Although the majority of medical students earn a traditional MD degree, about seven percent of MD grads simultaneously earn a second graduate degree. Such dual degrees offer physicians multi-faceted insights to face pressing healthcare challenges. While joint-degree programs are designed for students to pursue two graduate degrees simultaneously, it is of course also possible to earn two degrees sequentially from either a single or two different institutions, with a potential time gap in between.
Here, we walk you through three of the most common degrees to earn alongside an MD: a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), an MPH (Master of Public Health), and an MBA (Master of Business Administration). According to data from the AAMC’s 2020 Medical School Graduation Questionnaire (PDF), MD-PhDs account for three percent of joint-degree holders, MD-MPHs for two percent, and MD-MBAs for one percent, with the remaining percentage point split among other dual degrees.
The MD-PhD degree enables students to have dual careers as physicians and researchers, and to translate between these two worlds. “PhD language and MD language are two completely different ways of looking at a problem,” says Marie Csete, who earned her MD from Columbia University in 1979 and her PhD from Caltech in 2000. “The MD-PhDs are the critical translators of medical research.”
In practice, it is challenging—though possible—to sustain a productive career in both research and clinical medicine, which are both very demanding full-time jobs. MD-PhDs looking for a more manageable lifestyle can also go on to be successful researchers who do no clinical medicine, or successful clinical researchers who don’t have a lab. Regardless of which path MD-PhDs end up choosing, the degree offers substantive preparation.
According to the AAMC, most of these students earn their PhDs in a biomedical field like genetics, microbiology, or neuroscience. Typically, the program lasts seven to eight years. Students begin their MD and graduate coursework; jump out to earn their PhD, including completing their doctoral thesis; then resume their medical degree, including clinical training and electives. At Stanford University’s Medical Scientist Training Program, for example, students search for a laboratory in which to conduct their thesis research as they begin their medical coursework; do a research rotation in summer quarter of the first year and remain engaged in research during the second year of medical school; spend several years pursuing graduate training full-time; defend their theses; then re-enter the clinical curriculum.
Students who earn their MD and PhD degrees sequentially, rather than simultaneously, spend more time in total on their graduate education, but are afforded the bonus of accruing more substantial clinical knowledge before embarking on their PhD research.
The MD-MPH offers candidates a view of medicine on a society-wide scale in addition to an individual, patient-centered one: students in these programs examine issues such as health education, controversial public health reform, and disparities in access to healthcare. The degree “prepares graduates to work as physicians in a public health setting, which may include diagnosing health problems and risk factors of individuals and within communities,” according to the AAMC, but MD-MPH-holders go on to have a wide range of careers, from clinical medicine to administration.
For example, Yair Saperstein, who earned his MD from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 2016 and his MPH from SUNY Downstate in 2019, is co-founder and CEO of AvoMD, which transforms clinical workflows and pathways into an app. Both degrees have been vital to his current role: the MD allows him to understand health tech from the inside, while the MPH offers an outside perspective. “If I’m only inside, and I don’t have this outside perspective, and I don’t understand the system, and I don’t understand the administrative aspect and policy and public health, then I’m just going to be focused on the narrow clinical tasks. I’m not going to be focused on this broader impact,” he says. “So the two of them together inform my process.”
Joint MD-MPH programs are typically five years in length, according to the AAMC; students usually start their MPH coursework partway into med school. At Boston University, for example, students can apply to the MPH program starting in their first semester of medical school, and usually begin MPH coursework after the third year of medical school, though this timing can vary based on students’ desires and needs. At Drexel University, most students begin the combined MD-MPH curriculum during the first or second year of medical school, but some students enter the program after their third or fourth year. Earning the degrees sequentially, as Sapestein did, is always an option, too.
The MD-MBA trains students to manage issues such as staffing, finance, and communication at medical facilities. The degree can help doctors understand what insurance will and won’t cover, make business decisions for their medical practices, do consulting work, or manage larger-scale institutions like hospitals.
This last job doesn’t require an MD—many US hospitals leaders have graduate degrees in only business or public health—but understanding clinical work in detail can be of huge help in overseeing physicians. “Knowing what it takes, on the ground, to deliver great healthcare to people is a very helpful knowledge base to have when you’re trying to lead one of these organizations,” says Peter Slavin, who served as President of Massachusetts General Hospital from 2003 through 2021, and who earned his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1984 and his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1990.
Slavin also was able to see, via his training, important parallels between medicine and business. “In medicine, you’re primarily trained, when you’re confronted with a human being who’s not feeling well, how to systematically go about figuring out what’s wrong with them and then figuring out what treatment plan is the most safe and effective. And in business—at least, what I took away from business school—was learning how, when you’re faced with a business problem, to go about systematically understanding what the cause is and how to go about coming up with a safe and effective treatment plan,” he says. “In one case the unit of analysis is an individual and in one case an organization; and in one case the schools of thought are anatomy and physiology and the heart and the brain, whereas in the other you’re thinking about the organization, finances, strategy, operations. So the domains of thinking are different, but the fundamental thinking, I think, is very similar.”
MD-MBA joint-degree programs—in which students earn both degrees simultaneously—usually take five years, beginning with either the MD or MBA coursework, depending on the program. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, students take three years of MD coursework at UPenn’s Perelman School of Medicine, followed by one year of MBA coursework at Wharton. The following summer, students do a business internship, research, or clinical rotation before concluding the program in year five with one semester at the Medical School and the other at Wharton. At Johns Hopkins, students can either start their MBA coursework first, or do two years of medical school before diving into MBA classes. As with MD-PhDs and MD-MPHs, students can earn an MD and MBA sequentially and from different institutions if they choose.
The three dual MD degrees outlined above are far from the only options available. Medical doctors also go on to earn JDs, Master of Science (MD) degrees, Master of Public Policy (MPP) degrees, and more.
Pursuing a dual MD degree is time-consuming and can be expensive, but for students with specialized career goals, it might be the best option. If you would like guidance on any aspect of the med school application and admissions process, contact Collegiate Gateway. As always, we’re happy to help!