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Degrees in the medical field

Posted 9:36 a.m. Friday, July 15, 2022

UW-La Crosse students in the Physician Assistant program in Fall 2017.

Planning a career in the medical field? First consider the vast opportunities for school and specialization

When we think of medical doctors, we probably think of our own doctor doing regular checkups at a local clinic, the ER doctor handling late night emergencies, or maybe a surgeon scrubbing in for an operation on the ever-popular TV drama, “Grey’s Anatomy.” 

When we hear “doctor,” we think of what we’ve seen in our lives or in pop culture. But having baked-in ideas about what doctors do doesn’t allow us space to explore the great variety of options that exist for degrees in the medical field, says Josh Bench, coordinator of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Pre-Health Student Resource Center. Bench says many students are surprised to find that the field of medicine is much more diverse than being Meredith Grey on their favorite TV show or the family doctor down the street.  

Degrees in the medical field could encompass diverse paths such as: 

  • Medical doctors  
  • Physician assistants (PA) 
  • Pharmacists 
  • Veterinarians 
  • Optometrists 
  • Physical therapists 

All of these professions practice medicine in some form. However, each has a different type of training and focus. First things first, let’s look at medical doctors.  

What is an MD? 

A medical doctor or MD is a person who is licensed to practice medicine.  

What is the difference between an MD and a physician?  

A physician can be an MD or a DO. Both are licensed to practice medicine and often work in the same healthcare settings.  A DO is a doctor of osteopathic medicine (see more on this path below). 

All physicians specialize in something. For example, they may specialize in: 

  • Anesthesiology 
  • Dermatology 
  • Emergency medicine  
  • Family medicine 
  • Geriatric medicine 
  • Internal medicine 
  • Neurology 
  • OBGYN (Obstetrics/gynecology) 
  • Pediatrics 
  • Rheumatology 
  • Sports Medicine 
  • Urology 

Check out more specializations on the AAMC Careers in Medicine website.  

All specializations above have corresponding professional names, like urologist or a dermatologist. Still, these are all considered physicians. When you go to medical school everyone is learning the basics of medicine together for the first four years. The specialization comes after medical school during a residency when students are continuing their education while working in the field. 

Does a physician have to have a specialty? 

In medical school you have the option of becoming more or less specialized. Choosing a specialization like Family Medicine, Emergency Medicine or Internal Medicine would be considered less specialized because you are focusing on more breadth of knowledge. On the other hand, selecting a specialization such as rheumatology or anesthesiology would be more specialized as you would be gaining depth in a particular area of medicine. 

Bench recommends exploring specialties as an undergraduate without going so far as to select one.  Most doctors tell Bench that they didn’t declare a specialty when they started medical school. Instead, it was something they decided as they moved through it — just like most undergraduates don’t traditionally pick a major as an incoming student. You can count on learning more about the direction you’ll take as you continue in school. 

What is the difference between DO vs. MD? 

Both medical doctors (MDs) and doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs) are fully-licensed physicians.  

The training that goes into becoming an MD focuses on allopathic medicine or treating using drugs, radiation, or surgery. This is the traditional doctor that most people think of.  

A DO is similar, but their training includes more holistic care and they use manipulative therapies (manual pressure on the body) or osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM) to treat in addition to more traditional approaches. DOs take into account mind, body and spirit in the pursuit of health. DOs find work in the same healthcare settings as MDs. Visit the Choose DO website for more information.  

What is a doctor? 

While doctors can be licensed to practice medicine, doctors also practice in a variety of other fields. People who earned a Ph.D. in fields from computer science to psychology, are given doctoral degrees and considered doctors in their field. You'll find doctors working in all kinds of professions. Doctors who take care of pets are veterinarians. Doctors who take care of teeth are dentists. Doctors who take care of eyes are ophthalmologists or optometrists. Doctor is an umbrella term, whereas physician is a more specific term because a physician is someone who practices medicine on humans. So, when people say, ‘Is there a doctor in the room?,’ they really mean to say, ‘Is there a physician in the room?’ 

How long is medical school?  

After earning an undergraduate degree, medical school takes an additional four years, followed by typically three to seven years in residency. Bottom line: You need to like school and learning to become a medical doctor. You will spend a significant portion of your life in the process of learning to become a medical doctor. 

What medical degree is easiest?  

If you are looking for the easy path in healthcare, it might not be a good fit for you. Whether it’s medical school, PA school, or a similar professional path, expect heavy competition and rigorous standards. Some programs, such as those that train PAs, are shorter in duration. But that does not mean they are easier. PAs go through rigorous, condensed training in order to be able to practice as mid-level providers. 

Even if you do find a profession where graduate admissions are relatively lax, you still need to be driven to continue to do well in the profession afterward to recoup your educational investment.  

What healthcare degree path is often overlooked? 

If students are looking for a path with less obstacles to enter, it is pharmacy. And that role isn’t always public facing, so it might be overlooked or misunderstood. 

Contrary to popular belief, a pharmacist doesn’t really spend time counting pills behind a counter at the drug store. Most spend much of their day doing patient care and working on teams in a variety of healthcare settings. 

About 60 percent work in retail locations like Walgreens or Target. Pharmacists are the people leading those retail store teams. The other 40 percent work in diverse healthcare settings from hospitals to nursing homes, helping provide the appropriate medical treatment for patients. Some have direct patient care responsibilities and others do not. 

What medical degree is PA?

Students practice listening to the lungs in UW-La Crosse's Physician Assistant program in Fall 2017.

A PA is a physician assistant. Physician assistants are licensed to diagnose and treat illness and disease and to prescribe medication for patients. These professionals can do almost everything a doctor can do with some specific exceptions. For instance, a PA cannot be the lead person performing a surgery.   

PAs operate with some autonomy, but they always work with a collaborating physician. They practice in every state and every specialty and medical setting such as medical clinics, VA hospitals, nursing homes and more. Learn more about PAs on the UWL Physician Assistant studies pre-professional program website.

PAs are trained in the medical model like physicians and do much of the same work. Therefore, they extend the reach of the healthcare system — even into remote and underserved areas. The training is accelerated compared to the path of becoming doctor. Becoming a PA requires a master’s degree. 

A nurse practitioner is similar to a PA in that the position also extends the role of a physician. However, a nurse practitioner is trained under the nursing model, and would get a doctoral degree. Both nurse practitioners and PAs help to fill the gap left by the current doctor shortage, especially in rural and underserved areas.  

What is a physical therapist or PT?  

Students in UW-La Crosse's Physical Therapy program stretch with community members.

When an individual is recovering from injury or disease, the physical therapist evaluates and directs the recovery process to relieve pain, make them stronger, and help them to regain use of an affected limb. Physical therapists then teach patients and their families what to do so that healing continues through self-care at home. Learn more about physical therapy on UW-La Crosse's Physical Therapy pre-professional program website

What is an occupational therapist or OT?  

Occupational therapists help people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities. Common interventions include helping children with disabilities to participate fully in school and social situations, helping people recovering from injury to regain skills, and providing supports for older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes. Learn more on UW-La Crosse's pre-occupational therapy website

Find more information on pre-health related professions at UW-La Crosse