or completely waive tuition for enrolled students, and many also provide a stipend that can be used to cover the costs of living expenses. Due to this, some students can finish their training debt-free, and potentially even with a decent amount of savings. Now, this isn't to say that you should simply pick a program based on the cost but it's an important factor to consider if you want to pursue either option. What's important is that you pick your path depending on which best aligns with your interests, motivations, and short and long term career goals.
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Your friends at BeMo