How to Become a Doctor: Explore Careers as a Doctor

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Becoming a doctor requires dedication, and they make a tremendous difference.

Becoming a doctor involves years of extensive education and training. Depending on whether you plan to work as a general physician or as another type of doctor, training can take between eleven and sixteen years. Most doctors complete at least four years of undergraduate school, followed by four years of medical school and then three-to-eight years of residency programs. Fellowships can last an additional one-to-three years.

You may have some questions about the process, such as: What is the difference between a D.O. and an M.D.? What topics do the MCAT cover? What should I study as an undergraduate to prepare for medical school? The following guide answers such questions, discusses the basics of the profession, and provides details needed to start a career path with confidence.

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what does a doctor do?

Doctors can choose to work in primary care or to specialize in a certain area, such as pediatrics or surgery. Regardless of the field, however, a doctor’s main responsibilities are to diagnose and treat ailments by examining patients, formulating a treatment plan and prescribing medication. It’s important that physicians keep detailed medical histories of their patients. They may also analyze test results or perform operations.

Doctors of all specializations often work long hours and can have hectic schedules. Even when not working, they may be on call.

what kind of skills are required ?

Doctors must possess a variety of interpersonal and academic skills, along with a desire to help others. The profession also requires extensive schooling and on-the-job training, so dedication is essential. Other relevant skills include thorough understanding of anatomy, attention to detail, an ability to work under pressure and, of course, compassion. Doctors utilize a number of other skills day-to-day in their work, but many of those will be mastered during medical school and working in the field.


It’s no secret that doctors earn a sizable salary. In fact, it’s one of the most lucrative occupations out there. But it can also vary greatly between specializations and regions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average primary care physicians earn almost $221,000 a year and specialty doctors more than $396,000. Some salaries are even higher, though. The median income for anesthesiologists is $432,000.

Use the map below to learn what the 10th, 50th and 90th percentile doctors earn in each state.

The Steps: Becoming a Doctor

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (4 years)

The first step to becoming a doctor involves completing a four-year pre-med undergraduate program. Every medical school has its own set of requirements, but you will most likely need a strong focus on the following areas:

  • Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Anatomy
  • Biology
  • Physics
  • Calculus

It’s important to maintain a high GPA to bolster your chances of getting accepted into medical school. Some medical schools allow students to complete a bachelor’s degree and medical degree simultaneously.

Take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

Medical schools are extremely competitive. To get into medical school, applicants must first take the MCAT, a standardized, multiple-choice test that assesses the knowledge and skills necessary to be a successful medical student.

The exam is divided into three sections: physical science, verbal reasoning and biological sciences. There is also an un-scored voluntary trial section, which poses questions that may be asked on future MCATs. The MCAT can be taken at any time, though most often students take it the year before they hope to enter medical school, typically spring or summer after junior year. There isn’t a waiting period between tests or a limit to the amount of times a student may take the exam.

Complete Medical School (4 years)

Students typically spend four years in medical school completing coursework and gaining practical skills in laboratories. Medical students must complete courses in the following areas:

  • Anatomy
  • Biochemistry
  • Ethics
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology
  • Psychology

Medical students can choose to pursue either a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. The programs are nearly the same, except the D.O. degree program involves training in osteopathic manipulative medicine.

During the last two years of medical school, students are required to gain real-world experience at hospitals and clinics. They learn how to diagnose and treat patients while working under the supervision of licensed physicians.

Earn a License

All states require physicians to pass a standardized national exam. Licensing requirements vary by state, so aspiring doctors should contact their state’s medical board for complete details.

There are two types of national licensing exams for physicians: The U.S Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) is for M.D.s, while the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) is for D.O.s. Both exams are broken into three steps and comprised of computer-based and clinical skills examinations. The first two steps are typically completed during medical school, while the final step is completed during residency.

