Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates there are slightly more than 900,000 physicians practicing medicine in the US. Yet, behind this number is a crushing need for still more doctors: A 2013 report from the American Association of Medical Colleges projects there will be a national shortage of about 46,000 to 90,000 physicians by 2025. Joining the ranks of doctors to fill this shortfall requires a substantial amount of time and effort. The following guide explores the steps to become a doctor, reviews medical school admission requirements, discusses medical school training and offers an overview of physician careers.
Developing the skills and knowledge necessary to practice medicine requires a great deal of time and effort, so it is important to research the training process before taking the plunge. The following section outlines how physicians prepare for their careers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Physicians and surgeons are authorities in the practice of medicine. They assess patients, diagnose diseases and illnesses, and treat a variety of conditions. They may order and perform tests and use those tests to diagnose and treat their patients. Surgeons also perform operations and more complicated invasive procedures on patients. Doctors and surgeons work in a variety of settings, from hospitals and private offices to health clinics and schools.
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.
Medicine is one of the highest paying occupations in the country. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that doctors account for 45 percent of the 20 highest-paying jobs in the country. Average salaries easily surpass six figures, with some surgeons and physicians able to command salaries greater than $400,000. Numerous factors influence doctors’ earning potential, including specialization, education and location. Use the map below to learn more about doctor salaries by state.
Aging, insurance reform and chronic illness drive steady demand for healthcare services. The Administration on Aging projects that the number of Americans aged 65 and older will account for more than 21 percent of the population by 2040, and the Affordable Care Act expanded Medicare and provided insurance to nearly 17 million people who previously did not have insurance. Finally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, early half of the country’s population—approximately 117 million people—are living with a chronic disease.
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.
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
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
Medical school admission committees enroll students who come a variety of backgrounds, locations and undergraduate programs. Although admission requirements vary from school to school, coursework and testing requirements generally remained unchanged. Below is an overview of common medical school requirements.Standardized Testing
Students must take and submit scores from the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).Pre-Medical Coursework
Students need to complete a series of prerequisite coursework, particularly in the sciences. Below is a general overview of the types of classes required for admission:
|Biology||One year with laboratory||8|
|Chemistry||One year with laboratory||8|
|Organic Chemistry||One semester with laboratory||4|
|Physics||One year with laboratory||8|
|Humanities||English, history, political science and other classes||24|
Two letters from faculty members, one in science and one from a non-science field. Letters from college advisers and employers are also helpful.
Medical school is a major undertaking that requires dedication and hard work to complete. Learn more about what medical school entails, what students experience during their programs, and what happens after they graduate.
There is no universally ideal medical school candidate. Medical school students come from diverse backgrounds, but most begin directly after finishing their bachelor’s degrees. Their undergraduate educations vary – some students study the sciences (e.g. biology), while others major in the humanities (e.g. English).
Medical schools seek candidates that bring diversity to the workforce, are sincerely committed to service and have an unyielding interest in medicine. Attractive candidates should be analytical thinkers with good problem solving skills. They should be strong communicators who can establish relationships with others and make challenging decisions while under pressure.
There are two types of medical school programs in the United States: allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO). Both programs take a similar approach to curriculum. However, osteopathic programs place a greater emphasis on holistic and therapeutic treatment techniques.
Medical school curricula traditionally require four years to complete, then students assume residencies that lasts at least three years (but can go upwards of 11 years). Some doctors may go on to complete additional years of training in a fellowship.
Although specific courses can by school, medical school curricula generally follow the same four-year format. The first two years focus on the fundamentals of body structure and anatomy, 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.
In order to move to year three of medical school, students must take and pass Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination. This test ensures students have learned the core scientific fundamentals required to practice medicine in a competent manner.
During the final two years of medical school, students participate in clinical rotations in primary and specialized care settings. Clinical rotations serve as an opportunity for students to apply their classroom-based knowledge in real-world, supervised experiences with patients. In order to graduate and move into a residency, students must also take and pass Step 2 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination. Step 2 assesses the candidate’s medical knowledge and clinical science skills.
Once they’ve completed their core curriculum and clinical rotations, medical students move to the residency phase of their training.
In this course, students are introduced to diagnostic tools used in pathology, radiology, laboratory medicine, clinical epidemiology, and other areas. Students study diagnostic information and learn how to develop systematic approaches to patient care.
This class serves as a foundational introduction to human anatomy, a basis for understanding the central concepts of bodily function. Topics of study range from nervous and endocrine systems to digestive and articular systems.
Students study the fundamentals of life science, learning about the relationship between pharmacology, biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, and genetics.
This course asks students to use research literature to answer a clinical question, teaching them to evaluate research articles and discuss medical information with the context of practicing evidence-based medicine.
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.
