Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Real doctors

In US fiction it is very common to use the phrase “real doctor” (as in e.g. “Are you a real doctor?”) to refer specifically to MDs—something which is patently absurd. The word “doctor” is borrowed from Latin, where it signified a teacher (“docere”, “to teach”)—which is also the original use in the medieval academic world. It is, thus, clear that “doctor” is an academic title, and something that is awarded for academic ability. Notably, a doctorate is often a prerequisite for a professorship. (The modern focus on research, however, goes beyond what can be deduced from etymology and historical use.)

If we now compare the two typical protagonists, the PhD and the MD, it should be quite clear that PhDs are the real doctors. Consider that:

  1. A PhD is a sign of academic achievement, an ability to do research, to think critically, and requires a considerable act of creation of new knowledge. (At least in theory; the reality is sometimes different, in particular in the soft sciences.) An MD, OTOH, is mostly a sign of an ability to work hard, learn knowledge created by others, etc.

    A telling joke:

    A lecturer tells some students to learn the phone-book by heart.

    The mathematicians are baffled: ‘By heart? You kidding?’
    The physics-students ask: ‘Why?’
    The engineers sigh: ‘Do we have to?’
    The chemistry-students ask: ‘Till next Monday?’
    The accounting-students (scribbling): ‘Till tomorrow?’
    The laws-students answer: ‘We already have.’
    The medicine-students ask: ‘Should we start on the Yellow Pages?’


  2. In many other countries, e.g. Sweden and Germany, a physician does not need an MD to become licensed, but learn the corresponding material in what amounts to a master-level diploma—despite being similarly qualified as a US MD. (I do not rule out that a US MD is better qualified; however, it will not be by even nearly the same amount as a PhD.)

  3. An MD is not a “terminal degree” in the US system; and MDs in other countries (where the MD is a real doctorate requiring a pre-qualification as e.g. a physician) are noticeably better qualified. US MDs are not even allowed to refer to themselves as “Doctors” (“Doktoren”) in Germany.

For further information, see e.g. Doctoratew, Doctor_of_Medicinew, Doktor_der_Medizin_(Berufsdoktorat)w:de.

Why is the misconception that MDs would be the real doctors so common? I would speculate on two causes: Firstly, qualified professionals (including physicians) tend to earn noticeably more than teachers and researchers at universities and colleges (where most PhDs have been found, traditionally), giving them a higher status in the eyes of people focused on money. Secondly, most real-life and fictional encounters with doctors have been with MDs for the average US citizen—and since MDs are almost always referred to as “doctors” rather than e.g. “physicians”, the public has come to misunderstand the meaning of the former. (TV series playing in a hospital environment are noticeably more common than does playing in the math departments of universities.)

My advice: Try to always refer to physicians as “physicians”, dentists as “dentists”, etc. Should the need for a more generic term arise, use “MD” (although possibly not always applicable) rather than “doctor”—a US MD is no doctor in the sense it is used internationally, nor in academic circles within the US.


Since the original writing, I have several times encountered the argument that an MD is better qualified than [some other degree holder], because of the extensive post-university (“post-graduate” would be confusing in this context) requirements, with internships, residency, and whatnot. This argument is specious, because different things are compared: The title of MD is awarded long before these additional requirements are fulfilled—and they may indeed remain unfulfilled by some MDs. To compare a physician five years into his career with e.g. a PhD fresh out of university is simply misleading. (Even then, however, the physician will not necessarily have gained the knowledge of scientific method and critical thinking that the PhD has). If we stack on five years onto the MDs, then we have to stack on five years onto the PhDs.