A career in medicine is quite lucrative. Doctors are among the highest-paid professionals, and you get to directly impact the health of your patients and sometimes save lives.
However, medicine is not a career that you can go into just for the money. It requires a huge heart and genuine compassion for humanity. This career calls for selflessness, dedication, focus, and determination.
The stakes for a career in medicine are high. It takes at least 10 years of training to become a doctor, and it can be longer depending on your area of specialization. Entry into medical school is extremely competitive, and you have to have outstanding grades to qualify. The courses are intense, and the practical bit requires you to work for long hours.
This article will cover in detail what it takes to become a doctor. It will describe the steps for how to become a doctor, educational requirements, and licensing procedures. It will also explore how medical residencies and fellowships work and explore the various areas of specializations.
What Qualities Do You Need to Become a Doctor?
Aside from undertaking the required residency training to become a doctor, you must have certain skills and qualities, including:
- A genuine interest in people’s health
- Empathy and compassion
- Emotional intelligence
- Attention to detail
- Leadership skills
- Teamwork skills
- Oral and written communication skills
- Decision-making skills
- Ability to learn
The Steps to Becoming a Doctor
Below are the steps for becoming a doctor:
- Pass high school with a high GPA overall and a high GPA in science and math
- Pass your SAT/CAT and TOFEL exams
- Pass pre-med school with a 3.5 GPA and above
- Volunteer or take part in community service
- Do research
- Build a professional relationship with professors and mentors
- Pass medical school
- Enroll and complete a residency program
- Pass medical board licensing exams
- Enroll and complete fellowship (optional)
Educational Requirements for Becoming a Doctor
To become a doctor in the US, you need to meet the following educational requirements:
- Pass high school with a high grade
- Pursue a pre-med bachelor’s degree
- Pass your MCAT
- Pursue medical school
- Complete 1-year internship
- Complete 3-7 years residency
- Complete 1-year fellowship
Pass High School with High Grades
The journey to becoming a doctor does not start when you join a med school; it starts way before – in high school. Since med and pre-med school is quite competitive, you need to pass your high school exams to qualify. Pre-med programs require a high overall GPA and a high GPA in science and math courses.
To gain a competitive edge, you might want to take the Advanced Placement (AP) course, which gives you intro-level experience into college courses. Some AP courses relevant to a pre-med school application include AP calculus, AP biology, and AP chemistry.
Some universities allow you to transfer your AP exam credit for an exemption in the relevant course if passed. It also demonstrates to the various universities that you apply to a genuine academic interest in a given subject.
Pursue a Pre-Med Bachelor’s Degree
A bachelor’s degree with a focus in science is the entry-level for medical school. Most medical schools require you to complete the following in your pre-med course:
- Biology with laboratory – two semesters
- Inorganic chemistry with laboratory – two semesters
- Organic chemistry with laboratory – two semesters
- Physics with laboratory – two semesters
- English or writing – two semesters
- Mathematics – 2 semesters with at least one semester in calculus
Since these medical school requirements take up a big load of your bachelor’s degree course load, most students opt to major in biology or chemistry. This way, they can meet their med school qualification requirements while meeting their major requirements.
You can take steps while pursuing your pre-med degree to increase your competitive advantage when applying for med school placement. These include:
- Maintain a high GPA throughout the courses. Aim for a 3.85 GPA or higher in each course and overall.
- Build professional relationships with your professors. When applying to med school, you need strong recommendations from your professors.
- Find a mentor. This could be a professor or someone who is already practicing medicine. They will help chart your path in a career in medicine.
- Participate in as many research projects as possible. Doing so adds research experience to your resume, which is a big plus when applying to med school. Ensure that your research experience is in one of the above pre-med courses. You can get research experience in a couple of ways, including working as a research assistant on the campus lab or at a research institute or completing an undergraduate thesis. It involves research work.
- Engage in community service work. A community service record is crucial for your med school application. You can engage in community service work by volunteering at a homeless shelter or nursing home, joining a public health advocacy group, and becoming a peer counselor.
- Actively participate in an extracurricular activity. It is best to choose one or two clubs or activities to take part in that you can stick with throughout the pre-med college time. It will indicate your consistency and reliability as opposed to hopping from one club or activity to another.
