MD vs. PhD vs. MD/PhD : what's best for research?

Marc Wiles wilesm at
Thu Dec 16 19:50:04 EST 1993

In article <2equciINN3ks at>,
Matt Harrington <mbharrin at> wrote:
>I'm in the process of deciding which degree to pursue next.  I figure
>that I'm happiest doing research in the biomedical field, especially in
>biophysics.  I'm aware of MD/PhD programs out there, but I haven't been
>able to get information about the usefulness of this combined degree.
>I'd like to hear opinions about which degree is best for research
>careers, and what's the advantage of getting an MD for someone solely
>interested in research?  What kinds of things are MD/PhD people doing in
>terms of research or medical practice?  Are there more opportunitites in
>research for those with an MD compared to those with just a PhD?  Is
>either degree more respected in the scientific community?
>Thanks in advance,
>Matt Harrington
>Internet: matt at


Personally, being a PhD myself, I feel that a PhD degree for a research
career in the biomedical arena is invaluable.  While I have met and worked
with many outstanding MD researchers in the biomed area, there are some
inherent differences between the MD researcher and the PhD researcher.  In
my experience, and this is only my opinion, there is a very different
manner of focus that is derived from earning the PhD in research versus
completing an MD and entering into research.  Fundamentally, a PhD lives
and breathes research for the duration of graduate training and
post-doctoral training.  In contrast, an MD is focused initially on
learning how to be an effective physician first.  I am not saying this is
bad by any stretch of the imagination, merely that a different focus
occurs as a function oftraining.

As a consequence, I think the thinking relative to research is molded in a
very different manner.  Often I have observed that MD researchers tend to
focus more on therapeutic modalities linked to research.  In my case,
being a cell biologist, the focus is more on mechanisms whereby a system
works, less on whether a system of examination directly models a
preexisting medical condition.  There is a distinction.  I say this
because much of the work I do is related, in very large part, to an
overall clinical perspective.  However, when I approach a problem it is
from a more mechanistic how does this particular event
modulate cellular function.  This is undoubtedly true for some MD
researchers as well.  However, I have noted that a trend amonst the MD
researchs with whom I've worked has been the realization of an ultimate
therapeutic end point.  Again, this is not bad by any stretch.  I think
that the difference in perspective engendered by differences in training
lead to such a research orientation.   After all, if you seek a PhD in
research, it's usually because research is your guiding interest, whereas
I would think that attaining a MD is because your primary interest is in
treating patients.  Granted, interests change over time and some excellent
physicians also become excellent researchers.  In a nutshell however, I
think that one develops very different skills and ways of approaching a
research problem as a PhD which is not imparted as a part of MD training.

As to the MD/PhD degree, for some, it is a fine idea.  However, I do have
a problem with compressing both graduate degrees into the limited time
frame of such a program.  This is not to be a purist, but there's an awful
lot to learn as a PhD even within the 5-7 average time taken to attain
that degree.  I don't see how an equivalent level of experience can be
garnered as a function of the combined degree program.  Actually, one of
my friends who is an MD/PhD has made the comment that in some respects he
is neither an excellent MD nor an excellent PhD...the reason being that
his loyalties are split between the two perspectives....his comment was
also that he sees himself falling behind clinicians who spend 100% of
their time with patients and that he similarly lags behind PhD researchers
who spend 100% of their time on research.  It was an interesting observation.

However, as to funding, it has also been my observation, perhaps
erroneously, that funds have been somewhat easier to obtain with an MD
degree these days.  Though with the tightening of available grant funds
that too is changing.

As I said, these are my opinions and my $0.02.  This is not intended as
flame bait.

Best wishes in your decisions.  I think you should keep your primary
interest in mind in deciding on the MD vs PhD.  Do you really enjoy
research and all that goes with it, or do you want a career treating
patients with all the attendant responsibilities?

Dr. Marc E. Wiles
George Washington University Medical School

More information about the Bioforum mailing list