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Comparing the differences between MD vs. PhD vs. professional doctorate

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This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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Reviewed by Marc Booker, PhD, Vice Provost, Strategy

At a glance

  • MD is the abbreviation for Doctor of Medicine and PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. These are two types of doctoral degrees in addition to professional doctorates. 
  • An MD is a doctoral degree for medical professionals, while a PhD is an academic degree focused on original research. Somewhat similar to a PhD are professional doctorates, which focus on applying practical research to problems in workplaces or communities.   
  • A professional or practice-based doctorate (EdD, DBA, etc.) can be medical, and others are for scholar-practitioners in disciplines like education, business or psychology.
  • University of Phoenix does not offer MD or PhD programs, but students can earn a doctorate in business, nursing, education or healthcare that allows them to build upon their industry expertise. Learn more about the differences between these degree programs and if one of the five doctoral programs at University of Phoenix is right for you!

What is a doctorate? Breaking down the three types

Some people might confuse an MD (Doctor of Medicine) with a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), and vice versa. While both an MD and a PhD are prestigious degrees near the top of the academic ladder, they each have a different meaning and come with very different requirements.

Different still from both of those degrees are professional doctorates, which allow industry professionals to translate their education and experience into credibility and leadership through research. Professional doctorates have similar requirements to PhDs, such as a dissertation and residency, but focus on the application of research and professional growth over original research.

Upon graduation, those who have earned any of these three degrees can call themselves a “doctor,” but the path to a degree, the purpose behind it and its applications vary based on the choice. MD graduates want to work in medicine and healthcare. PhDs want to bring new knowledge and research to the world. A practice-based doctoral graduate wants to grow in their professional expertise. (If the last one sounds like you, University of Phoenix can help!)

Keep reading to learn more about these doctoral programs and which is right for you.

What does MD stand for?

MD is an abbreviation for Doctor of Medicine and identifies a medical practitioner who has completed undergraduate studies and four years of medical school. An MD program teaches medical students about the human body and diseases through a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on clinical labs.

Several types of physicians might have this degree, depending on their area of study. For example, medical practitioners with an MD degree might become a medical doctor and potentially specialize in dermatology, cardiovascular disease, family medicine, oncology, pediatrics, neurology or preventive medicine. As you can see, this degree can lead to a variety of career paths, depending on which specialty interests you and what your medical education is.

Learn more about online doctoral degrees at University of Phoenix. 

How to earn an MD

Becoming a Doctor of Medicine requires a significant investment of time and money, but the reward can be well worth it. Before medical school, you’ll need to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT®) and earn a passing score. You’ll also need to build a portfolio of coursework and experience to help you gain admittance to medical school.

Medical school typically takes students four years to complete. You’ll learn the latest techniques and approaches for patient assessment, diagnosis and treatment. Medical schools commonly provide a combination of classroom, research and clinical experience. You’ll work alongside peers and healthcare professionals as you develop skills in general medicine.

You’ll choose a field to specialize in during your final year of medical school. Students have more than 120 options to choose from when specializing, including primary care, pediatrics, geriatrics, emergency medicine and family medicine.

After graduating, you’ll complete residency training to further develop skills in your specialty. Residency typically lasts three to seven years, depending on the field you’ve selected. During the residency portion of your education, you’ll treat patients under the supervision of more experienced physicians.

Even after you begin to practice as an MD, the educational portion of your career never stops. As practices change, patient needs evolve and research continues, MDs benefit from ongoing education to stay current.

What does PhD stand for?

A PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is a doctoral degree that recognizes graduates who have completed a full postsecondary program. Students can earn a PhD in more fields than philosophy. After completing the necessary coursework, original research and hands-on experience, you can earn a PhD in fields like science, the humanities and engineering.

Earning a PhD can help unlock a wide range of potential career opportunities. Computer engineers, research scientists, statisticians, healthcare administrators, professors, chemists and other careers commonly require a PhD degree, in addition to appropriate undergraduate study.

