How to Become a Doctor: Education, Training, and More

Last updated: May 26, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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How to Become a Doctor: Education, Training, and More
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There’s a reason why almost 30,000 medical students graduate each year in the US — and it’s not just the promise of a hefty paycheck.

Being a doctor is a challenging and exciting job that offers a special kind of satisfaction. Connecting with patients, following their recovery journeys, helping to ease their suffering, and saving their lives — no other occupation will give you a similar spectrum of emotions and experiences.

And, as a doctor, you can either be a general practitioner or focus on the niche that most inspires you.

But what about the practical side of becoming a doctor in the US? Where should you study? How long does it take to become a doctor? How much can you expect to earn? We’ll answer these and other questions in this article.

Let’s get started.

What do doctors do?

Doctors, also called physicians, are highly skilled medical professionals who diagnose and treat patients with a wide range of health conditions.

Teamwork and collaboration are essential in this position, as doctors often consult with their colleagues, discussing cases and seeking second opinions to ensure the best possible care for their patients.

In hospital settings, doctors may also supervise and coordinate the work of medical residents, fellows, and other healthcare staff.

Common job duties of a doctor include the following:

  • Conducting thorough consultations with patients

  • Gathering medical histories

  • Performing physical examinations

  • Determining appropriate diagnoses

  • Developing comprehensive treatment plans

  • Providing guidance on healthy habits, hygiene, and disease prevention

  • Collaborating with other healthcare professionals

  • Sharing their knowledge with medical students, trainees, and other healthcare workers

  • Providing patients and their families with emotional support

Depending on where your professional path takes you, you may also perform other, more niche tasks as a doctor.

What’s the job outlook for doctors?

As a doctor, you can work in a hospital, private practice, clinic, medical center, academic institution, research institution, or public health organization. You can also work for the military or in telemedicine.

Demand for doctors is projected to grow by 3% from 2021 to 2031. The main reason for that is population aging — older adults are more likely to have health problems and need complex care than younger people.

On average, about 23,800 job openings for physicians and surgeons are projected each year until at least 2031.

How much do doctors earn?

The average salary for doctors in the US is $208,000. However, the amount you earn can vary depending on your specialization, where you work, and the state in which you are employed.

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Consider focusing on one of the following trending occupations if you’d like to earn as much as possible as a doctor:

  • Cardiology

  • Anesthesiology

  • Emergency medicine

  • Orthopedics

  • Dermatology

Surgeons traditionally earn more than general physicians and pediatricians because they undergo longer and more rigorous training and face higher liability risks due to the nature of their work. The supply of surgeons is relatively limited compared to the demand for their services, which also explains their higher compensation.

Is becoming a doctor right for you?

Doctors rarely have a strict 9-to-5 routine. They may be required to work irregular shifts, including overnight, to provide continuous patient care.

This job also often involves being on call, so doctors must be available to respond to emergencies or provide immediate care outside of their regular working hours. This fact alone can weed out many prospective medical students.

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Doctors require a range of soft skills in addition to the flexibility to excel in their profession. These include the following:

  1. Communication skills. Effective communication is crucial for doctors to establish rapport with patients, understand their concerns, explain medical conditions and treatment options clearly, and provide emotional support. Good communication fosters trust, facilitates shared decision-making, and improves patient outcomes.

  2. Observation skills. Doctors need to carefully assess their patients’ physical appearance, behavior, symptoms, and diagnostic test results. Strong observation skills help to identify patterns, subtle changes, and potential clues that may contribute to accurate diagnoses and treatment plans.

  3. Memory. Doctors must have a strong memory to retain extensive medical knowledge, recall patient histories, and apply relevant research findings. Remembering critical details helps them make informed decisions, avoid errors, and provide appropriate care.

  4. Strong ethics. Ethical conduct is essential for doctors to prioritize patient welfare, respect patient autonomy, maintain confidentiality, and uphold professional integrity. Adhering to ethical principles is fundamental to building trust with patients.

  5. Commitment. Doctors must be committed to lifelong learning, staying updated with medical advancements, and continuously improving their skills to provide the best possible care for their patients.

  6. Empathy and compassion. Empathy and compassion enable doctors to understand patients’ emotions, show them kindness, and provide them with support during challenging times. These qualities foster a therapeutic relationship, improve patient satisfaction, and contribute to better health outcomes.

  7. Analytic skills. Doctors must possess strong analytical skills to interpret complex medical information, analyze diagnostic results, and synthesize data to arrive at accurate diagnoses and treatment plans. Analytic skills help them identify patterns, weigh risks and benefits, and make evidence-based decisions.

  8. Critical thinking. Critical thinking is vital for doctors to evaluate information, consider alternative diagnoses, and assess treatment options. It involves logical reasoning, problem-solving, and the ability to think creatively and analytically in complex medical situations.

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  1. Teamwork skills. Collaboration and teamwork are essential for doctors to work effectively in interdisciplinary healthcare teams. Doctors must communicate with colleagues, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, share information, and coordinate care to ensure comprehensive and coordinated patient management.

