How to Become a Doctor

For those with a passion for science and helping others, medicine is a highly rewarding field. Discover the path to becoming a doctor.

portrait of Blake Weil
by Blake Weil

Updated August 26, 2022

Edited by Kristina Beek
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How to Become a Doctor
Image Credit: The Good Brigade | DigitalVision | Getty Images


Doctors are responsible not only for treating patients with diseases, but also helping people stay healthy and developing medical science. This makes it perfect for someone not only with interests in science and healthcare, but also a passion for helping others.

The road to becoming a doctor is a long one. First, students pursue a bachelor's degree, followed by an MD After receiving an MD, doctors go through their residency period, gaining additional real-world experience. Then, many pursue a fellowship.

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Ready to start your journey?

What Does a Doctor Do?

All doctors begin as residents. During this period, they work under the supervision of more senior doctors, seeing patients and treating them. They also may conduct research. Depending on their specialty, they may spend most of their day talking with patients, performing surgery or other interventions, or even conducting research.

After residency, many doctors begin practicing independently or as supervising attending physicians in a hospital. They also may pursue a fellowship, gaining advanced training in a subspecialty. Doctors can also begin teaching at this point, passing on their skills to the next generation.

Doctor Responsibilities

  • Treat sick and injured patients, diagnose them with an illness, and figure out the best course of treatment to address it.
  • Educate patients to help them make healthy choices to manage their health.
  • Perform surgical treatments to address patients' problems.
  • Conduct medical research, developing new tools and treatments to help future patients.
  • Teach and train less experienced doctors and medical students, guiding them through school, residency, and fellowship.

What Are the Different Types of Doctors?

Medicine is an incredibly broad field — too large for one person to know how to treat everything. As such, most physicians focus on a specific area of medicine, or specialty, each requiring different training.

Common specialties include primary care and pediatrics. Less common specialties can focus on specific, complex organ systems. These less popular specialties include immunology, neuroradiology, and vascular surgery.

Medical Specialties

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What Are the Steps to Become a Doctor?

The process of becoming a doctor is long and difficult. Students can begin preparing for a career as a physician as early as high school but will continue to develop throughout their entire education and career.

Step 1: Take Related AP Courses in High School

Students interested in medicine should consider AP courses such as biology, physics, and chemistry. The courses may be difficult but provide college credit at many schools.

While generally AP credit lets you opt out of introductory coursework in that subject in college, many medical schools require students who opt out to take advanced coursework instead as part of their eligibility requirements.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's degree is required to attend medical school. Medical students are required to have completed coursework in biology (including anatomy), chemistry (including organic chemistry), biochemistry, and physics. In these classes, students learn basic science, which they use throughout their careers.

With these requirements, most pre-medical students choose a science major that includes that coursework, such as a major in biology, chemistry, or psychology with a neuroscience concentration. These often have a pre-medical track, which ensures that the degree contains all necessary premedical coursework. Students without a formal pre-medical track should speak with their academic advisor to determine the best courses to take.

Step 3: Gain Practical Experience in the Healthcare Field

Medical schools want to make sure students are committed to a career in healthcare. Therefore, real-world experience is necessary to be a competitive candidate for admission into medical school. While some complete these experiences during college, many take a gap year.

Opportunities for practical experience include entry-level jobs, volunteering, internships, research opportunities, and shadowing. These experiences range from working in an entry-level role not requiring an advanced degree to spending time observing a doctor's daily work and asking questions.

In addition to searching online, students can look for experiences through their college pre-medical organizations. The AAMC also provides information on how to pursue shadowing.

Step 4: Take the MCAT Exam

The MCAT exam is a standardized medical school admissions test covering many subjects. The test is 230 questions long, divided into four sections. The whole test takes about seven and a half hours to complete. Testing dates are available throughout the whole year.

The four sections are Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, Critical Analysis and Reading, and Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior. Students can study using specialized prep courses, prep books, and practice tests.

Step 5: Earn a Medical Degree

Medical school applications are submitted through a central portal called AMCAS. When deciding where to apply, students should consider location, cost, and the school's resources.A medical degree takes four years to complete. The first phase takes about two years and consists of coursework in medical science and basic clinical skills. The second phase takes the rest of medical school and has students rotating as clerks in different specialties, gaining hands-on experience.

While most students choose a specialty after rotations, some pursuing a more competitive specialty choose to focus on that earlier to gain a competitive advantage.

Step 6: Complete a Residency Program

After finishing medical school, graduates are officially considered doctors. An algorithmic system called "The Match" sorts graduates into their first supervised positions working as doctors. This period of work is called residency. The match takes preference of specialty into account, although not every medical student gets their first choice.

