During an interview recently Dr. Fauci, the top doctor in the US, called himself "a scientist, and a physician". It appears that he only has an MD, but is an immunologist and a highly cited researcher. This is not a special case, there are many examples of labs run by a researcher with only an MD. That makes me wonder: why bother getting a PhD in say, immunology, when it appears that an MD is objectively better. With an MD you are qualified to run a lab despite not having the terminal degree of a typical researcher, and you are trained as a physician or whatever specialty so you always have something to fall back on.

To me this seems like the 5+ years spent becoming an expert in your field by doing novel research doesn't really matter as you can get a research job with an MD that doesn't require any of that. So what advantage is there to getting a PhD in life science fields that overlap with medicine?


A PhD isn't just a degree. You also learn new things and acquire new skills while doing the PhD. Those are things you don't get from an MD.

For example, one thing a PhD candidate is supposed to learn on the way to earning the PhD is academic writing. Therefore, they should (in theory) be able to write papers more comprehensibly than someone who just did an MD.

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  • So while an MD grants one the opportunity to research medicine, practice medicine, advise patients, participate in clinical trials, and conduct research on their own patients, while a PhD only grants one the opportunity to research medicine without patient interaction and gives one an edge in writing papers? – Cell May 13 at 15:08
  • @Cell of course one should learn more things in the course of the PhD. I don't know the specifics for life science PhDs, but in my field, one would learn things like Python, teaching courses, tricks to numerically evaluate integrals faster, and so on. – Allure May 13 at 15:11
  • So basically just a slight edge in writing papers. That's what I thought too. – Cell May 13 at 15:22
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    @Cell no, one is likely to have learned e.g. more research techniques too during the PhD. – Allure May 13 at 15:32
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    @Cell That's a very reductive view of it. A PhD involves in depth research into a very specific area. My experience of MDs running labs is that they oversee an area of interest they have long term expertise in, and manage PhDs, postdocs, and professional researchers. They'd be much less likely to start running a lab straight after finishing their MD, while you would expect a pure researcher to do so straight after a postdoc (or two). – awjlogan May 13 at 15:33

The trick, actually, is to get that job. Without a PhD or other demonstrated research experience it might be harder most places. Most MD programs are focused more on patient outcomes than on science per se.

But yes, if you can convince someone to hire you then you can probably learn research methodology along the way. This will include a lot of things, including something of statistics and more on lab process than is probably normal in the MD program itself. Publishing in the scientific literature is also something to be learned along the way and isn't especially typical in the training of an MD.

The advantage of the PhD on top of an MD is that the focus is precisely on the scientific (rather than clinical) aspects of medicine. You learn to do science under the direction of scientists who also have some expertise in biology and other aspects of the wider medical area.

Note, of course, that Dr Fauci is 79 years old. He has had a lot of time to learn the craft and has been positioned in places where it is well practiced.

Note that in some places, an MD is, in fact, a research degree and requires an earlier degree in medicine. But this isn't the case in the US or Canada. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_of_Medicine

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  • This answer isn't really satisfactory. As a MSc graduate, I wouldn't even bother applying to a job requiring a PhD as my application would be rejected on arrival. It's unheard of for MSc holders to be running labs. So it can't be just about having research experience as a MSc would have more experience than an MD. But MDs are equivalent to PhDs. Also in the life sciences and medicine (NOT biology), doing 1-2 postdocs is common practice that means having a PhD is not enough anymore. – Cell May 13 at 12:12
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    Sorry, but MDs are not equivalent to PhDs. Not in any sense, at least in US. How does MSc apply here? – Buffy May 13 at 12:16
  • I get the sense you're not familiar with research in the life sciences. – Cell May 13 at 12:21
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    Are you looking for answers to your question, or confirmation of a preconceived view? – Buffy May 13 at 12:24
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    The issue of experience here is non-negligible: Dr. Fauci started in a lab in 1968. Moreover, things certainly have changed since that time. – ZeroTheHero May 13 at 12:29

In the broadest of terms, medical degrees, MDs, are ultimately for people who want to help patients. Jokes about pathologists aside, the majority of medical do want to see people on a personal basis and heal them.

Now, modern medical programs often have research components; usually small ones, and MDs of course participate in research, but the vast majority do not perform any once they are licensed. If they do, it's often as the person who arranges the treatment, whatever it may be.

As other people have said, PhDs are to train you to do research. Outside of psychology, they don't have patient contact. So if you want to do research in the life sciences, but don't want to practice, there is no reason to get an MD.

That makes me wonder: why bother getting a PhD in say, immunology, when it appears that an MD is objectively better. With an MD you are qualified to run a lab despite not having the terminal degree of a typical researcher, ...

A fresh MD is less qualified to run a lab than a fresh PhD. Of course, fresh PhDs don't get labs anymore, but a PhD + postdoc is much more qualified to run a lab than an MD who has been practicing (not researching) for an equivalent time.

