How to Become a Doctor: Education and Career Path

From undergraduate degree to board examinations

A doctor wearing a white lab coat and a stethoscope

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A medical doctor (also known as a physician) is an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. Many years of education and training are required to become a doctor. Most physicians undergo eight years of higher education (four in college and four in medical school) and another three to seven years of on-the-job medical training, depending on their chosen specialty. This is a significant investment of effort and time—over a decade in total. If you wish to become a doctor, it is essential to understand each step in the process, from your college degree to board examinations.

Undergraduate Degree 

After graduating from high school, a student who is interested in becoming a doctor must attend college or university. Pre-med students are required to excel in coursework in biology, chemistry, and physics. Though pre-med students are not required to major in a specific area, many will choose one of these subjects as their focus. Medical schools often appreciate well-rounded students with a liberal arts education, demonstrating a breadth of intellect and abilities. Once the specific prerequisites have been met, other coursework may round out the individual’s application. This four-year degree is required to attend medical school.

Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) 

One of the major testing milestones on the journey to becoming a physician is the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The MCAT is a 7.5 hour standardize test that gives medical schools an objective assessment of the knowledge you obtained from the required pre-med coursework. The exam is taken by more than 85,000 students each year.

The MCAT is made up of four sections: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior; and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS). The MCAT is typically taken in the year prior to the anticipated year of admission to medical school. Therefore, college students usually take it late in their junior year or early in their senior year.

Medical School

Students apply to medical school by submitting an application through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). This application collects basic demographic information, coursework details, and MCAT scores that are then shared with potential medical schools. The application opens in the first week of May for students who plan to matriculate the following fall.

Medical school is a four-year program that includes further education in the sciences, patient evaluation and assessment training (e.g., history-taking, physical examination), and specialized instruction across disciplines in the basics of medical treatment. The first two years are predominately spent in lecture halls and laboratories, and the second two years are spent in rotations among various specialty clerkships in clinics and hospital wards. The knowledge and skillset obtained during medical school serve as the foundation for the practice of medicine.

United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Parts 1 and 2 

In the context of medical school, national testing milestones include the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Parts 1 and 2. The first part usually is taken at the conclusion of the first two years of medical school. It tests some of the basic subjects and principles that underlie medicine: biology, chemistry, genetics, pharmacology, physiology, and pathology as it pertains to the body’s major systems. The second part, which assesses clinical skills and clinical knowledge, usually occurs late in the third-year clerkship rotations or early in the fourth year of medical school.

Residency and Fellowship

After graduating from medical school, you are technically a medical doctor, entitled to add the credentials M.D. to their name and use the title “Dr.” However, medical school graduation is not the conclusion of the required training to practice medicine. The vast majority of physicians continue their training in a residency program. After completing a residency, some physicians choose to specialize even further by completing a fellowship.

Applications to residency are submitted during the final year of medical school. In the first year of a medical residency, a trainee is known as an intern. In the years that follow, they may be referred to as a junior or senior resident. If a fellowship is undertaken, the physician will be called a fellow.

There are many potential residency and fellowship training programs. Generalists may complete a residency in pediatrics, internal medicine, family medicine, surgery, or emergency medicine within three years. Specialty training—such as becoming a neurologist, psychiatrist, dermatologist, or radiologist—takes an additional year. After a residency in internal medicine, some physicians complete another two to three years of training to become a cardiologist, pulmonologist, or gastroenterologist. Neurosurgery requires the longest training (seven years).

USMLE Part 3 

Physicians typically take part 3 of the USMLE testing during the first year of residency. This examination further evaluates knowledge of the clinical practice of medicine, including the diagnosis and treatment of common conditions. Once completed, the resident is eligible to apply for a state medical license and may practice more independently.

State Licensure

Many residents apply for a state medical license during training. This certification requires a thorough background check, verification of transcripts and training, and the payment of an application fee to the state medical board. During residency, having a state medical license enables the resident to "moonlight"—make extra money by assisting in a role outside of the training program—if he or she wishes.

Board Certifications 

Finally, most physicians will undergo a board examination to demonstrate their mastery of knowledge and skills related to their specialty training. These exams occur after the completion of the relevant residency or fellowship training program. After passing the boards, the doctor will be deemed “board-certified.”

Being board-certified may be required to obtain hospital privileges or to contract with insurance companies to practice a specialty. Continuing medical education, including the attendance of medical conferences and repeat board certification examinations at 10-year intervals, is often required for however long as the doctor continues to maintain their medical credentials. For doctors, learning truly never ends.

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