  2. Conflict resolution. Doctors can encounter disagreements or conflicts within their healthcare team or with patients and their families. Effective conflict resolution skills help establish a common ground and maintain a harmonious working environment.

  3. Adaptability and resilience to stress. The medical field can be demanding and emotionally draining. Doctors need to be adaptable to new situations, willing to learn and adapt to changing medical practices, and resilient in the face of stress, long hours, and high-pressure environments. These qualities help them maintain focus, prevent burnout, and deliver quality care.

Steps to become a doctor

There are a number of stages you’ll need to complete to become a doctor. Let’s delve into them.

  1. Obtain a bachelor’s degree

The first step is to complete a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. While there is no specific major requirement for medical school, most students pursue a pre-medical track or a science field to fulfill the prerequisite coursework.

  1. Take the Medical College Admission Test

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a standardized exam that assesses knowledge in areas such as biology, chemistry, physics, and critical thinking. Completing it is a requirement for admission to most medical schools. Students typically take the MCAT during their undergraduate studies.

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  1. Attend medical school

After completing your bachelor’s degree and MCAT, the next step is to apply to medical schools through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) or the Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS) for Texas schools. The application usually includes transcripts, MCAT scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. Successful applicants are invited for interviews.

Medical school generally lasts four years. The first two focus on classroom-based learning, covering medical sciences, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and medical ethics. The last two involve clinical rotations, where you’ll gain practical experience in various medical specialties by working directly with patients under the supervision of licensed physicians.

  1. Pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination

The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) is a three-step examination series that assesses a doctor’s ability to apply medical knowledge and skills to patient care. Step 1 is typically taken after your second year of medical school, Step 2 is taken during your fourth year, and Step 3 is taken after your graduation and during your residency.

  1. Complete a residency (postgraduate training)

A residency is a period of specialized training in a specific medical specialty. It typically lasts three to seven years, depending on the specialty. After completing medical school, you can apply for residency positions through the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) or another specialty-specific matching program. You’ll rank your preferred programs, and the program directors will rank you and other applicants. Matches will be made through a computerized algorithm.

During your residency, you’ll work in hospitals or clinical settings under the supervision of experienced physicians. You’ll gain hands-on experience, refine your clinical skills, and deepen your knowledge in your chosen specialty.

Residents typically rotate through different medical departments to gain exposure to various patient demographics and medical conditions.

  1. Apply for an unrestricted medical license

After completing your residency, you must obtain a medical license to practice independently. Licensure requirements vary by state but generally include passing the USMLE, completing residency training, and meeting additional, state-specific criteria.

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  1. Pursue a fellowship or subspecialization (optional)

If you wish to specialize in a certain area, you can pursue fellowship training for additional in-depth training and expertise. After completing your fellowship, you may choose to become board-certified by passing a specialty-specific examination conducted by a relevant medical board.

  1. Obtain board certification (optional)

To obtain board certification, you’ll need to accumulate a certain number of years of clinical experience defined by the medical board that governs your specialty. The exact requirements vary between specialties, but they may include a certain number of years of practice, specific procedures performed, patient volume, or case logs.

Once you meet the eligibility criteria, you can apply for board certification with the relevant specialty board. Each board has its own application process and fees. The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) oversees certification for most medical specialties, while some specialties have their own boards.

After your application is approved, you will be scheduled to take the board certification examination in your specialty. This exam assesses your knowledge, clinical judgment, and decision-making skills within your chosen specialty, and its format and content can vary.

FAQs about doctors

Can you be a doctor if you have a criminal record?

Having a criminal record does not automatically disqualify you from becoming a doctor in the United States. However, the specific nature and severity of the crime may lower your chances of obtaining a medical license and practicing medicine. State medical boards evaluate applicants with criminal records on a case-by-case basis to assess the potential risk to patient safety.

How long does it take to become a doctor?

The path to becoming a doctor typically takes a minimum of 11 years, including four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school, and at least three years of residency training. However, the total duration can vary based on your chosen specialty, additional training, and fellowship program.

Is there a fast track to becoming a doctor?

No, there is no fast track to becoming a doctor. The process of becoming a doctor typically involves completing several years of undergraduate education, followed by medical school and residency training, which collectively take around 11 years.

Can you be a doctor without having completed a residency?

No. In the United States, completion of a residency program is required to become a licensed practicing physician. A residency provides essential hands-on clinical training in a specific medical specialty and is a mandatory step for most doctors.

Start your training to become a doctor

Becoming a doctor is challenging and requires significant dedication, time, and effort. Doctors also often work long hours, including nights, weekends, and holidays. The demanding nature of the profession can lead to high levels of stress, heavy workloads, intense decision-making, and emotionally challenging situations.

However, if you enjoy working with people and constantly learning about human health, this profession is a rewarding one.

Check out our job search platform to quickly land a secure and exciting job. Make sure to join our community to get valuable insights from other job seekers!

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