My friend recently graduated with a bachelor degree in biology. He is thinking that he can help more people by studying a biomedical engineering Ph.D., rather than becoming a medical doctor. He is wondering, however, about the differences between these two paths from a career perspective. What the advantages and disadvantages of an academic career vs. a medical career?

  • I have changed the question to be less situation-specific and less opinion-driven, so that it better fits with the pretty good answers it received.
    – jakebeal
    Feb 15, 2015 at 3:30

3 Answers 3


As a person who faced a similar dilemma a few years ago, I think there are major practical differences:

  1. The working environment. Every doctor will spend his early career in a hospital, whether he plans on practising in the community later or not. A hospital environment is really different than the research one. In the former you are constantly on your feet, working long hours, nights, etc. However, you are constantly working with the people to whom you're helping. In a "lucky" week (depends on the POV), you might save a life every day.
  2. Taking work home. While a M.D works long and hard hours at his/er practice, when she goes home - she can rest. Her patients doesn't follow her home. As a researcher I can tell you that I'm even dreaming on my research.
  3. Independence. The medical environment is a very hierarchical one. Starting out as a M.D, you can't even sign off your own orders (in first world countries, at least :) ), contrary to a graduate student who might be given an independent project very early in his or her study course.
  4. Goals. As a researcher, you end up working for the sake of science. You might find yourself pursuing a direction which might take decades before it translates into helping people. As a practitioner - you're working for the people in front of you.
  5. Demand for your skills. In general - there are hardly any M.Ds who go unemployed. Most healthcare systems are understaffed and there is always a demand for M.Ds. I wish we could say the same about positions in the academy, and the industry is never as stable (and here it's field specific and I can't say much about the specific field in question).
  • "and the industry is never as stable". By "the industry" you mean biomedical research? The last sentence is not so clear. Jun 15, 2014 at 15:21
  • 1
    I think that stands as a general statement regarding the private sector. The industry, that means - research done outside of the academy, is not a stable job market in many fields, esp. those related to biology.
    – tktk
    Jun 15, 2014 at 16:51

One thing that comes to mind: for doctors, the move abroad is far more difficult than for the researchers in biomed, because the job market in healthcare is usually heavily protected against international workforce by licensing barriers, see e.g. http://immigrationimpact.com/2013/12/17/licensing-barriers-leave-immigrant-doctors-driving-cabs-instead-of-practicing-medicine/ for the US.

  • 4
    In Europe titles are more homogeneous, the main barrier is the language. Researchers work in English, but a doctor has to speak the language of their patients. Also note that Canada and the US do seek out specialists in areas where they have shortage, like pathology.
    – Davidmh
    Jun 15, 2014 at 0:14
  • This really depends on where you're moving abroad to. Australia has great programs for immigrant M.Ds
    – tktk
    Jun 15, 2014 at 8:46

For medicine: "A doctor is a medical professional who examines the sick and tries to find a way to help them" [1]. For biomedical engineering: "This field seeks to close the gap between engineering and medicine: It combines the design and problem solving skills of engineering with medical and biological sciences to advance healthcare treatment" [2].

So if your friend want to help patients intimately he should be a doctor but if he wants to help the doctors and advance healthcare and thus indirectly helping the patients he should be a biomedical engineer.

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