How to Become a Doctor

Medical school is a requirement for a doctor career. Learn about pre-med programs and the steps required to practice medicine, and find medical school programs.

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If you want to become a doctor, plenty of opportunities await you, but the pathway to the profession is long and challenging. The American Medical Association states that physicians are in high demand as shortages continue to worsen.

Discover what doctors do, the credentials they need, and salary data in this guide. Explore typical medical school requirements, common coursework, and more.

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How to Become a Doctor

  1. 1

    Complete an Undergraduate Education

    Medical school admissions boards require all applicants to earn bachelor's degrees from accredited colleges and universities. While there is no specific undergraduate degree recommended for all medical school hopefuls, The College Board lists pre-medicine, biology and exercise science among potential majors.
  2. 2

    Pass the MCAT Examination

    College juniors interested in a career as a doctor should register for and take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The MCAT is a standardized, multiple-choice examination used by medical school admission committees to assess a candidate's likelihood of succeeding in their program.
  3. 3

    Apply to Medical School

    There is no required timeline for applying to medical school. Students generally begin the application process during the summer after their junior year in college, but some choose to take a year off after completing their undergraduate degrees before applying. Most medical schools in the US use the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), a centralized application processing service from the Association of American Medical Colleges. Students select their target medical schools and submit a single application to AMCAS, which distributes the application to each institution.
  4. 4

    Complete Training at Medical School

    The path to becoming a physician begins in medical school, which generally requires four years of full-time study beyond one's undergraduate studies. Curriculum is divided between classroom-based instruction in the sciences and clinical rotations where students develop applied skills in various areas of medicine.
  5. 5

    Pass Parts I & II of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE)

    In order to practice medicine legally in the US, students must take and receive a passing score on the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), a three-part examination taken during and after medical school. Medical students must pass the first part of the examination, which covers basic medical principles, before entering their third year of studies. During their fourth year, students must pass the second part of the exam, which covers clinical diagnosis and disease development.
  6. 6

    Match with Residency

    During their final year of medical school, students start narrowing down their medical specialty options (e.g. pediatrics, anesthesiology). They submit an application for residency and are matched to open residency programs throughout the country.
  7. 7

    Graduate from Medical School & Start Residency

    Newly-minted doctors transition from graduate school residency programs. These programs generally require at least three years to complete and provide in-depth training in students' chosen specialties.
  8. 8

    Pass Part III of United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and Finish Residency

    The final step of the residency process is to complete Part III of USMLE. This examination covers clinical management and assesses the doctor's ability to practice medicine safely and effectively.
  9. 9

    Earn Board Certifications

    Once their medical educations are complete, doctors may obtain certification in their chosen field. There are 24 specialty boards that certify physicians in hundreds of specialties and subspecialties. Board certifications require a written and, in some cases, an oral examination.
  10. 10

    Get a State License

    Medical licensure is governed at the state-level by state boards of medicine, and each sets its own licensing requirements and procedures. Trained and board-certified doctors must apply for state medical licenses before they enter the field.
  11. 11

    Apply for Jobs as a Doctor

    The final step to become a doctor is securing a job. Many doctors begin their search during residency. It is common for residents to transition into full-time positions after their residencies end. However, some doctors choose to go on the open market and seek out career openings. Other physicians are contacted by recruiters to fill a position.

What Does a Doctor Do?

Doctor Career Basics

Medical doctors work in settings like inpatient hospitals, clinics, and private practices. These healthcare professionals assess, diagnose, and treat their patients' illnesses. They also verify when someone is in good health.

Doctors educate patients on their diagnoses and treatment options. They suggest preventative lifestyle adjustments, answer patients' questions, and perform medical procedures as necessary. Physicians delegate tasks to healthcare professionals under their supervision, such as registered nurses and nurse practitioners.

Doctor Careers In-Depth

Medical doctors are required to earn the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) from accredited schools of medicine. They must complete seven or more years of rigorous training and earn a medical license to practice medicine. Doctors specialize and treat patients in a variety of areas, such as radiology, oncology, internal medicine, anesthesia, pediatrics, psychiatry, surgery and gynecology. They use their medical knowledge to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries; prescribe medications; perform diagnostic tests; perform surgery and counsel patients on healthy living behaviors. They may delegate some tasks permitted by law to other professionals such as nurses or nurse practitioners.

