Dual degrees for physicians: Are they worth it?

By Samar Mahmoud, PhD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published April 22, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Physicians interested in career options beyond patient care can consider a dual degree. 

  • Dual degree options include MD/PhD, MD/MBA, MD/MPH, and MD/JD programs. 

  • Obtaining a dual degree is a significant time and financial investment; physicians should consider their future aspirations and reach out to those who have completed similar programs when deciding if a dual program is a good fit.

The prospect of obtaining a medical degree is an attractive option for many individuals who wish to further their career while having a positive impact on society. For physicians who are interested in enacting change but who do not want to limit themselves to patient care, dual degree programs can be an appealing choice.

According to an 2018 Association of American Medical Colleges report, nearly 10% of medical students pursued a dual degree, with approximately 3% of students seeking an MD/PhD joint degree, making it the most popular dual degree option.[][] These dual degrees can allow doctors to conduct translational research, be involved in driving policy decisions, or establish new businesses. 

MD/PhD

The MD/PhD dual degree offers medical students the opportunity to undergo rigorous training in research methods. There are more than 90 programs throughout the United States that award MD/PhD degrees. 

Pros 

  • Most MD/PhD programs are funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), which means that enrollees do not have to pay for medical school, and they may even receive a stipend. 

  • There are many career options open to those who choose to pursue an MD/PhD. For example, graduates have many opportunities in academic medicine, but they can also choose to go into industry or pursue a career in clinical research. 

Cons 

  • MD/PhD programs involve a significant time commitment. They can take 7 to 9 years to complete. 

  • Most programs adhere to a 2-4-2 structure: 2 years of medical school followed by 4 years of PhD studies, and then another 2 years of medical school. This means that MD/PhD students do not graduate with the same medical school classmates they started with, and they will have to readjust to medical school after taking a 4-year break.

Related: Behind the sharp decline in physician-scientists—and how to address it

MD/MBA

An MD/MBA can be a great asset for physicians interested in business. An MBA degree can provide physicians with the know-how to start a successful, private practice. For those interested in leadership positions in the healthcare industry, an MBA can offer physicians essential management and administrative skills. 

Pros

  • MD/MBA programs are becoming increasingly popular. In the last 20 years, the number of programs has grown from six to 65 nationwide. Obtaining an MD/MBA allows physicians to navigate the $1 trillion healthcare industry, making graduates of these programs ideal candidates for careers in healthcare, government, or industry. 

Cons 

  • For most MD/MBA programs, additional standardized testing, such as the GMAT, may be required for admission. 

  • Unlike MD/PhD programs, MD/MBA programs are not usually funded, increasing the financial burden on enrollees. However, while an MD takes 4 years and an MBA is typically completed in 2 years, most MD/MBA programs are completed in 5 years. 

MD/MPH

For physicians interested in gaining expertise in healthcare policy and management, an MD/MPH dual degree is a solid option. 

“I’ve found that my MPH complements my MD and vice versa,” said Ryan Riberia, MD, MPH, in an AMA article.[] “In my clinical work, having a background in healthcare systems allows me to better help my patients navigate to the care they need. And in my administrative and policy work, my clinical activities help me understand firsthand the effects of system inefficiencies.” 

Pros 

  • For physicians who desire a career in community health outreach or who want to make an impact on a global health level, an MPH degree can provide them with the necessary tools to enact community-wide changes. 

  • Obtaining an MD/MPH degree can set physicians apart when it comes to applying for residency programs. 

Cons 

  • Similar to MD/MBA programs, MD/MPH programs are not funded. 

MD/JD

Physicians who are interested in combining their study of medicine with training in legal matters may choose to pursue an MD/JD program. Similar to MD/PhD programs, students will pursue their MD degree for the first 2 years before starting their JD in their 3rd and 4th years. During the 5th and 6th years of the program, students can then complete their remaining MD and JD training. 

Pros

  • There are many career avenues to explore for graduates of MD/JD degrees, including academia, government, or industry. 

  • Physicians who obtain a law degree are well-equipped to deal with the legal aspects of private medical practice. 

 Cons

  • Students need to apply to the JD program separately from the MD program. They will also need to take the LSAT exam. 

Is it right for you? 

Obtaining an MD or DO on its own is a daunting undertaking. Choosing to pursue an additional degree requires an even greater time commitment, and it often imposes additional financial debt. Consider the following three tips from a MedSchool Insiders article when deciding if a dual degree is right for you.[][]

  1. Consider your interests and future career aspirations. Ask yourself if there are any experiences that you have enjoyed and that you would like to consistently experience in the future. For example, if you thoroughly enjoyed conducting research in college, then perhaps a career in which you can integrate patient care with research might be a good fit. 

  2. Do your research. While searching the internet for program requirements is a good starting point, it can be more fruitful to reach out to someone who has already completed the program you are contemplating. Ask them about the benefits and drawbacks of the program and whether they found it helpful in reaching their career goals. 

  3. Be critical. Ask yourself if you really need the dual degree to help you achieve your career goals. A medical degree is often sufficient on its own. For example, you can perform research without an MD/PhD, and you can set up a successful private practice without an MD/MBA. 

What this means for you

Dual programs, such as MD/PhD and MD/MPH, are becoming increasingly popular and can open many doors for those interested in a career beyond traditional patient care. 

However, these programs are a significant time commitment and often place an additional financial burden on enrolled students. Physicians should carefully consider their future career goals when choosing a dual degree program to make sure it is a good fit. 

Read Next: The tweetorial: Medical education beyond the textbook

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter
ADVERTISEMENT