Is an M.D. about as difficult as a Ph.D. in a bioscience/natural science?

TheBiologist

2+ Year Member
Sep 14, 2015
1,226
1,111
United States
Status
Pre-Medical
While I know there is a difference in curriculum between medical school and grad school for subjects like physiology or chemistry, which is harder?
 
About the Ads

Matthew9Thirtyfive

*breathes in* boi
Moderator
2+ Year Member
Jan 11, 2016
15,399
23,160
Status
Medical Student
harder to get the degree i.e. course rigor
I think the prevailing wisdom is that it's harder to get into med school, but like 95% graduate. It's easier to get into a phd program, but much harder to finish. That's not entirely about course rigor though, as much of your time is spent on your research. This is just from what I've read on here and what my sister (who is about to finish her phd) related to me about her own experience.
 

sat0ri

Everything we see hides another
5+ Year Member
Feb 3, 2013
512
295
742 Evergreen Terrace
Status
Pre-Medical
I often hear that MD is simple (relatively), but it is a large volume of information. PhD you need to go much deeper, but your scope will be relatively smaller. MD you'll read textbooks on many systems, all summarized for you. PhD you will need to dig into years of papers on some esoteric topic. MD you will need to cram for exams, PhD you'll decide for yourself what experiment to do and when, so you have less (extrinsically imposed) time pressure.

MD is also easier in that your path thereafter is much more structured, there are many avenues for you to pursue that are well established and your job is secure. PhD you have to chart your own course, obtain funding for you lab, figure out what research question you will prosecute, way less job security. MD you put in hours and get a paycheck.
 

eteshoe

.......
2+ Year Member
Jan 4, 2016
2,261
2,574
Tethys, Saturn
Status
MD/PhD Student
They're two very different degrees so it's kind of pointless to compare the two in terms of difficulty (at least the way you're setting up your question OP).
 

aSagacious

Moderator Emeritus
7+ Year Member
Nov 16, 2010
8,143
60
Status
Resident [Any Field]
Strictly regarding coursework, I'd say MD is more rigorous due to sheer volume. That said, med school exams are more "you know it or you don't." They're exclusively multiple choice and overwhelmingly first- or second-order questions. Grad school exams are tough because they often include essay-style questions (e.g., drawing structures, synthesis pathways, summarizing landmark papers, etc).

I would also make the generalization that the floor for med school is much higher in terms of difficulty but the variance in difficulty between schools is less (schools draw from similar resources when formulating their curricula). Conversely, there are some truly poor PhD programs that are essentially diploma mills, but I'd argue that top-notch PhD programs are easily rigorous enough to challenge most medical students.

The clinical years of medical school and the research years of grad school are so fundamentally different that it's impossible/useless to compare them.
 
  • Like
Reactions: eteshoe

P0ke

M3
2+ Year Member
Nov 8, 2015
429
584
Status
Medical Student
MD is harder based on the workload alone. Getting a PHD is way more self-directed as in you'll be planning how you spend all your time. In the lab, running experiments can be incredibly tedious, but there's a lot of downtime, say as your PCR runs for a few hours... although you can be as busy as you want to be and run simultaneous experiments. With MD curriculum, your next 4 years are laid out in stone, with very little wiggle room, but at least you know where the end of the tunnel is. With a PHD you could be running around in a dark tunnel for years, just to find out that there is no end and you need to try a different tunnel.
 
  • Like
Reactions: eteshoe

Lucca

Will Walk Rope for Sandwich
Staff member
Administrator
5+ Year Member
Oct 22, 2013
8,239
17,959
City of the Future
Status
Medical Student
Talking about "difficulty" in general is kind of pointless. Being at the top of the game in the fields either degree represent requires different skill sets, some of which overlap and some of which don't.
 

Goro

Gold Donor
7+ Year Member
Jun 10, 2010
54,505
80,980
Somewhere west of St. Louis
Status
Non-Student
While I know there is a difference in curriculum between medical school and grad school for subjects like physiology or chemistry, which is harder?
Med school is light years harder!
 

