How to Become a Doctor

Learn how to become a doctor in six steps, from earning a bachelor's degree to obtaining medical licensure. Get a comprehensive guide in this article.
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Tyler Epps
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Tyler Epps is an editor for BestColleges. He writes and edits content about higher education, specializing in degree planning and college rankings. He is passionate about helping students prepare for college and navigate their educational journey. He...
Updated on April 4, 2024
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Rebecca Long
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Rebecca Long is a copy editor for BestColleges. She has nearly a decade of editorial experience, including writing and editing. As a freelance journalist, her work has been published in The Boston Globe, The Guardian, Slate, and others. She has also ...
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Portions of the following article were drafted using an in-house natural language generation platform. The article was then reviewed, fact-checked, and edited by multiple members of our editorial team prior to publishing.

Doctors are responsible for treating patients with diseases, helping people stay healthy, and developing the field of medical science. This makes it a perfect occupation for someone with an interest in science and healthcare as well as a passion for helping others.

The road to becoming a doctor is a long one. First, you pursue a bachelor's degree before applying to medical school. After completing your medical degree, you'll go through a residency program, where you'll gain practical real-world experience. Then, you can obtain board certification.

Becoming a doctor is a path that requires hard work, dedication, and a strong desire to provide compassionate care to others. This comprehensive guide will walk you through every step of the process, from earning your bachelor's degree to obtaining medical licensure. Let's dive in.

What Does a Doctor Do?

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

After residency, you may begin practicing independently or as a supervising attending physician in a hospital. You can also pursue a fellowship to gain advanced training in a subspecialty or begin teaching at this point, passing on your skills to the next generation.

Doctor Responsibilities

The scope of a doctor's duties can vary significantly based on their specialty and specific work setting, but some of their responsibilities may include:

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    Examining patients

    Doctors must carry out comprehensive physical examinations and take medical histories to acquire a complete understanding of a patient’s health status.
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    Interpreting diagnostic tests

    Doctors order, perform, and interpret a multitude of diagnostic tests to gather additional information and confirm or rule out diagnoses.
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    Diagnosing and treating patients

    Using the information gathered from examinations and tests, doctors diagnose illnesses or injuries, prescribe appropriate medications, and design effective treatment plans.
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    Counseling patients

    A significant part of a doctor's work involves educating patients on their health statuses, explaining the nature of their illnesses, the purpose of prescribed medications, and the necessity of lifestyle changes. They also advise on diet, hygiene, and preventive healthcare.
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    Performing surgeries or procedures

    For surgeons, operating on patients to treat injuries, diseases, and deformities is a key responsibility.

How to Become a Doctor in 6 Steps

Becoming a doctor requires several key steps, which include completing your education and training, passing exams, and obtaining licensure.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Embarking on the journey to becoming a doctor begins with obtaining a bachelor's degree. Although you can major in any field, you'll need to complete prerequisite courses in subjects like chemistry and biology to prepare for medical school.

Many aspiring doctors choose to major in a field related to natural sciences or healthcare, but it's also possible to pursue a different area of study while completing the necessary science courses. A four-year degree provides a solid foundation for the advanced medical training to follow.

Step 2: Pass the MCAT

The next pivotal step in your journey is taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), which is required to apply for medical school. Offered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the MCAT measures your ability to think critically and understand concepts from natural, behavioral, and social sciences. To be a competitive applicant for medical school, strive for an MCAT score of 502 or above.

The MCAT covers a broad range of topics and spans four sections: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior; and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.

Step 3: Enroll in Medical School and Earn Your Medical Degree

Upon earning a competitive MCAT score, your next major step is to apply to and enroll in medical school. This step involves submitting your undergraduate transcripts, MCAT scores, letters of recommendation, and personal statements.

Medical school lasts four years and is composed of both classroom instruction and hands-on clinical experiences. This rigorous training prepares you for the complex challenges you'll face during your career in medicine.

Admission into medical school can be extremely competitive, so it's important to apply early. Some medical schools are easier to get into than others, so it's important to do your research and keep your options open.

Step 4: Pass the Initial Steps of the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam

After completing medical school, you'll need to pass the first two steps of the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This comprehensive exam assesses your knowledge, principles, and patient-centered skills.

Part 1, typically taken at the end of your second year of medical school, focuses on basic sciences. Part 2, usually taken in the fourth year of medical school, is a two-day test emphasizing clinical sciences.

Step 5: Choose Your Specialty and Complete a Residency Program

After passing the first two steps of the USMLE, you'll choose your medical specialty and enter a residency program. Residency programs provide in-depth, practical experience in your chosen specialty and last from 3-7 years, depending on the specialty.

During your residency, you'll work with patients under the supervision of experienced physicians, further honing your skills and knowledge.

