Doctor of Medicine: Steps to Become a Medical Doctor

Research the requirements to become a doctor of medicine. Learn about the job description and duties and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a doctor.

Should I Become a Doctor of Medicine?

Medical doctors (M.D.s) are physicians who work in hospitals, clinics, medical centers, or private practices. M.D.s treat people for illnesses and injuries. They also prescribe medications, order diagnostic tests, diagnose ailments, and record patient information. Doctors of medicine often have a specialization such as general practice, gynecology, dermatology, pediatric medicine, orthopedics, or many others. All surgeons are medical doctors.

Medical doctors' jobs vary by specialty and work environment. While emergency room physicians will work in fast-pace, high-stress environments, many family doctors are able to set their own schedules in a private medical practice. Helping people in illness and injury can be very rewarding, but the job can be stressful and carry an emotional toll, as well.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctorate
Degree Field Medicine
Licensure/Certification U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE); board certification by the ABMS is optional
Experience Most doctors complete a residency that lasts at least three years
Key Skills Able to pay attention to detail; empathy, critical thinking, physical stamina, leadership, and communication skills; knowledge of medical software, Microsoft Excel, accounting software; ability to use a variety of medical and diagnostic equipment such as Ophthalmoscopes
Salary (2014) $189,760 annually (mean salary for all physicians and surgeons)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET Online.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Most medical school applicants complete a bachelor's degree program before they apply to medical school. Students can choose a variety of majors for undergraduate study; however, students should be sure that their course load includes a significant amount of science studies. Students are also expected to complete undergraduate work in the social sciences, English, and mathematics.

Success Tip:

  • Take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). The MCAT performance scores are required by almost all U.S. medical schools. Content areas that are tested on the MCAT include biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. Anyone planning on applying to medical school can take the MCAT up to three times in a year.

Step 2: Complete Medical School

Medical school takes four years to complete. In the first two years, students take foundational coursework in the practice of medicine, bodily systems and diseases. During the last two years of medical school, students rotate through various hospital specialty departments and gain experience in patient care under faculty supervision. Students must also pass a series of examinations in their final year, which may include the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

Step 3: Complete a Residency

Individuals choose residency programs based on their career interests. These programs usually last from three to eight years and cover general medical principles and specific medical specialties. Residents perform a variety of extensive duties, such as conducting physical exams, taking patient histories, attending conferences and interpreting lab information. The National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) uses individual preferences to match residency applicants to programs.

Step 4: Obtain Licensure

Before practicing medicine, all doctors must obtain a license. To qualify for licensure, candidates must earn a degree from an accredited medical school. Candidates are also required to complete a residency program and pass the USMLE. Each state has different requirements to become licensed; for example, some states may only give candidates a certain number of attempts to pass the USMLE, while others have no limit on USMLE attempts.

Success Tip:

  • Continue education after receiving a license. Continuing education is required before doctors can renew their licenses. Licensure renewal is usually required every couple of years. The specific education requirements and time restrictions vary by state.

Step 5: Earn Certification in a Specialty Area

Earning a specialty certification is not required, but it may increase employment opportunities. Certification by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) is voluntary and involves an extensive process of evaluations and assessments. Doctors who wish to keep their certification must continue their education before testing for certification renewal.

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