What kind of higher degree should you do in surgical training MD or PhD

As always the views expressed in this blog are my own  and are based on my personal experience as a researcher, supervisor, mentor etc…

The issue of whether to do an MD or a PhD is something that vexes many surgical trainees. Getting it right is important and contrary to popular belief it is often very difficult to change from one degree to another.

In the USA, Canada and some other countries an MD is a qualifying basic medical degree. In the UK and a number of other countries, an MD or DM is a doctorate in medicine and can only be done after the award of a basic medical degree such as bachelor of medicine and surgery.  and in most UK universities this requires a 2 year period of full time study. An MD is considered to be an advised” degree rather than a supervised degree and this is an important distinction from a PhD. MD’s can be laboratory based or clinically based and the title of the degree does not make inference about the subject matter. In most universities the proposal for the MD research requires to be approved by a postgraduate studies committee and there is/are one or more advisors (technically same role a supervisor but less structured than PhD supervision) approved as part of the same process. The medical degrees of bachelor of medicine & surgery are usually deemed sufficient for entry to MD studies.

A PhD or DPhil is a doctorate in philosophy and requires a 3 year period of full time study. A PhD is a “supervised” degree and most universities have a structured approach to this supervision. The difference between advised and supervised is the principal reason why it is often extremely difficult to change from an MD to a PhD as from the university perspective the process of monitoring and supporting the two degrees are entirely different. In non-medical students there is almost universally a requirement for evidence of an honours degree level for admission. For medical trainees  medical degrees of bachelor of medicine & surgery are usually deemed sufficient for entry.

Funding organisations and scientific institutes generally regard a PhD as having higher value than an MD largely because of the formal training / supervision element of this degree. There is no doubt that PhD has more international currency and a PhD in the UK is very similar to a PhD undertaken in another country. One of the potential deficiencies of PhD is that most institutions award either pass or fail and there is little in the way of opportunity for recognition of excellence in PhD. In my institution there are a number of levels of recognition of excellence for MD degrees. So I have been asked whether a MD with distinction is better than a average PhD and the answer is that they are different degrees but in terms of academic achievement I really don’t know which is better.

So that explains the degrees but how do you choose which is right for you?


Ask yourself these questions

 1. Do you think it is possible that you may wish to pursue a career as a University or academic surgeon?

2. Is there any possibility that you would wish to undertake a further period of research training such as a clinician scientist fellowship.

3. Do you think that you may wish to play an important role in a research team in the future


If the answer to any of these questions is yes then my advice to you would be to choose to study for a PhD.  One of the key pieces of advice I give my trainees is to try and keep their options open until they are certain of their career path. It is relatively easy to move from an academic to an NHS/clinical service career but very difficult to move in the opposite direction.

Next blog will be on alternative higher degrees for surgical trainees.


© 2012 SJ Wigmore

This entry was posted in Research matters and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What kind of higher degree should you do in surgical training MD or PhD

  1. This is the blog that I deleted by accident last week! Not exactly the same but reasonably close.

  2. Andrew Beamish says:

    For more information on this topic, keep your eye on the Annals of the RCS Eng, where a more in-depth article to help answer this is currently in press.

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