- Take a leadership role, e.g., as a class representative or within your co-curricular activities. It will help your med school application to stand out.
Pass Your MCAT
The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is used to predict how well you might do in medical school. It is weighted heavily in most medical school applications. The MCAT is a multi-choice examination administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). It takes 7 hours to complete, and it tests your knowledge and skill in the following areas:
- Biological and biochemical foundations of living systems
- Chemical and physical foundations of biological systems
- Psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior
- Critical thinking, analysis, and reasoning skills
There is extensive content to cover in preparation for your MCAT exams. You could study independently, take an MCAT prep course, work with a private tutor, or study online. The most effective method is taking an MCAT prep course to cover all the relevant areas without leaving out some. However, such prep courses are quite expensive. The AAMC also offers official MCAT practice tests for $35.
The AAMC administers the MCAT exams at least 30 times each year. This offers pre-med students numerous opportunities to do the exams and scheduling flexibility. The registration cost for the exam ranges between $320 and $375, depending on how far in advance you book for the exam.
If you need help with paying for the exam, apply for the various MCAT Fee Assistance Programs. Once your results for the exams are out, they are submitted to the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) so that every med school has access to them.
Pursue Medical school
Once you have completed your pre-med course with a high GPA and passed your MCAT exams, the next step is to apply to medical school. Medical school applications open in June every year and stay open throughout the summer season. Students who apply in a given year are admitted in the fall of the following year. As such, it is best to apply in the summer of your final year in pre-med school.
You could apply separately to the various medical schools of interest. You could apply through the AAMC, which sends out your application to the various medical schools in the USA. You will be required to provide the following in your application:
- Certificate of high school diploma
- Pre-med school certificates
- Application essay
- Research paper
- Letters of recommendation
- Evidence of voluntary or laboratory-based work
- Evidence of involvement in extracurricular activities
- Pass with a high grade in TOEFL exams
Medical school acceptance rates are quite low throughout the country. Check out the acceptance rates for the universities you are considering, application requirements, and deadlines. You must meet and exceed the requirements to increase your chances of acceptance.
The AAMC has a subscription-based Medical School Admission Requirements portal that allows you to browse, sort, search, and compare admission requirements for the various medical programs in the US and Canada.
Types of Medicine Programs
There are two main categories of medicine programs in the US:
- Allopathic – Doctors of Medicine (MD)
- Osteopathic – Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)
Seventy-five percent of the universities in the US offer MD programs, although there is an increasing number of DO programs. Both programs provide rigorous training with a 4-year program that incorporates theoretical course work and laboratory work in the first two years and hospital or clinical rotations in the final years.
However, MD programs are more competitive and require higher GPA and MCAT scores. On the other hand, you can qualify for a DO program with a slightly lower GPA and MCAT scores. It is much easier to find a residency placement with an MD program than for DO programs.
MD doctors pursue the traditional, research-based medicine degree. These doctors focus on diagnosing diseases through testing and imaging and then prescribing medication or conducting surgeries for treatment.
On the other hand, DO doctors focus on a holistic approach to medicine, focusing on preventative care. The curriculum for both programs is similar. However, DO doctors undertake additional training in osteopathy. The American Medical Association requires persons pursuing a DO to participate in an additional 200 hours of the musculoskeletal system.
Both DOs and MDs can pursue various areas of specialization.
Licensing requirements vary depending on the type of program you pursue. DOs take a Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) while MD take the standard US Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).
Both licensing exams are done in 3 parts and are administered by the National Board of Medical Examiners. The first part should be done at the end of the second year, the second part during the fourth year, and the third part during the first year of residency.
Residency: How a Medical Residency Program Works
Residency training, also known as a resident doctor or a trainee, is postgraduate training for medical students in a hospital or clinic under the supervision of a licensed physician or medical consultant. It is a critical requirement for licensing as a doctor. While medical schools equip students with broad knowledge in medicine and clinical skills, the residency offers in-depth, practical training in a specific area.
After completing medical school, you apply for placement in a residency program through the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP). Residency programs take 3-7 years to complete depending on your area of specialization.
For instance, a family medicine residency program can take three years to complete, while neurosurgery programs take seven years. Acceptance rates to the various residency programs are quite competitive though some specialization options have a higher acceptance rate.