Med Ed

2+ Year Member
Sep 13, 2015
2,871
9,654
Status
Attending Physician
While I know there is a difference in curriculum between medical school and grad school for subjects like physiology or chemistry, which is harder?
Med school is like running an obstacle course. It can be really challenging, and there are moments when you feel like giving up, but it's highly structured and you know exactly what you have to do to reach the end.

Grad school is like running a race against yourself, only you're on an unmarked course and nobody tells you how far you have to go before its over. You can run fast to hurry it along and risk burnout, or slow to conserve energy and risk despondency, or you can quit and go home at any point. Keep at it long enough and you will eventually see the finish line.

Which of those situation you consider "harder" is a matter of personal taste.
 
  • Like
Reactions: eteshoe and DBC03

getdown

7+ Year Member
Nov 16, 2010
1,596
2,814
Status
Attending Physician
First of all, comparing apples to oranges.

Second, if you like what you're doing and have a genuine interest in it then it won't feel so hard. Whereas if you hate it it will feel like worse than death.

The main differences between the two just looking at it generally is that medicine is a set period of training with a guaranteed job with decent pay at the end of your training. PhD can be more ambiguous in the length of training with the possibility of multiple post-docs that you have to do even after that training. Job prospect is also worse as breaking into industry is very difficult and breaking into academia with all its Game of Thrones-esque intrigues even more so.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Goro

Goro

Gold Donor
7+ Year Member
Jun 10, 2010
54,505
80,980
Somewhere west of St. Louis
Status
Non-Student
First of all, comparing apples to oranges.

Second, if you like what you're doing and have a genuine interest in it then it won't feel so hard. Whereas if you hate it it will feel like worse than death.

The main differences between the two just looking at it generally is that medicine is a set period of training with a guaranteed job with decent pay at the end of your training. PhD can be more ambiguous in the length of training with the possibility of multiple post-docs that you have to do even after that training. Job prospect is also worse as breaking into industry is very difficult and breaking into academia with all its Game of Thrones-esque intrigues even more so.
In some ways the training portions are mirror images of each other. Good grad students and post-doc are hard to find, while med schools applicants and graduates are in surplus. Hence, you get paid to go to grad school (and even have your way to interviews paid for), and you get to pick where to go for post-grad training (they pay your way to interviews for that too) . There is no debt after this either. Getting the job after that is the hard part!

I still don't know how med students do it. Having taught students at both MD and DO schools, all I can tell you is this is what med school would have done to me:
 

aldol16

2+ Year Member
Nov 1, 2015
4,936
3,466
Status
Medical Student
Much harder to get into and complete an MD. In terms of admissions, PhD is simply straightforward. You have to know what hoops to jump through, but once you know, you're pretty likely to get into a program. Specifically, you need to have significant research experiences with signs of productivity. Maybe you did a lot of REU programs and got experiences that way. Maybe you stayed in one lab for three years during undergrad and got a publication out of it. In any case, if you have productive research experiences and PIs who will vouch for you (especially if those PIs are well-known names in the field), then you are a super strong candidate for PhD programs, even without super stellar scores (though there is a threshold). Further, connections in academia matter and so if you are associated with a good PI or meet PIs through conferences, etc. who have seen your work, it becomes much easier to get into grad school. PIs hire graduate students not necessarily on the basis of their academic potential (in terms of how well they did in their coursework) but rather research potential. Grad students are employees of the PI and the PI's success in the field depends in large part on his or her graduate students. It's no use to have a walking encyclopedia around if that encyclopedia can't design or perform experiments at the graduate level.