As they near their final year of medical school, students begin preparing for residency. A residency is a three- to eleven-year training program where doctors receive specialized professional training guided and supervised by experienced physician educators. Residency length varies by specialty. For example, pediatricians participate in a three-year residency while urologists have five-year residencies. The residency matching process takes nearly a year. Students submit applications through the National Residency Matching Program (NRMP), a process that matches them to open postgraduate residency programs. To complete their programs, residents must pass Step 3 of the USMLE. This examination tests the candidate’s clinical assessment and management knowledge and skills.
After finishing their residencies, physicians may choose to complete fellowships in their respective specialties, such as oncology (cancer treatment) or neurology.
Medicine offers many different practice options. The American Medical Association lists more than 200 specialty categories and the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education more than 140 specialties and subspecialties. Examples include: allergy and immunology; anesthesiology; critical care medicine; gastroenterology; orthopedic surgery and cardiology. Read more about five different career specializations for graduates of medical school.
Family physicians provide general medical care to patients in clinics, hospitals, private offices and other medical settings. They diagnose and treat illness--including acute and chronic health problems--and provide preventative care services. These services include immunizations, health screening tests and annual checkups. In cases of serious illness or disease, family physicians collaborate with other medical specialists to arrange appropriate care.
Anesthesiologists are specialized physicians who administer and monitor anesthesia for patients during diagnostic and surgical procedures. During these procedures, anesthesiologists monitor the condition of the patient, including his or her consciousness level, body temperature and vital signs. They may also monitor neurological function along with blood pressure and oxygen levels during neurologic procedures. Once a procedure is complete, anesthesiologists coordinate with post-anesthesia nurses to ensure the patient recovers comfortably.
Pediatricians are physicians that treat children across the lifespan – from birth to young adulthood. They are concerned not only with the physical care of children, but their emotional and social development as well. Pediatricians provide a wide range of services, from preventative health (e.g. immunizations and health screenings) to the diagnosis, assessment and treatment of serious illnesses and diseases.
Surgeons treat patients with acute problems in different body areas, such as the digestive tract, skin or abdomen. General surgeons use minimally invasive procedures and techniques to treat conditions ranging from thyroid disorders to tumors in the breast. Some surgeons specialize in specific areas of medicine, like oncology, pediatrics, organ transplant, orthopedics and trauma.
Internists provide complex medical care to patients dealing with both common and chronic illnesses. Working in offices or hospitals, internists diagnose and treat diseases that impact the circulatory (blood), digestive (stomach), cardiovascular (heart), respiratory (lungs) and endocrine (kidney) systems. They also perform wellness checkups, provide preventative care services, and may treat patients facing other issues, including substance abuse or mental health problems.
As outlined by the Association of American Medical Colleges, medical students should develop a collection of specific competencies to succeed both in medical school and in their chosen specialties.
The ability to handle professional responsibilities and tasks in an ethical, safe and sensitive manner.
Providing compassionate, appropriate, and effective patient care. Practice-based learning and improvement
Wanting to learn more about the practice of medicine the latest best practices within medical care.
Robust medical knowledge and how it can be applied during patient care.
Interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate effectively with patients, their families and other medical professionals.
The American Board of Medical Specialties is a nonprofit organization that works alongside 24 specialty boards to ensure professional standards are maintained within medicine. Doctors can earn board certification by satisfying set training requirements and passing a written and/or oral examination. Once certified, doctors become diplomates of their specialty board.
Within those 24 specialties are hundreds of subspecialties. Below is a sample of some of the certification areas available.
|Anesthesiology||Pain Medicine; Critical Care Medicine|
|Internal Medicine||Infectious Disease; Hematology|
|Family Medicine||Geriatric Medicine; Sleep Medicine|
|Pediatrics||Pediatric Cardiology; Pediatric Pulmonology|
The bottom line? The need for quality health care is expected to increase well into the future. Use the map below to learn more about employment opportunities in your state.
Physicians are not the only health care professionals who deliver patient: opportunities range from nursing to dentistry and occupational therapy to psychology. The following careers are indispensable to the health care system.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
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.
Prospective doctors have much to consider before they pursue medical training. Because of the time commitment and cost involved, it is essential that students research potential medical schools and learn as much as they can about the field and its specialties. The following resources provide valuable information about the health care industry, medical training and doctor careers.
The American Medical Association is the largest membership association for doctors, physicians and medical students.
The American Medical Women’s Association is a membership-based organization for physicians; pre-medical and medical students; residents and other health care professionals.
The Association of American Physicians is an organization for physicians with more than 1,300 active members in the United States, Canada, and other countries.
The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons is a professional association for physicians from all specialties and types of medical practice.
The National Medical Association is a nonprofit association that represents the interests of the more than 50,000 African American physicians.
Medical school is competitive. The latest figures from the Association of American Medical Colleges reveal only 39 percent of applicants are accepted into medical school. For example, in 2015-2016, the University of Arizona received 5,667 applications, but only enrolled 117 students. The average applicant submits 15 applications, so finding the right school is paramount for admission. Use this search tool to compare medical schools and learn about their admissions requirements.