M.D., D.O., Ph.D.–Which Degree Should You Go For?

Written by: Alex Brown
Published on: Dec 9, 2021


Doctors impact healthcare using different approaches. Often, the career path – and degree program – a prospective doctor takes will hinge on how they want to affect medical outcomes. In the U.S., there are three degree program types–M.D., D.O., and Ph.D.–that will allow you to contribute to the medical community.

If you would like to become a doctor but are not sure how to best apply your talent, it’s important to understand the differences between an M.D., a D.O. and a Ph.D.

What is a M.D.?

A Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) is an allopathic doctor who diagnoses and treats conditions with conventional medical tools (MRIs, prescription drugs, surgery, etc.) They practice in fields such as family medicine, internal medicine, or pediatrics. Many M.D.s go into primary care but are also frequently found in specialized disciplines.

A M.D. will focus specifically on an issue or combination of issues, directing specific treatments to resolve the situation.

M.D. degree

For a M.D., medical school is typically a four-year path. The first two years, called the pre-clinical phase, focus on academic subjects such as physiology and chemistry. The second two years are spent completing clerkships in specialties as preparation for licensing exams.

Upon graduation, medical doctors spend multiple years in residency programs to gain additional training.

What is a D.O.?

A Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) is an osteopathic doctor who also diagnoses and treats conditions but uses a modified approach to treatment. D.O.s will often use the same conventional medical techniques as M.D.s but tend to focus more on holistic health and prevention.

In practice, D.O.s will examine a patient’s mind, body, and emotional state when considering treatment. Alongside a conventional medical approach, they may provide physical manipulations to diagnose and treat their patients.

While D.O.s also tend to focus on primary care, they also practice in most medical specialties.

D.O. Degree

Osteopathic medical schools also require two years of science classes in anatomy, biochemistry, and physiology followed by two years in clinical settings. During medical school, however, D.O.s get specialized training in the musculoskeletal system, and about a tenth of the D.O. coursework (around 300 hours) focuses on hands-on therapies addressing the body’s interconnected system of nerves, muscles and bones.

Following graduation, D.O.s are expected to complete similar residencies as M.D.s.

Medical Studies

M.D. vs D.O. in Healthcare Delivery

In today’s healthcare, there isn’t much practical difference between a M.D. and an D.O. While each physician type attends a different type of medical school, both may practice at the same hospitals and clinics.

The degree choice you make for this patient-centered role will depend on whether you have an allopathic or osteopathic view of healthcare. Do you see the human body as a collection of independent moving parts or as an integrated system of dependent parts? The answer should guide your decision.

There is another option if you want to contribute to healthcare but would prefer not to see patients: a Ph.D. degree.

What is a Ph.D.?

A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is also a vital member of the healthcare community. Ph.D.s perform research that advances medicine, turning theory into the application of knowledge. Getting a Ph.D. degree allows you to explore the “hows” and “whys” that lead to solutions designed to prevent and treat disease.

In some cases it may be possible to combine a Ph.D. with a medical degree, which enables someone to do research and treat patients at the same time.

Ph.D. Degree

Depending on the jurisdiction where a Ph.D. is earned, there may be academic coursework required in the specialization being pursued. However, the primary responsibility in achieving this designation is submitting a project, thesis, or dissertation built upon original academic research that is in principle worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

When all coursework and submissions are completed, you’ll have to successfully complete comprehensive exams before you can proceed as a doctor.