How to earn a PhD

Becoming a PhD is also a serious commitment that requires an investment of time, money and energy.

Here is what’s typically required to become a PhD:

  • Complete a bachelor’s degree in your field
  • Complete a master’s degree in an appropriate field
  • Pass any program entrance exams
  • Fulfill coursework, research and hands-on lab requirements in your program
  • Finalize and defend your dissertation as a doctoral candidate (unless your program specifies otherwise)

It’s important to note that many PhD programs have different requirements, prerequisites and parameters for students. Check with your preferred institution for a more detailed explanation of these requirements.

What is a professional doctorate?

While some professional or practice-based doctorate programs are medical, others are designed for professionals in other fields. These programs are meant for scholar-practitioners in disciplines like education, business or psychology. One of the key differences between this degree and a PhD is the focus on applying research to a professional setting rather than conducting theoretical and research-focused studies. Often, programs are differentiated as academic versus professional.

Examples of doctoral degrees are Doctor of Education, Doctor of Nursing Practice and Doctor of Business Administration. Each of these programs focuses on a specific discipline and applying research in those areas to a professional setting.

How to earn a doctorate

While practitioner doctoral programs teach different skills, they all share common requirements. You’ll need to complete a bachelor’s degree in your field and sometimes a master’s degree, depending on program requirements.

After completing the necessary coursework and research, students also typically need to finish a supervised thesis and defend their dissertation or capstone project-specific coursework, research and hands-on labs alongside other students in the same field. However, this will depend on the specific program and its requirements.

What does the title “Dr.” really mean?

The term “doctor” or “Dr.” is commonly used today to describe a wide variety of occupations. Students who complete a doctoral degree can earn the title of “Dr.” even though they earned their credentials in a non-medical field like education or business management.

While a variety of professionals can earn a doctorate, the term is often still reserved for medical practitioners. In conventional use, doctors typically refer to medical physicians. However, it is appropriate to use “Dr.” if you graduated from any of the three programs discussed above.  

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What is doctoral candidacy?

Practitioner doctoral degree programs at University of Phoenix

While University of Phoenix (UOPX) does not have MD or PhD programs, it does offer several professional doctoral degrees that can be earned completely online. Students might choose the UOPX programs because classes are flexible and offered online, and because of the University’s unique “Scholar-Practitioner-Leader model.”

If you are curious about a doctoral degree, the following programs are available at UOPX:

  • Doctor of Business Administration — This doctorate can help you gain strategic vision and skills to position yourself as a business leader. It explores how to solve organizational problems, how to design and conduct research studies, how to introduce innovative business ideas to the industry and more.
  • Doctor of Management — This doctorate equips you with critical thinking skills to find creative solutions to complex problems.
  • Doctor of Education — This doctoral program prepares you to use analytical, critical and innovative thinking to improve performance and solve complex problems in education.
  • Doctor of Health Administration — If you’re a health professional who is seeking greater responsibility in shaping the future of the health sector, this doctorate can help you meet the challenges inherent to today’s healthcare landscape, including economic fluctuations, burgeoning patient needs and industry-changing legislation.
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice — This doctorate is designed for working nurses who require a doctorate for advanced practice or nurses who desire their terminal degree. It does not prepare students for professional certification or state licensure as a nurse or as an advanced practice nurse.

These doctoral studies are only some of the many options for professionals who want to gain the highest academic credentials in their fields. Doctoral programs offer significant benefits to program graduates, including newly developed skills, insight into field trends, hands-on research opportunities and leadership capabilities.

Completing a doctoral program is also a strong indication to employers that you’re serious about your career and your field. With so many options for advanced study, these programs are available for most major fields. Even if you have already completed a bachelor’s or master’s degree in your discipline, a doctorate lends further credibility to your reputation and can help prepare you for a leadership position.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Feder is a content marketing specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program and a New Jersey native!

Photo of blog author Michael Feder smiling.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Feder is a content marketing specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program and a New Jersey native!

 

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