Types of Doctors: A Guide to Common Specialties

Medicine is a broad field, and doctors must choose a specialty. Check out some common types of doctors to help guide your career.

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by Blake Weil

Published September 21, 2022

Edited by Kristina Beek
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Types of Doctors: A Guide to Common Specialties
Image Credit: Evgeniia Siiankovskaia / Moment / Getty Images


The path to becoming a doctor is long. First, students must earn a bachelor's degree, usually in a health-related field like pre-medicine, biology, or biochemistry. Then, they take the MCAT and apply to medical school. As residents and fellows, they begin pursuing their specialty of choice.

During medical school, students rotate through clerkships in various medical specialties, exposing them to different fields they may want to pursue. While students don't have to make any decisions until they apply for residency, it can be helpful to go in with some idea of what specialty might interest them.

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Popular Types of Doctor Specialities

Family Medicine Physician

Many people think of a family medicine physician when they think of a doctor. Family medicine physicians deal with the day-to-day illnesses of patients of all ages. They are medical generalists and often the first point of contact for patients. They can perform common procedures such as colonoscopies, ultrasound imaging, and suturing cuts.

Family medicine requires three years of residency training after medical school graduation.

Pediatrician

Pediatricians specialize in the treatment of children and adolescents. Children's bodies are consistently growing and changing, so these doctors need to understand these processes and how diseases can impact them.

Pediatricians require three years of residency training after the completion of medical school. However, many pediatricians complete additional years of fellowship training to subspecialize in fields like pediatric cardiology or adolescent medicine.

Obstetrician/Gynecologist

An obstetrician/gynecologist, often abbreviated as OB/GYN, works to promote women's health. They specialize in the reproductive system and pregnancy. Major duties include guiding and educating patients through pregnancy and screening patients for health issues affecting the female reproductive system, such as cervical cancer. OB/GYNs also practice surgery.

OB/GYNs require a minimum of four years of residency training. Some OB/GYNs choose to pursue additional fellowship training in fields such as gynecological oncology.

Cardiologist

A cardiologist is a specialist who focuses on diseases of the heart. They are increasingly in demand as heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the U.S. Cardiologists address both heart defects and heart diseases throughout the lifetime.

Cardiologists undergo residency training in internal medicine for three years. They then complete three years of fellowship training in cardiology, including one research year.

Pharmacist

While many doctors work with pharmacists, pharmacy is a unique career path. A pharmacist works to develop and dispense drugs to treat all kinds of illnesses. They require a strong background in chemistry, biology, and biochemistry.

Pharmacists must complete a doctorate in pharmacy (Pharm.D.), typically a four-year program. Licensing requirements vary by state, with many requiring supervised practice hours before a pharmacist can independently practice.

Dermatologist

A dermatologist is a doctor specializing in diseases of the skin, hair, and nails. While they deal with daily skin problems, such as rashes and burns, they also perform regular skin screenings to check for cancerous growth. They also may offer cosmetic services.

Dermatologists require a three-year residency training program. They must first complete a post-grad year one residency, which includes various medical and surgical training.

Psychiatrist

Psychiatrists treat and diagnose conditions of the mind, such as depression and schizophrenia. Unlike psychologists, who treat patients with mental conditions using talk therapy, psychiatrists use medical interventions, such as psychopharmaceuticals. They can either work in outpatient clinics or hospitals.

A psychiatrist requires four years of residency post-graduation. Subspecialization is rare, but potential fellowships include psychiatric research, psychiatric policy, and child and adolescent psychiatry.

Surgeon

Surgeons specialize in surgery or making physical changes to the human body to treat injury or disease. This can include removal or repair of structures to help the body function better.

General surgeons have residencies that last five years after they graduate from medical school. However, some surgeons will either pursue a subspecialty through fellowship, or a surgical specialty requiring a different residency.

Anesthesiologist

Anesthesiologists primarily work with surgeons to sedate patients during surgical procedures. They plan and administer anesthesia treatment, and then monitor and follow up with patients to make sure they recover from sedation. Some anesthesiologists also work in pain management.

Anesthesiologists train as residents for three years after graduation, plus an additional transitional year. Fellowships are available for subspecialization, including critical care anesthesiology, and pediatrics.

Radiologist

A radiologist leads a team, including radiology technicians, to obtain images of the human body using x-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and PET scans. There is also the subfield of interventional radiology, which uses imaging techniques to aid in medical procedures.

Diagnostic radiologists have four years of residency training, plus one year of transitional work. Interventional radiologist training lasts between 4-7 years depending on whether they pursue an integrated residency or a residency plus fellowship training.

