Become a Neurologist: Step-by-Step Career Guide
Learn how to become a neurologist. Research the education requirements, training and licensure information, and experience required for starting a career in neurology.
Should I Become a Neurologist?
Neurologists are physicians and surgeons who treat patients with nervous system disorders, including problems with the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. Many neurologists work in hospitals, and though health and safety precautions are taken, there is some risk of exposure to infectious diseases while working in any medical setting. Doctors who work in hospitals commonly work more than 40 hours a week and often during irregular hours of the day. The potential for high income is present in this career. It can be emotionally and physically challenging, but there is great reward in improving peoples' health and saving peoples' lives.
Neurologists will need strong communication and leadership skills, attention to detail, organizational skills, problem-solving skills, patience, empathy, and knowledge of human anatomy and the nervous system. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for all other physicians and surgeons, including neurologists, was $197,700 as of May 2015.
Earning a bachelor's degree is the first step toward becoming a neurologist. There is no specific major required for undergraduate study. However, aspiring neurologists may benefit from concentrating their studies in biological sciences, chemistry, physics or pre-med to meet admission requirements for medical school. Pre-med requisite courses typically include microbiology, biochemistry and human anatomy.
During the junior year of an undergraduate program, aspiring neurologists must take and pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This exam allows medical schools to evaluate an applicant's training and knowledge through a skills assessment and a set of multiple-choice questions. They then must submit their applications through an online service administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM).
Students can improve their undergraduate preparation by volunteering. According to the BLS, medical school admissions boards may give preference to students who have completed volunteer hours throughout their undergraduate studies. Volunteering at a hospital or in a similar medical environment can help an aspiring neurologist stand out on his or her medical school application, while also gaining hands-on experience working with patients.
Students can also participate in extracurricular activities. The BLS reports that extracurricular activities can help students demonstrate their leadership qualities. Joining honors societies, clubs, student-run publications, or other similar extracurricular activities can help an aspiring neurologist build essential skills and stand out when applying to medical schools.
It might also be helpful to learn a foreign language. Neurologists may frequently work with patients who do not speak English, so learning a foreign language, such as Spanish, can help a candidate succeed in this field and may help him or her stand out over other medical school applicants.
Graduate Education & Residency
Aspiring neurologists are required to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree by attending medical school. Most medical school programs last four years, with the first two years typically covering the basics of human anatomy and physiology. Courses may also delve into nutrition, immunology and ethics. During their third and fourth years, med students usually receive clinical training and participate in a clerkship that covers medical specializations, like family medicine, neurology or radiology.
The National Board of Medical Examiners and the Federation of State Medical Boards administer the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). The National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners administers the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX). All aspiring physicians, including neurologists, must pass one of these exams prior to practicing medicine in the United States. Both tests come in multiple stages, beginning during medical school. The final stage can be taken right after medical school or within the first part of a residency program. Taking the test immediately after graduating from medical school may be beneficial, as internship and residency programs may rely on these scores for admissions.
Aspiring neurologists begin their postgraduate training by entering a 1-year internship program in either internal medicine or surgery. Interns generally gain advanced experience with patients and specific healthcare practices through rotations. For example, while interns working in oncology may interact and provide treatment for cancer patients, those in the intensive care unit may receive instruction on protocols when caring for critically ill patients.
After completing their internships, postgraduates will begin a 3-year neurology residency program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. Neurology residents typically attend lectures, participate in patient rounds, and complete case studies of clinical scenarios. Through these activities, they gain experience with an assortment of neurological disorders and issues, such as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and neuroradiology.
Students may also consider a fellowship program. Neurologists seeking advanced training in a particular field of neurology might consider participating in a fellowship offered by a university medical facility or hospital. These programs generally last 1-2 years after a residency and offer extensive work and research opportunities with faculty and medical teams. Fellowships may be available in epilepsy, neurophysiology and other specialized areas of practice.
The American Board of Psychology and Neurology (ABPN) offers voluntary certifications for qualified neurologists. Prospective candidates may become certified as neurologists or child neurologists after completing a certification examination. In order to take the exam, candidates must have completed an accredited medical school program, earned a medical license, and satisfied the ABPN training requirements. Once certified, neurologists participate in the ABPN 10-year certification maintenance program, which includes completing self-assessment activities and other ABPN components.
Continuing education can help a neurologist stay up-to-date with trends, breakthroughs and advances in the field. In some cases, continuing education may even be required. For example, the ABPN 10-year certification maintenance program requires completion of continuing education opportunities to ensure certified neurologists are constantly learning and improving in their careers. Continuing education can be completed through classes hosted by professional organizations or university medical centers; opportunities may include classes, meetings, self-assessment and seminars.
Neurologists are physicians that specialize in the nervous system. They require a residency and perhaps a fellowship beyond medical school.