The length of residency varies by specialty, but programs are at least three years, lasting seven or more years for more complex specialties. Residencies are hard work, with most residents working 80-hour weeks, which can strain relationships and mental health. Salaries are also relatively low compared to those of more senior doctors. The average resident makes $54,740 according to 2022 Payscale data.

Step 7: Begin a Fellowship Program

Doctors can begin working independently after residency. However, some advanced positions require additional training, called a fellowship. Fellowship programs are more independent than residencies but still include training in advanced techniques. Doctors from more general fields, such as internal medicine, often pursue fellowships to specialize further.

Fellowships can run for one to three years. Applications for fellowships can be competitive, with doctors bolstering their resumes by obtaining strong letters of recommendation and pursuing independent research.

What to Know Before Becoming a Doctor

Accreditation

Medical schools will not accept students who have not graduated from an accredited bachelor's degree program. Bachelor's degrees are accredited by independent regional boards, empowered to accredit schools by the U.S. Department of Education.

Beyond that, you are not legally allowed to operate as a doctor without graduating from an accredited doctoral program. The Liaison Committee on Medical Education maintains a list of accredited programs.

Cost

Pursuing medical school can be incredibly expensive. Students have to pay for their bachelor's degree plus living expenses. After that, students must register for the MCAT, which costs $325.

Students must also pay $170 for their first medical school application through the AAMC, plus $43 for each additional school. Many schools also have secondary applications, which often have additional costs.A medical degree, on average, costs $255,000-$337,000, according to Forbes. Most students need to take out educational loans, with many reducing costs by pursuing scholarships.

Salary

On average, doctors are some of the best-paid professionals in the United States. Physicians and surgeons earned a median annual salary of $208,000 in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Note that this includes resident salaries, lowering the average.

However, some specialties make far more than others, with neurosurgeons topping the list. They earned $773,200, according to Doximity's 2021 Physician Compensation Report. The lowest-paying specialty as of 2021 was pediatric infectious disease, at $210,840 per year. Higher-paying specialties typically require longer residencies or fellowship training.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Doctor

What degree do I need to be a doctor?

To become a doctor, you need an MD. However, to pursue an MD, you first need a bachelor's degree. There is no specific undergraduate major that medical schools request, but there are specific courses, often STEM-related, that students are required to take. This is why, for some students, it may be beneficial to pursue a pre-med track where meeting these requirements is likely guaranteed.

Some students also pursue a master's degree to make their application to medical school more competitive. Doctors also need to complete a period of residency training to practice independently.

How long does it take to become a doctor?

It takes at least 11 years to become a doctor. The first four years are spent pursuing an undergraduate degree, typically majoring in a scientific field. After that, students attend medical school for four years. Once they have graduated, doctors complete at least three years of residency training before being able to practice independently.Many doctors take longer to complete their education. Some take a gap year between undergraduate and medical school to work, volunteer, or pursue a master's degree. Doctors in certain specialties also have to complete longer residencies or complete a fellowship training program.

How much does it cost to become a doctor?

It can be expensive to become a doctor. In addition to undergraduate expenses, doctors pay upwards of $255,000 to attend medical school. Medical school applications and MCAT expenses can also cost thousands of dollars. To manage these costs, most medical students take out educational loans.To reduce costs, many students pursue scholarships and grants. A wide variety is available, based on both need and academic achievement. Speak with your school's financial aid office for advice on managing educational expenses.

How many different types of doctors are there?

Generally, doctors are divided into two groups, primary care physicians and specialists. Doctors can also be divided into MDs and DOs, depending on the program they graduated from. Both are licensed to practice medicine in the U.S.

However, there are dozens of specialties and subspecialties. Doximity, a networking service for doctors, lists statistics for 40 specialties. However, these are only the most common, not considering the subspecialties and less common areas of focus.

What does a doctor's training look like?

A doctor's training is intense, long, and occurs in multiple stages. First, medical students do preclinical studying. This classroom-based learning introduces them to medical basics and clinical skills. They then practice applying those clinical skills during the clinical years of their education, rotating through different specialties.After graduation, doctors are trained as resident physicians. They see patients during this time, but are supervised by more senior attending physicians, and receive training in the details of their specialty. Many go on to complete fellowships, subspecializing and learning advanced techniques.

How much does a doctor make?

A doctor makes one of the relatively largest salaries in the United States. The average physician made a median annual salary of $208,000 in 2021, according to the BLS. However, total compensation is much higher for many subspecialties.According to Doximity's compensation report, neurosurgeons are the highest paid specialists, making $773,200 as of 2021. This is largely because of the additional years of training they need to pursue, completing on average seven years of residency training, for a total of 15 years of education before they can independently practice medicine.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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