Neurologist

Neurologists are doctors who specialize in diseases of the brain and nervous system. They work to diagnose and treat these conditions, prescribing medical interventions. They can also partner with neurosurgeons to perform surgical interventions on the delicate structures of the brain and nervous system.

Neurologists have a three-year residency, with a one-year transitional period to independent practice. Neurosurgeons have some of the longest residencies, training for up to seven years post-graduation.

Internist

An internist is a specialist in internal medicine, who works to treat a variety of internal medical conditions. They can work in outpatient clinics or in hospitals. Two areas of specialization for internists are diagnosing patients and helping them manage chronic conditions.

An internist typically has three years of residency training after graduating from medical school. Many internists go on to subspecialties such as cardiology and gastroenterology by obtaining additional training through therapists.

Ophthalmologist

An ophthalmologist diagnoses and treats diseases of the eye. This can be physical problems of the eye, such as increased ocular pressure, or trouble with the eye's connection to the brain, such as macular degeneration, a disease of the retina. They also can work to provide vision correction like glasses and contact lenses to people with low natural vision.

Ophthalmologists have a three-year residency and a one-year transitional period before independent practice.

Pathologist

Pathologists typically do not treat patients directly. Instead, they analyze samples from both living patients and dead tissue to determine the origins and process of disease, aiding in diagnostics, including autopsies. While they don't treat patients directly, pathologists are vital to the work of all other specialists.

Pathologists complete four years of residency after they graduate from medical school. Subspecialties are available in such fields as chemical pathology, neuropathology, and forensic pathology.

What Salary Can You Earn as a Doctor?

Generally, doctors' salaries are some of the highest in the United States. Even the lowest paying specialty, pediatrics, makes close to $200,000 annually on average. The highest paying specialties, such as cardiologists, can make well over $300,000 annually. These specialists must complete longer training requirements, including fellowships.

Average Doctor Salaries and Employment by Specialty (2021)
Doctor Specialty Average Annual Salary Number of Employment
Family Medicine Physician $235,930 102,930
Pediatrician $198,420 33,620
Obstetrician/Gynecologist $296,210 21,570
Cardiologist $353,970 18,610
Pharmacist $125,510 311,200
Dermatologist $302,740 9,230
Psychiatrist $249,760 25,520
Surgeon $297,800 29,590
Anesthesiologist $331,190 31,130
Radiologist $301,720 29,530
Neurologist $267,660 7,120
Internist $242,190 58,260
Ophthalmologist $270,090 11,610
Pathologist $267,180 11,010

Source: BLS

Frequently Asked Questions About Types of Doctors

Is it worth it to become a doctor?

Becoming a doctor is worth it for many. Beyond the reward of helping save and improve lives, doctors' salaries are generally high and job security is strong.

However, becoming a doctor requires a long commitment to education and training. Getting into medical school and a fellowship program is competitive. You should also assess your financial situation, and make a plan to pay for the education necessary to pursue a career as a doctor.

How hard is it to become a doctor?

Becoming a doctor is generally considered one of the hardest career paths a student can undertake. Beyond four years of undergraduate education, a doctor needs to take the MCAT, apply to medical school, and pass their courses. They must also complete research, a residency, and potentially a fellowship. Doctors also have to participate in continuous education.

Resources are available to help students on the path to becoming a doctor. Many colleges offer pre-medicine programs and groups to guide students through requirements and offer support.

What are the highest paid doctor specialties?

Some of the highest-paid specialties include dermatologists, anesthesiologists, and cardiologists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these specialties make more than $300,000 annually on average.

Money is not the only reason to go into a particular specialty. Some specialties have better work-life balance, while others offer closer connections with patients. Students should consider a specialty carefully before making a decision.

Why do certain types of doctors get paid higher salaries?

Doctors' salaries tend to correlate to the amount of training they completed. Some of the highest-paid subspecialties demand longer periods of residency, such as the five-year residency a surgeon undergoes. Exceptions exist, such as dermatology, which has a three-year residency with one year of post-residency transitional training.

Doctors who perform a high number of procedures, including elective procedures, also tend to make more money. This is tied to what insurance will cover, and what fees those specialties tend to charge.

What type of doctor needs the most training?

Neurosurgeons require the most training of any doctor specialty based on residency. They complete four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school, and seven years of residency.

Generally, the more specialized a doctor becomes, the more training they will need. Many doctors train past residency, obtaining fellowships to subspecialize.

Doctors are also required to continue their medical education while practicing. Specific requirements vary by state.

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