Doctor Salaries and Job Growth

Doctor Salaries Across the U.S.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the annual median salary for physicians is $236,000 as of May 2023. The BLS projects the field will grow by 3% from 2022-2032, keeping pace with the average for all occupations. Medical doctors make up the majority of the top 20 highest-paid positions in the country.

Preparing for Medical School: Pre-med Programs and Admissions Requirements

Pre-med Programs & Degrees

Undergraduate studies are important for students preparing for the rigors of medical school. Because no specific major is required to be admitted to medical school, most universities do not offer an explicit pre-medicine major. Most students enroll in other disciplines that can provide the experience admissions boards seek in qualified applicants. Two of the most common majors with a pre-med emphasis include biology and chemistry.

Bachelor of Science in Biology

Focus of study: The Bachelor of Science in Biology with a pre-medicine emphasis includes specialized courses that develop students' understanding of organic and general chemistry; the fundamentals of biochemistry and microbiology; and core concepts in human anatomy and physiology. This structured four-year course plan prepares students to take the MCAT examination at the end of their junior year.

Example Courses: Organic Chemistry, Pharmacology, Genetics, Human Physiology, Pathophysiology

Bachelor of Science in Chemistry

Focus of Study

The Bachelor of Science in Chemistry for pre-med students offers a track of coursework in the natural sciences and humanities aimed at preparing competitive candidates for medical school. Curricula emphasize chemistry and biology courses, such as organic chemistry, that satisfy the admission requirements of medical schools. Chemistry programs help students gain key laboratory and research skills while preparing them to take the MCAT at the end of their junior year.

Example Courses: Analytical Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Polymer Chemistry, Microbiology

Medical School Admission Requirements

Medical school admission committees enroll students from many backgrounds, locations, and undergraduate programs. Although admission requirements vary among programs, coursework and testing requirements are generally the same. Below is an overview of common medical school requirements.

Standardized Testing

Students must take and submit scores from the Medical College Admissions Test.

Pre-Medical Coursework

Candidates must complete a series of prerequisite coursework, particularly in the sciences. The following table provides a general overview of the types of classes required for admission:

Overview of Pre-Medical Coursework
Course Description Credit Hours
Biology One year with laboratory 8
Chemistry One year with laboratory 8
Organic Chemistry One semester with laboratory 4
Biochemistry One semester 4
Calculus One semester 4
Statistics One semester 4
Physics One year with laboratory 8
Humanities English, history, political science, and other classes 24

Letters of Recommendation

Two letters from faculty members, one in science and one from a non-science field. Letters from college advisors and employers are also helpful.

Medical School Courses and Requirements

Medical school is a major undertaking that requires dedication and hard work. Learn more about how med school works, typical student experiences, and what to expect after graduation.

Who is the ideal medical school candidate?

There is no universally ideal medical school candidate. Students come from diverse backgrounds, but most begin directly after finishing their bachelor's degrees. Their undergraduate educations vary — some major in the sciences (e.g. biology), while others hold degrees in the humanities (e.g. English).

Medical schools seek candidates who bring diversity to the workforce, are sincerely committed to service, and have an unyielding interest in medicine. Attractive candidates should be analytical thinkers with solid problem-solving skills. They should be strong communicators who can establish relationships with others and make challenging decisions while under pressure.

Are there different types of medical schools?

There are two types of medical school programs in the United States: allopathic, which confers a doctor of medicine (MD) degree, and doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) degrees. To become a doctor, you will need one of these two degrees. Both programs take a similar approach to classwork, but osteopathic programs emphasize holistic and therapeutic treatment techniques.

How long does medical school take to complete?

Medical school curricula traditionally require four years to complete, followed by residencies, which last at least three years but can extend upwards of 11 years. Some doctors may go on to complete additional years of training in fellowships.

What are the requirements for medical school?

Although specific courses vary by school, medical school curricula generally follow the same four-year format. The first two years focus on body structure and anatomy fundamentals, with coursework in biochemistry, gross anatomy, human organ systems, infectious diseases, and pharmacology. During this time, students familiarize themselves with the role of the physician by studying ethics, health law, patient interaction, and medical examinations.

To advance to year three of medical school, students must take and pass Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This test ensures that students have learned the core scientific fundamentals required to competently practice medicine.

