Steps to Become a Doctor: Education and Career Roadmap

Oct 20, 2021

Learn how to become a doctor, including the education and experience required. Find out about the job description and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a doctor.

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How to Become a Doctor

Doctors provide diagnoses, treatments, and counseling to individuals with illnesses, diseases, or injuries. Some of their many responsibilities include examining patients, collecting patient information, performing diagnostic tests, and discussing test results. Physicians fall into two main categories: medical doctors (M.D.) and doctors of osteopathic medicine (D.O.). Both types of doctors treat patients, but D.O.s might also use preventive medicine and holistic care methods. Within the medical field, doctors most often have a field of specialization.

There is great reward in being able to help people feel better and perhaps even save their lives. The education required to become a medical doctor is long and may be expensive. Few doctors are able to limit their work hours to normal business days; most work irregular hours, including during the night and on weekends. The financial potential in the field of medicine is great; all doctors, but especially those working in private practice, are able to earn high incomes. The job is stressful and requires emotional stability.

Doctors also need the following skills: problem solving, leadership, empathy, and communication, as well as proficiency with specialized tools and technology. The medical doctor timeline is long and includes many steps.

Degree Level M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O (doctor of osteopathic medicine)
Degree Field(s) Pre-med (bachelor's degree) then medical school
License/Certification All states require licensure; certifications available
Experience 3-7 year residency (required for licensure)
Key Skills Problem solving, leadership, empathy, and communication; proficiency with specialized tools and technology; emotional stability and ability to handle stress
Median Annual Salary (2019) $206,500 (physicians and surgeons, all other)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Steps to Become a Doctor

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Wondering how to become a physician? The first step is to go to university. Doing well in high school and getting a high GPA are essential beginning goals for those who want to get on the path to becoming a doctor. High SAT scores are also very helpful for university admissions. A bachelor's degree is required to get into medical school. Medical schools seek applicants who have a broad educational background, a solid foundation in the natural sciences, and experience in healthcare settings. While a specific major is not required, all medical school applicants need to complete undergraduate coursework in biology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

Students can gain healthcare experience while in school by volunteering in hospitals, clinics, or other healthcare environments. This is a good way for students to make sure they want to become doctors before committing to medical school.

Step 2: Pass the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)

After completing your bachelor's degree, you will have to take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). These performance scores are required by almost all medical schools in the nation. Content areas that are tested on the MCAT include biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. The MCAT is a standardized examination that is also designed to assess problem solving, verbal reasoning, and writing skills. Students planning on going to medical school can take the MCAT up to three times in a year. It is important for those taking the steps to medical school to start working on studying for the MCAT while still in an undergraduate program in order to have the best possible chance of passing the exam. The Association of American Medical Colleges provides online support for students wishing to take the MCAT.

Step 3: Apply to Medical School

There are several points of consideration for those wishing to apply to med school. Which schools have a good reputation for medical programs? Which specializations does each program allow for? What cities or towns are appealing for the student in question to study in? What kinds of financial options are available to mitigate student debt? Again, the AAMC has resources for students who want to compare university requirements and specialization options.

A doctor looks at xrays

Step 4: Earn a Medical Degree

If you do well on the MCAT, you could be accepted into medical school. Medical school programs generally last four years. The first two years usually entail classroom and laboratory work, while the last two years allow students to work directly with patients under the supervision of experienced doctors. Medical school coursework generally covers topics in pharmacology, pathology, anatomy and physiology, and biochemistry. Students also study the practice of medicine and legal issues related to healthcare.

The clinical experiences that students participate in (usually in their third year) cover a variety of specialty areas, including neurology, radiology, and medicine. The clinical experiences also give the student a chance to find out what type of residency he or she would prefer to pursue after graduation.

Step 5: Choose a Specialization

There are many different kinds of doctors: general practitioners, OB/GYNs, pediatricians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, cardiologists, and many more. Something to consider during your time in medical school is what kind of specialization appeals to you. Making this decision may be necessary during medical school itself, but it will definitely be necessary before embarking on a residency program. Think about the kinds of work that you want to do and the areas of medicine that you find particularly interesting or rewarding. Consider also what kinds of doctors are in high demand where you live or where you eventually want to live.

Step 6: Licensure

Licensure is a process that starts before a residency program and ends after. Prospective doctors will need to take the first two parts of a major licensure examination before beginning a residency program in order to ensure that they are prepared to work with patients. Further information about the medical licensing examination, as well as practice exams and study guides, can be found on the United States Medical Licensing Examination website (USMLE).

Step 7: Complete a Residency Program

After graduating from medical school, you'll start a residency program. Residency programs offer aspiring doctors the opportunity to work directly with patients in a specialty area of medicine. Some specialty areas include internal medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine, psychiatry, and anesthesiology.

Residents may be responsible for a number of patient care activities, including developing problem lists, performing physical exams, and compiling medical histories. Depending on the specialty area, a residency can last anywhere from three to seven years. Most residents usually complete their programs in hospitals.

Step 8: Complete Your Licensure

Becoming a physician requires licensing in all states prior to being able to practice medicine. Graduation from an accredited medical school is required before qualifying for full licensure. Candidates must also complete a residency training program and pass exams. The U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) is a three-step examination that is required for M.D.s., the third of which is taken upon completion of a residency The Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) must be taken by D.O.s. For specific state information about licensing, individuals should contact their state's medical board.

Licenses must be renewed periodically. Doctors applying for license renewal must typically complete a minimum number of hours in continuing education before taking the renewal exam. Each state has different licensing requirements, so it may be beneficial to learn what those are as soon as possible.

Step 9: Get Certified to Advance Your Career

Certification is not required, but it may increase employment opportunities. A professional designation can demonstrate that a doctor is an expert in a specific area of medicine. Certification by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) involves a thorough process of evaluations and assessments. Continuing education is often required for recertification.


Can a Nurse Become a Doctor?

Most nurses take a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree before becoming registered nurses. This does not qualify them to become doctors, but it does often fulfill the prerequisites for medical school. Nurses wishing to become doctors would then need to take and pass the MCAT and enroll in medical school. The rest of the steps to becoming a doctor would still apply to nurses. While these education requirements are significant, nurses do have a head start in becoming doctors, and many of them will excel in medical school and residency because of their prior experience.

What Courses are Taught in Med School?

Courses required for medical school students are extensive and cover a number of different disciplines. Some courses taught include:

  • Biology
  • Organic chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Anatomy
  • Microbiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Pathology
  • Latin (for medical terminology)

Other courses are taught at higher levels in order to prepare students for particular specializations. Undergraduate versions of many of the courses listed here are important prerequisites for medical school and are advisable choices for those wishing to take the MCAT and enter medical school later.

What Tools Do Doctors Use?

The tools that doctors use will vary enormously based on the exact specializations that they have. Common tools include stethoscopes, thermometers, glucometers, specimen collection tools, and sanitation equipment. Surgeons, on the other hand, will have an operating room full of different kinds of surgical, suturing, and sterilization equipment.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the median annual salary for physicians as of May, 2019 was $206,500. This makes becoming a doctor one of the most lucrative professions. Physicians are predicted to experience 4% job growth between 2019 and 2029, which is the national average for all jobs. However, these numbers are general and do not reflect the specific experiences of many doctors who have particular specializations.

Pediatricians made a median salary of $175,310 in 2019; surgeons had a mean annual wage of $252,040; anesthesiologists, which is a highly sought after skill set, earned a mean wage of $261,730 in 2019.

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