In terms of getting through the program, it's also easier as a PhD. Most programs require around two years of coursework. These courses are graduate courses and as you might know from taking some as an undergrad, graduate courses might cover more difficult material than undergrad courses but usually they are graded easier. The expectation is that PhD students will learn the in-depth material they need to conduct their own research. It's useless for a PhD student to learn the intricacies and all the basis sets of quantum chemistry and how they work if that student is in a total synthesis lab. He or she only needs a basic understanding of the different fields of chemistry. So the PhD program is usually focused on research, even in the first two years, and not so much on coursework. This is especially true in the UK, where many master's and PhD programs are "research-based" with no classes. The expectation, again, is that you independently learn what you need to know to carry out your projects successfully. Since this is what you will be doing for the rest of your career, it's good to get a head start on the kind of thinking you need to be doing.

The big hurdle for PhD students is the qualifying exams or general exams. These are taken at the end of the coursework component of the PhD program, before "full-time" research is embarked upon. This is like the Step 1 checkpoint for medical students but it's nowhere near as difficult. Qualifying exams are not standardized and are administered uniquely by each program. Different programs have different rates of their students passing the qualifying exams. Some programs kick out 40% of their PhD students at this point - they only needed those PhD students for undergraduate teaching. They have no qualms about kicking them to the curb after a couple years' labor out of them. They can do this because the qualifying exam questions can be as hard or easy as the faculty please. So they can kick out as many PhD students as they want based on arbitrary grading standards. But once you get past this point, it's clear sailing - you're most likely to complete and defend your dissertation successfully.
 

P0ke

M3
2+ Year Member
Nov 8, 2015
429
584
Status
Medical Student
Also, the types of students are very different between MD and PHD. MD students are very type A and competitive. During a TBL session in med school where the professors asked a question, and whichever group got it right got extra credit, the MD students were all fighting to be called on first, and also trying to argue that other students were wrong. One professor said "if this was the PHD students, they'd calmly be discussing the question instead of fighting for points".
 
OP
TheBiologist

TheBiologist

2+ Year Member
Sep 14, 2015
1,226
1,111
United States
Status
Pre-Medical
Also, the types of students are very different between MD and PHD. MD students are very type A and competitive. During a TBL session in med school where the professors asked a question, and whichever group got it right got extra credit, the MD students were all fighting to be called on first, and also trying to argue that other students were wrong. One professor said "if this was the PHD students, they'd calmly be discussing the question instead of fighting for points".
I actually asked this question on here along time ago, but are there some "type-B" students in medical school and do they fare well among the group?
 

P0ke

M3
2+ Year Member
Nov 8, 2015
429
584
Status
Medical Student
I actually asked this question on here along time ago, but are there some "type-B" students in medical school and do they fare well among the group?
I'm probably a type B personality, but I go to a low-ranked med school. The situation I described was at my SMP, which was at a more competitive school than I'm at now (and didn't get into). I think there would be a pretty obvious correlation between school competitiveness and the competitiveness of their students. It also depends on your goals in med school. If you're not gunning for AOA and a super-competitive residency, you could probably relax some.
 

eteshoe

.......
2+ Year Member
Jan 4, 2016
2,261
2,574
Tethys, Saturn
Status
MD/PhD Student
Also, the types of students are very different between MD and PHD. MD students are very type A and competitive. During a TBL session in med school where the professors asked a question, and whichever group got it right got extra credit, the MD students were all fighting to be called on first, and also trying to argue that other students were wrong. One professor said "if this was the PHD students, they'd calmly be discussing the question instead of fighting for points".
I actually asked this question on here along time ago, but are there some "type-B" students in medical school and do they fare well among the group?
I would say I'm Type A is some things and type B in others. From the friends I've seen, going through grad school tends to chill you out a bit.
 

mistafab

2+ Year Member
Oct 20, 2015
1,649
3,371
Status
Medical Student
I'm type "b," and ugly as a goat. You will fit in just fine.

I actually asked this question on here along time ago, but are there some "type-B" students in medical school and do they fare well among the group?
 
  • Like
Reactions: DubbiDoctor
About the Ads