Of course, an MD could play their cards right and end up on a research track, but medical school isn't shorter. Medical school + residency is longer, and much more difficult than PhD school + postdoc.

To me this seems like the 5+ years spent becoming an expert in your field by doing novel research doesn't really matter as you can get a research job with an MD that doesn't require any of that.

That's not what happens: MDs have to add in research on top of what is already a difficult professional training program. And, often, they don't do it well. I don't want to speak in general terms, but I dislike working with research MDs: They are supremely busy, and are less present in the lab because they are in clinic multiple days per week.

... and you are trained as a physician or whatever specialty so you always have something to fall back on.

While true, you have to maintain your licensure, so add that on top of a busy research job, and doing that looks less attractive.

While you say "fall back on," a practicing physician in almost any specialty is practically guaranteed to make more than a PI in the same field. My last PI was an MD (and one of the reasons I dislike working with them), and as a senior neurologist, probably could have made double in practice in a hospital or privately.

So if you want to do research, why get a degree that would get you more money elsewhere, and take out a loan to do it? PhDs are paid to go to school, even if it's a pittance, and do not take out loans for tuition. MDs must.

Finally, as others have pointed out, keep in mind Dr. Fauci is old, and is from a different time.

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    Relevant to this post and Buffy's, via Wikipedia Fauci got his MD in 1966; MD/PhD programs grew following the NIH's Medical Scientist Training Program which only began in 1964...so, prior to that, there weren't really education alternatives for physicians who intended to focus on research. – Bryan Krause May 13 at 16:47
  • @BryanKrause A general listing of faculty for the Beckman Research Institute within UCIrvine shows faculty there is dominated by PhDs (even if the current interim director is an MD and apparently does not have a PhD) and would broadly support your suggestion that research in the medical field has moved towards more formal training over the years. I'm sure one can find counterexamples, but I would be surprised to learn the trend is not as you imply. – ZeroTheHero May 13 at 17:39
  • @ZeroTheHero What is the point you are making? I can't quite grasp it. Probably my own point was a bit unclear as well. – Bryan Krause May 13 at 17:40
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    @BryanKrause joint pointing out that Fauci is not necessarily a relevant point of comparison for someone currently deciding if it is useful to get formal training through a PhD for research in the medical field. – ZeroTheHero May 13 at 17:46
  • Great detailed answer. I might reconsider best answer if I can fix my account situation. You said med+residency is shorter. Did you take into account research experience during residency? Another user also said it takes longer, but it's vague. Also why does the loan situation matter if you end up doing clinical work? Must bring more money than pure research. – Cell May 13 at 22:56

You are confusing a qualification with an education.

One hope that by the time one reaches the PhD stage one is beyond doing a 4 year, extremely taxing, and financially unrewarding degree, just to get a piece of paper saying you've done it. You do it because you want to learn. By the end of a PhD, the piece of paper saying you've got a PhD is almsot immaterial - people are frequently hired into postdoc positions before they've formally graduated their PhD.

I guess that most non-PhD MD reserachers start off writing case reports, and then they migth get involved in some clinical reserach, maybe a clinical trial or two. Over time they find they need to collaborate with people with labs in order to confirm the hypotheses coming out of their clincal research. They might co-supervise a PhD student or a postdoc with a PhD Scientist before moving on to supervise on their own. - The point is they get drawn into lab reserach - its wasn't orignally their primary passion. And they will have a lot of ground to make up - they might be qualified to do it, but it doesn't mean they will be any good at it.

I suspect there are a few rare indeviduals who are born to do research. For the rest of us, research is a skill that has to be taught and learnt.

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  • That's a pretty big generalization. – Cell May 13 at 22:47
  • what is? That people do PhDs because they want to learn? I mean, I did say "I hope". – Ian Sudbery May 13 at 22:54
  • No your generalization of all MD career paths. Also I don't believe you can tell me what people's passions are. Some MDs might have a passion to help people, some might not care too much and do it for the job security, some for the money, some might love research and want to see patients too. It doesn't really answer my question. My question was more along the lines of "you love research and medicine, why get a PhD over an MD when both allow you to do research". – Cell May 13 at 23:03
  • Also you saying I'm confused is incorrect. An MD is a qualification because it allows you to do postdocs. – Cell May 13 at 23:05
  • I didn't say an MD wasn't a qualification. Both MD and PhD are qualifications and they give an education. An MD qualifies you to do both practice and (in some locals and under some circumstances) research, a PhD "qualifies" you to do research. An MD gives you an education in practice, while a PhD gives you an _education in research. Your question was "What is the advantage of getting a PhD", my answer is "to get an education in reserach", which is not the same as getting a qualification in research (although a PhD does give you this as well, it is not so valuable). – Ian Sudbery May 13 at 23:31

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