How to Become a Pediatrician

Pediatricians specialize in children's medicine. No matter where you are on your education journey, this guide can show you how to become a pediatrician.

portrait of Mackenzie Maxwell
by Mackenzie Maxwell

Updated June 10, 2022

Edited by Kristina Beek
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How to Become a Pediatrician
Image Credit: Morsa Images / DigitalVision / Getty Images


Pediatricians are doctors who specialize in treating infants, children, and teenagers. These medical professionals can further specialize in specific areas of pediatric medicine. For example, there are pediatrician jobs in primary care, surgery, psychiatry, oncology, and more. An aspiring pediatrician should earn a bachelor's degree, gain some healthcare experience, earn a medical degree, complete a residency, and then finish a fellowship in pediatrics.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that general pediatricians earn a median salary of $198,420 annually. Pediatricians who specialize in other areas of medicine may be able to earn more. Science-minded people who enjoy working with children and families can thrive in this career.

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What Does a Pediatrician Do?

The day-to-day responsibilities of a pediatrician depend on what kind of pediatric medicine they practice. Primary care pediatricians oversee the health of children in their care and are each family's point of contact if the child becomes ill. Pediatric surgeons plan, execute, and follow up after surgery.

A residency is a vital part of becoming a pediatrician. In these three years, doctors learn about and practice pediatric medicine. They learn what makes pediatric medicine different from treating adult populations. Fellowships are optional for pediatricians. These additional training opportunities are particularly helpful for doctors who want to further specialize within pediatrics.

Pediatrician Responsibilities

  • Perform health assessments on people under the age of 18. Pediatricians may do this in a primary care setting or as part of specialized care.
  • Diagnose and treat illnesses and diseases in infants, children, and teenagers. Specialists typically diagnose and treat within their specialty. Generalists may treat minor illnesses and refer patients to specialists as needed.
  • Recommend and prescribe preventative measures for pediatric patients. For primary care pediatricians, this often includes immunizations and nutrition counseling.

What Are the Different Types of Pediatricians?

When learning how to become a pediatrician, it's important to remember that there are many types of pediatricians. In fact, for just about every specialty in medicine, there is a correlating specialty in pediatric medicine. These subspecialties often require additional training, including fellowships.

Because of the vast array of subspecialties, there are pediatrician jobs in almost every healthcare environment. They may work in a primary care office, hospital, emergency room, urgent care, or in an outpatient surgery or specialty center.

Pediatric Subspecialties

  • Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics
  • Pediatric Emergency Medicine
  • Pediatric Hematology-Oncology
  • Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine
  • Pediatric Sports Medicine

What Are the Steps to Become a Pediatrician?

The process for becoming a pediatrician is similar to the path to becoming any other kind of doctor. Some of the steps are mandatory, including earning a bachelor's degree, earning a medical degree, and completing a residency. Other steps are optional but helpful, such as taking advanced classes in high school and completing a fellowship after a residency. Learn more about how to become a pediatrician below.

Step 1: Take Related AP Courses in High School


High school students who want to become pediatricians can get a head start if they enroll in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. These courses are typically more rigorous than other honors courses. Learners can take AP exams at the end of the year and earn college credit. Any AP class can help students earn college credit in high school, but learners who want to become pediatricians should prioritize taking AP courses in science, including biology.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree


Undergraduate students who want to become pediatricians should carefully choose majors that will set them up for success. Some colleges offer pre-med tracks that cater to the needs of students who want to become doctors. However, learners do not need to complete pre-med programs to succeed as medical students and doctors.

One of the most popular undergraduate majors for prospective doctors is biology. Other science majors such as chemistry, physics, and human physiology also serve these learners well. Students who want to go into pediatric psychiatry may choose psychology as their major for a bachelor's degree. Learners should ensure that their undergraduate major includes the science credits that medical schools often require.

Step 3: Gain Practical Experience in the Healthcare Field


The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends that learners gain hands-on experience in a medical setting before they apply to medical school. The AAFP explains that this experience can help a student decide if the field of medicine is right for them, while also impressing medical school admissions boards.

An internship can allow a learner to gain college credit. Positions in medicine such as medical assistant or emergency medical technician can give students valuable bedside experience that will help them become effective doctors. Some prospective pediatricians take what's known as a "gap year" between earning a bachelor's degree and attending medical school. This year can allow candidates to gain valuable experience while studying for entrance exams.

Step 4: Take the MCAT Exam


The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is the standardized admissions test for medical schools in the United States. The exam takes seven hours and 30 minutes to complete, including an optional break time. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) administers the test and reports that MCAT tests four areas:

  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

The AAMC offers 15 MCAT testing dates each year. Medical school admissions boards consider MCAT scores a measure of how applicants would perform in school and as doctors. As such, it's important for candidates to prepare for the MCAT with books and test prep courses. Applicants who struggle with test anxiety can look into different ways to overcome this common fear.

Step 5: Earn a Medical Degree


When considering whether to apply to a medical school, candidates may consider factors such as whether they meet the school's requirements, the cost of attendance, and the resources they would be able to access. Typically, medical school takes four years to complete. In the first two years, learners take lecture courses and participate in labs. At the end of year two, candidates take the first part of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

In years three and four, medical students complete clinical rotations at learning hospitals and similar facilities. In these years, learners gain hands-on experience under the guidance of doctors. Aspiring pediatricians usually declare their specialty by the end of year three of medical school. Learners must also pass the second part of the USMLE during these years.