The USMLE is sponsored by the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) and the Federation of State Medical Boards of the United States (FSMB). Tutorials, sample questions and orientation materials are available at the USMLE website. Students are limited to taking the USMLE six times, and they may not retake tests to raise their scores.

The COMLEX-USA is similar to the USMLE and is administered by the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners (NBOME). Students may take the test a maximum of four times per year. There is no lifetime limit on how many times a student may retake an examination.

Complete a Residency

After graduating from medical school, doctorate candidates need to complete a paid residency, typically at a hospital. Depending on specialization, residencies can last anywhere from three to eight years. Some specializations require an additional fellowship, which can last up to three years.

Medical School Programs

Once you’ve learned how to become a doctor and made the decision to pursue this career, it’s time to start researching medical schools. Many major universities include medical programs. It’s important to know the application requirements at any school you plan to apply to since they can vary. Use this comprehensive database of medical schools to help narrow down which educational institutions are a good fit for you.

  • School:
  • State:
  • Degree Level:
  • Subject:
Total Results:
A T Still University of Health Sciences Kirksville, MO Master's Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Abilene Christian University Abilene, TX Bachelor's Biology/Biological Sciences
Adams State College Alamosa, CO Bachelor's Biology/Biological Sciences
Adelphi University Garden City, NY Bachelor's Biology/Biological Sciences
Adelphi University Garden City, NY Master's Biology/Biological Sciences
Adelphi University Garden City, NY Bachelor's Biological and Physical Sciences
Adelphi University Garden City, NY Certificate Biological and Physical Sciences
Adrian College Adrian, MI Bachelor's Biology/Biological Sciences
Agnes Scott College Decatur, GA Bachelor's Biology/Biological Sciences
Alabama A & M University Normal, AL Master's Biology/Biological Sciences

Online Medical School

  • School:
  • Degree Level granted:
Total Results:
Baker College of Clinton Township Minor Secondary Biology
Bowling Green State University-Main Campus Master's Master Of Arts In Teaching Biology - Interdisciplinary Science
Brigham Young University-Hawaii Bachelor's B.S. Biology
Brigham Young University-Hawaii Minor Biological Sciences Minor
Broward College Associate Associate In Arts In Biological Science/Physical Science/Wellness
Clemson University Master's Master Of Science In Biological Sciences
Eastern Oregon University Minor Minor In Biology
Eastern Oregon University Minor Minor In Biology
Emory University Bachelor's Bachelor Of Arts In Biology
Emory University Bachelor's Bachelor Of Science In Neuroscience And Behavioral Biology

what do related occupations make ?

There are many occupations that someone learning how to become a doctor might also be interested in. If you’re looking for a job with less stress, dentists and optometrists earn relatively high salaries, but don’t have quite the level of responsibilities as surgeons. Or if the education requirements to become a doctor seem daunting, physician assistants and registered nurses have an easier road to certification. This database will allow you to compare salaries for related jobs.

Doctor and Related Job Salaries

It is important to remember that salaries differ by location. Our salary comparison tool can help you learn more about salaries of nursing-related professions in your state and city compared to other cities.

Doctor Salary Comparison Tool
  • Select a state:
  • Select City 1:
  • Select City 2:
Anniston 2012 MEAN PAY $226,180 per year $108.74 per hour
Birmingham 2012 MEAN PAY $230,330 per year $110.73 per hour

Job Growth

Employment opportunities for physicians should grow 18 percent from 2012 - 2022, according to the BLS. There are several drivers leading to the expansion of the healthcare field. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, more people have access to insurance coverage, which means they are more likely to take advantage of medical services. The population is also aging, leading to an increased demand on doctors.

On the other hand, there are also several factors that might lessen the demand for doctors. New technology allows physicians to treat more patients in less time, while nurse practitioners are taking on more responsibility. Still, the field is expected to add 123,300 jobs by 2022.

Select a state below to see more on employment and job growth for doctors by location.

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  • Employed Doctors
    1.98% Average Annual Job Growth 165 Annual Job Openings