Step 6: Complete the Remaining USMLE Requirements and Apply for Medical Licensure

The last step of the USMLE, Part 3, is typically taken after the first year of residency. Part 3 assesses your readiness to practice general medicine unsupervised. Upon passing the USMLE, you'll apply for medical licensure in your state, marking your transition from medical student to practicing physician.

Step 7: Obtain Board Certification

If you choose, you can further demonstrate your expertise by obtaining board certification, the gold standard for practicing medical professionals. This voluntary process underscores your mastery in a specific area of medicine and offers various benefits, including recognition as an expert in your field, career advancement, and potential for higher salaries.

Board certification involves passing both written and oral examinations and signifies your commitment to delivering the highest standard of care in your chosen specialty.

Common Specialties for Doctors

Before you begin your residency program, you'll need to choose a medical specialty. The field of medicine is vast, with many areas of focus. According to the AAMC's 2022 Physician Specialty Data Report, some of the most common specialties include internal medicine, family medicine, and pediatrics.

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    Internal Medicine

    Internal medicine physicians, or internists, specialize in diagnosing, treating, and providing compassionate care to adults across the spectrum from health to complex illnesses. They may also specialize in more focused areas of internal medicine after additional training.

    Students who choose internal medicine most often become primary care physicians.
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    Family Medicine

    Doctors specializing in family medicine provide comprehensive healthcare for individuals across all stages of life. They treat a variety of conditions and serve as a central point for your healthcare, referring to specialists when necessary.

    They are deeply integrated into the community and take care of the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of their patients and their families.
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    Pediatricians are medical doctors who specialize in providing care to infants, children, adolescents, and young adults, typically up to the age of 18.

    They conduct physical examinations, diagnose and treat common childhood illnesses, administer immunizations, and ensure children achieve milestones in growth and development. Pediatricians also educate parents on the proper care of their children.
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    Obstetricians and gynecologists, or OBGYNs, specialize in pregnancy, childbirth, and the female reproductive system. They provide care throughout pregnancy, deliver babies, and manage postpartum care.

    In addition, they also see patients for preventative healthcare, fertility-related problems, and issues related to bleeding. They treat a range of conditions, from minor injuries to serious illnesses.
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    Emergency Medicine

    Doctors specializing in emergency medicine are equipped to handle immediate decision-making to prevent death or further injury. They work in both hospital settings and in emergency departments.

    They handle a wide range of medical situations, including critical illnesses or traumatic injuries, stabilize patients as quickly as possible, and determine the next steps for treatment.
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    General Surgery

    General surgeons are medical professionals who perform surgeries to treat a wide range of conditions. Their expertise typically includes operations on the abdominal organs and musculoskeletal system. They may be responsible for taking care of patients with multiple injuries.

    They are trained to manage various medical conditions before, during, and after surgery, often leading a team to provide comprehensive care.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?

The process of becoming a doctor is lengthy and requires consistent dedication. After high school, you can expect to spend a minimum of 11-12 years in education and training. This includes a four-year bachelor's degree, four years in medical school, and a residency program that can range from 3-7 years, depending on your chosen specialty.

If you choose to pursue a fellowship after residency to specialize further, this can add an additional 1-3 years to your training. So, if you're considering becoming a doctor, be ready to dedicate more than a decade of your life to your education and training.

How Hard Is Medical School?

Medical school training is often considered extremely difficult due to the vast amount of information that you must learn in a short period.

Medical school requires strong time management skills, as the workload is intense, often requiring students to study and work more than 60 hours per week. Clinical rotations and the USMLE exams also add to the challenges.

Successful medical students typically have traits like self-discipline, a strong work ethic, critical thinking, and effective communication skills. Resilience is also crucial for handling the physically and emotionally demanding aspects of medical training. Despite the rigor, with the right preparation and study habits, it is possible to successfully navigate medical school.

Frequently Asked Questions About How to Become a Doctor

How hard is it to get into medical school?

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Getting into medical school is quite competitive. Acceptance rates are generally low, especially among the most prestigious medical schools, and the process has become even more competitive due to an increase in applicants.

Nevertheless, with thorough preparation and strategic planning, you can enhance your chances of gaining admission. Getting into med school requires strong MCAT scores and a strong academic record with a solid foundation in science courses.

Additionally, it's important to participate in extracurricular activities, gain healthcare exposure through shadowing or volunteering, and possibly engage in scientific research. A well-crafted personal statement and a successful interview are also key components of the application process.

How much does a medical degree cost?

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According to Sallie Mae, the average cost of a medical degree is around $235,827, with a yearly average of $58,968. Average medical school costs range from $161,972 at in-state public schools to $264,704 at out-of-state private schools.

How much do doctors make?

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Doctors' salaries vary widely based on specialty, location, and experience, but many MD jobs exceed six figures. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physicians and surgeons made a median salary of $229,300 in 2022. The top 10% of doctors earned more than $239,200.Moreover, family care physicians saw a median salary of $211,300, while general internal medicine physicians earned $214,460. Self-employed doctors generally earn more than those employed by institutions. 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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