During the final two years of medical school, students complete clinical rotations in primary and specialized care settings. These experiences allow learners to apply their classroom-based knowledge in real-world, supervised experiences with patients. To graduate and move into a residency, med students must also take and pass Step 2 of the USMLE, which assesses the candidate's medical knowledge and clinical science skills.

Once they've completed their core curriculum and clinical rotations, enrollees can move to the residency phase of their training on their path to becoming doctors.

What types of courses are taught in medical school?

Diagnostic Tools and Testing

In this course, students are introduced to diagnostic tools used in pathology, radiology, laboratory medicine, and other areas. Enrollees study diagnostic information and learn to develop systematic approaches to patient care.

Skills Gained:
  • Selecting appropriate diagnostic tests
  • Interpreting and analyzing diagnostic test results
  • Using clinical knowledge to evaluate specific screening tests

Human Structure and Development

This class provides a foundational introduction to human anatomy, a basis for understanding the central concepts of bodily function. Topics include nervous, endocrine, digestive, and articular systems.

Skills Gained:
  • Using proper anatomical terms
  • Visualizing structural relationships in the body
  • Interpreting radiographs, CTs, and MRIs

Foundations of Cells and Molecules

Enrollees study the fundamentals of life science by learning about pharmacology, biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, and genetics.

Skills Gained:
  • Knowledge of fundamental cellular processes
  • Genetic factors for health and hereditary disease
  • Clinical techniques for molecular biology research

Clinical Epidemiology

This course asks students to use research literature to answer clinical questions, teaching them to evaluate publications and discuss medical information in the context of practicing evidence-based medicine.

Skills Gained:
  • Statistical analysis
  • Knowledge of research study design
  • Critical use of research

Critical Care

In this class, students receive a practical learning experience in the treatment and care of critically ill patients, including an educational review of the clinical principles of care.

Skills Gained:
  • Care principles in acute care settings
  • Conducting rounds
  • Case management

What Is a Medical Residency?

Before the matching process, students apply to individual residency programs and accept invitations to follow-up interviews. Applicants create ranked lists for their top choices among the residency programs that have accepted them. Students submit these lists to the National Resident Matching Program, which uses a computerized algorithm to match them with residencies.

Residency program applications consist of:

Factors to consider during the residency program interviews:

Residents can work in any healthcare setting, like hospitals, clinics, or private practices. They provide direct patient care under the supervision of an experienced doctor. Their tasks include assessments, diagnoses, treatment, patient education, and performing invasive procedures.

How does a residency differ from a fellowship?

Residency programs train doctors in their chosen specialty for 3-7 years. After residency, they can enter a fellowship to train for 1-3 years in a subspecialty. For example, a doctor may train in an ophthalmology residency before completing a retina fellowship.

Doctor Salaries

The following list includes mean annual salaries for various specialties as of May 2023. Earnings may vary based on location, workplace, and years of experience.

Source: BLS

Credentials

After completing residencies, physicians must earn their credentials to expand their scope of practice or work for new employers. It's helpful to apply as soon as possible because the process can take up to 180 days. Earning credentials demonstrates that doctors are safe and competent medical providers.

Credentialing occurs in three phases:

  1. Credentialing: This phase assesses and verifies physicians' qualifications based on their application.
  2. Privileging: Physicians are granted permission to practice in this step.
  3. Enrollment: This phase enables physicians to bill and receive payment for their services.

The information doctors submit during the first phase includes:

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Doctor

Who is the ideal medical school candidate?

Students come from diverse educational backgrounds, but most begin directly after finishing their bachelor's degrees. Medical schools seek analytical problem-solvers who are sincerely committed to service and have a keen interest in medicine. They're strong communicators who can establish positive relationships and work well under pressure.

Are there different types of medical schools?

There are two types of medical school programs in the United States: allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO). Their curricula are similar, and you will need one of these degrees to become a doctor. However, osteopathic programs emphasize holistic treatments.

How long does medical school take to complete?

Medical school traditionally requires four years to complete. Students then begin residencies that last at least three years. Some doctors complete additional training in fellowships.

What are the requirements for medical school?

Medical school is generally four years. The first two years focus on anatomy, biochemistry, ethics, human organ systems, therapeutic communication, health law, infectious diseases, and pharmacology. To enter the third year of medical school, students must pass Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination. During the final two years, students participate in clinical rotations. To advance into residencies, students must pass Step 2 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination.

Page last reviewed on April 23, 2024

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