The various medical specialization options include:
- Cardiothoracic surgery
- Orthopedic surgery
- General surgery
- Obstetrics and gynecology
- Plastic surgery
- Vascular surgery
- Emergency medicine
- Family medicine
- Physical medicine and rehabilitation
Upon completion of the residency program, you can pursue further training for sub-specialization in your area. Typically, fellowship programs take 1-2 years to complete. Once you complete your fellowship, you are allowed to practice in the given area without supervision. In the US, fellowships are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME).
Types of Doctors
In the third year of medical school, doctors-in-training gets to choose an area of specialization. Below is a look at the different types of doctors according to their area of specialization.
- Podiatrist. Podiatrists specialize in feet and lower limbs. They diagnose, treat and manage conditions and diseases that affect the feet and lower limbs.
- General practitioner. Commonly referred to as a GP or a primary care physician (PCP). These types of doctors are responsible for overall patient care. They diagnose and treat the most common disease and health conditions in patients of all ages and backgrounds.
- Pediatrician. A pediatrician specializes in providing medical care to children and minors. They oversee children’s overall health from birth from 0-18 years, in some cases up to 21 years. They administer vaccines, monitor growth, and development, and are the first contact if a child is sick.
- Endocrinologist. An endocrinologist specializes in hormone and gland health. They treat and help manage conditions such as thyroid dysfunction, hormone imbalance, and diabetes. Some endocrinologists further narrow down their specialization to one area of focus, e.g., reproductive endocrinologists.
- Neurologist. A neurologist focuses on the functioning of the nerves and nervous system. They commonly work with patients who have suffered a stroke or degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Motor Neuron Disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
- Rheumatologist. A rheumatologist specializes in internal medicine of joints, bones, and muscles. Although their scope of work is similar to that of orthopedists, rheumatologists focus on identifying the cause of the illness and helping manage or eradicate it to promote overall movement and health in their patients. They mostly work with patients with lupus, gout, arthritis, tendinitis, and chronic pain.
- Orthopedist. This type of doctor specializes in musculoskeletal problems. They diagnose and treat injuries and conditions such as torn ligaments, broken bones, pelvic pain, and back pain. They work closely with rheumatologists.
- Allergist. Also known as an immunologist. This type of doctor focuses on treating allergies and diseases of the immunity system such as asthma and autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease.
- Psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a mental health doctor. They diagnose, treat, and manage mental health illnesses such as depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, paranoia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychosis.
- Nephrologist. Nephrologists specialize in diagnosing and treating kidney-related diseases or disorders.
- Obstetrician/Gynecologist. Usually referred to as OB/GYN specializes in female reproductive health, including pregnancy and childbirth.
- Pulmonologist. These medical professionals focus on respiratory organs, including the airway, lungs, and respiratory muscles. They treat respiratory diseases.
- Surgeon. Surgeons mainly perform surgeries. They analyze the patient’s medical records, health history, and condition and develop a surgical plan. They also coordinate with other medical professionals that will be involved in the surgery. There are different types of surgeons depending on their area of specialization, including orthopedic, cardiac, brain, and emergency surgeons.
- Emergency physician. Emergency physicians primarily work in the emergency room to assess an emergency illness or injury and determine the urgency of medical treatment. They are trained as primary physicians but undergo additional training in acute diagnosis.
- Ophthalmologist. An ophthalmologist is an eye doctor. They specialize in providing eye care and performing surgeries.
- Oncologist. Oncologists are doctors who specialize in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. They examine the patient and other tests to be able to diagnose and confirm the type and stage of cancer. They then develop and oversee the cancer patients’ treatment plans. There are different types of oncology specialists, depending on the type of cancer they treat.
- Urologist. Urologists specialize in the treatment of urinary system diseases. They also work with oncologists to diagnose, treat, and manage cancer that affects the urinary system, such as prostate and bladder cancer.
- Otolaryngologist. An Otolaryngologist is like an ENT doctor. They specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases, infections, and conditions that affect the ears, nose, and throat.
- Anesthesiologist. An anesthesiologist oversees the administration of pain medication and anesthesia during surgery. In some cases, an anesthesiologist works with patients with chronic pain to oversee a pain management plan.