Step 6: Complete a Residency Program


Graduates with a medical degree apply for residency through the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP). According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, candidates should consider their career goals while applying through the NRMP, but they do not need to know their subspecialty yet. Pediatric residencies all follow Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) requirements. The ACGME curriculum requires doctors to get plenty of exposure to many subspecialties.

Residencies are typically time-intensive and can impact other areas of a doctor's life. Doctors may only get one weekend off per month, so it's important to have an understanding support system. Residencies last about three years. Many hospitals list their residents' salaries, including stipends, on their websites along with other information about the residency.

Step 7: Begin a Fellowship Program


Many pediatrician jobs do not require doctors to complete fellowships. However, these post-graduate opportunities can allow doctors to subspecialize within pediatrics. Some pediatrician jobs with subspecialties may require doctors to complete relevant fellowships.

The NRMP can help doctors find fellowships in areas such as general pediatrics, child abuse, developmental-behavioral pediatrics, and neonatal-perinatal medicine. Institutions also offer fellowships outside of the NRMP. Pediatric fellowships tend to last 1-3 years. Doctors can apply for and complete fellowships any time after their residencies.

What to Know Before Becoming a Pediatrician

Accreditation

Programmatic accreditation is an award that third-party organizations give to educational programs that meet high standards.

Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) and the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA) are the organizations responsible for accrediting medical programs in the United States. LCME oversees programs that lead to an MD, while COCA accredits programs that lead to a DO.

Candidates who earn medical degrees from non-accredited programs have a harder time earning their medical licenses. They must prove that their education was equivalent to an accredited program.

Cost

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), one year of full-time tuition at a public four-year institution cost an average of $9,400 in 2020-2021, which is significantly less expensive than what private schools cost. Prospective students should also consider the other costs of college, such as exam fees, books, and housing. Students can sometimes save money on these costs by learning online.

Data from the AAMC shows that the average cost of medical school is about $218,790. When weighing the cost of college, learners should also consider the average pediatrician's salary and think of their education as an investment.

Salary

The latest BLS data shows that general pediatricians made a median annual salary of about $198,420 in May 2021, which is four times greater than the median wage for all workers. Doctors in some subspecialties can earn more. For example, Payscale reports that the average salary for pediatric surgeons was about $297,860 per year in April 2022, while neonatologists earned an average of about $225,290 annually in May of the same year. Specializations like this often require doctors to complete fellowships in a relevant subspecialty and take board exams.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Pediatrician

What degree do I need to be a pediatrician?

Aspiring pediatricians must first earn bachelor's degrees. While many types of bachelor's degrees can help a learner become a pediatrician, many students on this path choose majors such as pre-med, human anatomy, or biology. Then, a candidate must earn a medical degree.

Learners can choose between two types of medical degrees: Doctor of Medicine (MD) and Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). Both MDs and DOs can become licensed physicians in the United States, and both types of practitioners use conventional medical techniques. Programs that lead to a DO put more emphasis on holistic and preventative care.

How long does it take to become a pediatrician?

Once a learner earns a high school diploma or GED certificate, they can expect to spend at least 11 years training to work as a pediatrician. This timeline includes four years to earn a bachelor's degree and another four years to earn a medical degree.

After graduating from medical school, aspiring pediatricians spend 3-7 years in residency programs. Residencies are paid positions in which learners gain hands-on experience in pediatric medicine. Depending on their chosen subspecialty and career goals, doctors may complete fellowships that last at least one year, though many fellowships last several years.

How much does it cost to become a pediatrician?

Students who attend a public undergraduate school and pay an average amount for medical school can expect to pay about $256,390 in tuition to become a pediatrician. The most recent NCES statistics show that one year of undergraduate school at a public, four-year institution cost an average of $9,400 in May 2021.

Therefore, the average cost of a bachelor's degree at such a college is about $37,600. Aspiring pediatricians must also earn medical degrees. According to the AAMC, the average cost of a year in medical school is about $54,700.

How many different types of pediatricians are there?

There are about as many subspecialties in pediatrics as there are in medicine broadly. For almost every adult medicine specialty, there is a pediatric subspecialty that correlates. For example, doctors can specialize in cardiology or pediatric cardiology.

Some subspecialties are unique to pediatric medicine. Neonatal medicine and child abuse medicine are just some examples.

Many subspecialties within pediatric medicine require doctors to complete fellowships. These opportunities allow doctors to practice within their chosen subspecialties and learn from more experienced practitioners. Candidates often choose their subspecialty during their residencies. Throughout these years, residents gain exposure to many subspecialties.

What does pediatrician training look like?

Becoming a pediatrician is a time-intensive process with many important steps. An aspiring pediatrician must earn a bachelor's degree, take the MCAT, earn a medical degree, and finish a residency program. They must also take several different standardized tests during this time, including the USMLEs and board certification exams. Some doctors also need to complete a fellowship program, depending on their subspecialty.

In all, students can expect to take at least 11 years to become pediatricians. For candidates who are passionate about helping children and their families, the long journey to become a pediatrician can be well worth the effort.

How much does a pediatrician make?

The average pediatrician's salary varies based on their subspecialty, experience level, geographical location, and more. According to the BLS, general pediatricians earned a median annual salary of about $198,420 in May 2021. This salary is lower than other physicians' and surgeons', but more than four times higher than the median salary for all workers in the United States.

Pediatricians who work in certain subspecialties can earn more. For example, data on Payscale shows that pediatric surgeons earned an average of about $297,860 annually as of April 2022. Pediatricians can also earn more depending on location. On average, general pediatricians in Montana, Texas, New Hampshire, Mississippi, and South Carolina earn more than their peers in other states, as per the BLS.

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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