- Dermatologists. These types of doctors mainly specialize in the skin. They treat both chronic and short-term skin diseases and conditions such as skin cancer, acne, and psoriasis. They also treat conditions and diseases that affect skin, hair, nails, and membranes.
- Radiologist. Radiologists specialize in medical imaging for diagnosing and treating illnesses. They carry out and interpret MRIs, X-rays, PET scans, and CT scans. There are different types of radiologists depending on the type of disease they diagnose, including diagnostic radiologists and oncology radiologists.
- Gastroenterologist. A gastroenterologist specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases that affect the gastrointestinal system and the liver. They treat chronic heartburn, stomach pain, diarrhea, colon blockage, and appendicitis, among others.
- Cardiologists. They diagnose and treat disease-related to the heart and blood vessels. They mainly focus on preventive care and administering medication while cardiac surgeons conduct heart and blood vessel surgeries.
- Internal medicine physician. Also known as internists. They are primary care doctors who treat adults for common and complex illnesses. Most internal medicine physicians have additional training in a sub-area of specialization, e.g., cardiology, oncology, endocrinology, nephrology, etc. They mainly provide non-surgical treatment options for internal organ diseases or conditions.
- Infectious disease physician. This type of doctor specializes in diagnosing and treating infectious diseases such as flu and HIV/AIDS, among other communicable diseases.
- Critical Care Medicine Specialist. They mainly work in intensive care units in hospitals providing patient care and treatment to patients with failing organs or in critical condition.
- Plastic surgeons. Also known as cosmetic surgeons. They help rebuild external parts of the body such as breasts, face, and skin after an injury or cosmetic purposes.
How to Choose a Medical Specialty
Choosing an area of specialization is a big decision for your health career as a doctor. Your area of specialization will determine your scope of work, how much you earn, and the kind of training and licensing you to need to undertake.
Since there is intense training in your chosen area of specialization, it may be difficult to change your mind once you have started a career in a certain area.
Below is a step-by-step guide for choosing your area of specialization.
Understand What the Various Specialties Entail
Research each specialization option to understand its scope of work, required training, and licensing requirements. Also, have a clear sense of the type of setting you will be working in and the average salary.
Consider volunteering or taking internships in the various specialty areas when undertaking your pre-med degree to help you get a clear understanding of the various specializations. Volunteering, shadowing, and internships in medical settings help you to understand the culture among doctors within a given medical field. For instance, what type of patients will you see and the extent of the emotional, physical, and mental toll that specialization involves.
Determine Your Interests and Goals in Medicine
Reflect on your interests and goals in medicine. Which areas would you be most interested in specializing in? What would be your short-term and long-term goals in the area of specialization? For instance, would you like to go into private practice or work in a public or private setting? Also, is there is a particular cause you are committed to in a given area?
Match Your Interests and Goals to an Area of Specialization
Narrow down your specialization option to one that fits well with your interest, cause, or career goal. Also, put into consideration your core competency areas. For instance, you might be interested in pursuing a career as a cardiac surgeon, but you did well in courses related to dermatology. In this case, you might want to consider a career as a dermatologist as an option or a backup specialty option.
Consider the Availability of Residency Programs
Residency programs for certain specialties are quite competitive. Since you are placed in a residency program through matching, you may not get matched to your preferred specialty. Therefore, it is important to have more than one specialty area to increase your chances of being matched.
How Much Do Doctors Earn?
On average, doctors and surgeons earn $271,440 per year. However, the exact annual median salary varies from one specialty area to another. It varies according to the level of experience and whether you work in a public or private hospital/clinic.
Job Prospects and Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for physicians and surgeons is expected to grow by 4% in the next 10 years. For the most part, the growth will be driven by an increase in the senior population, resulting in an increase in chronic illnesses.
There is also an expected increase in the use of advanced technologies in diagnostics and monitoring to allow physicians to treat more patients. Some medical jobs with the highest growth prospects in the coming decade include:
- General physicians
- Family medicine physicians
Being a doctor or health professional is an incredibly lucrative and rewarding career. However, it is quite engaging and requires working for long hours. The nature of the job calls for a great commitment to caring for people. Beyond stellar academic performance, it also calls for emotional intelligence, resilience, leadership, and teamwork.
To be licensed, you need to complete medical school, do a residency program in your area of specialization, and pass the relevant licensing exam.