Becoming a Doctor: Education and Residency Requirements

Research the requirements to become a doctor by watching this video. Learn about the job description and duties, and see the step-by-step process to start a career as a medical professional. View article »

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  • 2:00 Step 1: Earn a…
  • 2:28 Step 2: Take the MCAT
  • 3:11 Step 3: Complete…
  • 3:43 Step 4: Complete a…
  • 4:33 Step 5: Earn a Medical License
  • 5:18 Step 6: Seek…

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Video Transcript

Becoming a Doctor

Degree Level Doctoral
Degree Field Medicine
Licensure/Certification M.D.s must pass all three steps of the USMLE; D.O.s must pass the COMLEX-USA; board certification by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) is optional
Key Skills Attention to detail; problem solving, leadership, and communication skills; empathy; use of medical, Microsoft Excel, and accounting software; ability to use a variety of medical and diagnostic equipment
Salary $187,200 (2015 median for all physicians and surgeons)

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

Doctors provide a wide range of medical care to people with injuries, diseases, or illnesses. Doctors treat internal disorders, analyze test results, perform physical examinations, prescribe medications, and carry out many other duties essential to patient care. The Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) and the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) are the two main categories of physicians. Both types of physicians use the same treatment methods, but DOs place emphasis on preventive medicine and holistic care.

Although the majority of physicians work on a full-time basis, the work environment of doctors varies depending on their specialization and employer. Those working in private practice will earn higher salaries and have more control over their schedules. Surgeons and other hospital-employed doctors will often work long, irregular hours, spending much of their time on their feet. While stressful, helping people can be rewarding.

In addition to the required degrees and certifications, doctors are expected to display a wide variety of skills and abilities, including but not limited to, an attention to detail, problem solving, leadership, empathy, and communication skills, knowledge of and experience with medical, accounting and database software, and the ability to use a variety of medical and diagnostic equipment. Once hired, doctors can expect to earn an annual median salary of $187,200 as of 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In order to get hired as a doctor and be successful, prospective physicians must complete seven main steps.

  1. Earn an undergraduate degree
  2. Take the MCAT
  3. Complete medical school
  4. Complete a residency program
  5. Earn a medical license
  6. Seek continuing education opportunities
  7. Advance as a medical professional

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

The first step to becoming a doctor consists of earning an undergraduate degree. Most medical schools require applicants to earn bachelor's degrees. Medical schools seek applicants who have a solid foundation in the natural sciences and experience in healthcare settings. While a specific degree major isn't required, all students must complete undergraduate work in biology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Courses in the social sciences and English may also be required.

Step 2: Take the MCAT

The second step to becoming a doctor involves taking the MCAT. Satisfactory scores on the MCAT are required by almost all U.S. medical schools. The MCAT is a multiple-choice exam that measures a student's writing skills, critical thinking ability, and problem solving skills. Students are also tested on their knowledge of science concepts in such areas as biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics.

Creating a study plan and taking practice tests may help students get ready for the examination. The administrator of the MCAT, the Association of American Medical Colleges, also provides MCAT self-assessment resources on its website, allowing users to analyze their own individual knowledge of the MCAT.

Step 3: Complete Medical School

The third step is earn a medical degree, which takes four years to complete. The first two years of medical school consist of textbook and laboratory studies that teach students how to diagnose and treat human ailments. Students study topics such as anatomy, medical ethics, and pharmacology. During the last two years of medical school, attending physicians supervise students in clinical rotations. Medical students complete rotations in different areas of medicine, such as pediatrics, internal medicine, and psychiatry.

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Step 4: Complete a Residency Program

The fourth step is to enter residency program. Medical school graduates typically enter residency programs based upon the area of medicine they would like to specialize in. Doing advanced research on this can help prepare students as they approach graduation from medical school. A residency is a medical internship in which doctors are trained in a specific branch of medicine, such as dermatology, pediatrics, or oncology. Residents may be responsible for a wide variety of patient care, such as diagnosing illnesses, participating in medical procedures, and compiling medical histories. Depending on their chosen specialty, most doctors finish their residencies in 3-8 years. Doctors are matched with available residency positions through the National Resident Matching Program based on their preferences.

Step 5: Earn a Medical License

The fifth step is to earn a medical license. Doctors are eligible for board licensure certification and fellowships upon residency completion. The U.S. Medical Licensing Examination is a 3-step assessment required before M.D.s can practice medicine. Most students will take the first two steps while in medical school. The final step of the exam is often taken during residency training. The Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination must be taken by DOs. Specialized doctors may take additional exams and seek board certification after completing residency training. The American Board of Medical Specialties and the American Osteopathic Association offer certification in various specialties and subspecialties.

Step 6: Seek Continuing Education Opportunities

The sixth step to becoming a doctor and being successful consists of seeking continuing education opportunities. The American Board of Medical Specialties determined that doctors in all disciplines should seek continuing education and meet the highest standards of responsibility. Doctors applying for license renewal must typically complete at least 50 hours of continuing education in a specified amount of time. Specific minimum continuing education credits and time restrictions vary by state.

Step 7: Advance as a Medical Professional

The seventh and final step to becoming a doctor and being successful involves advancing your career as a medical professional. Doctors have many options to advance their careers. Through additional training and education they can specialize in a specific field and become subject matter experts. With enough experience and leadership skill they may enter supervisory positions and become responsible for an entire department in a medical facility. Alternatively, entrepreneurial doctors often choose to open their own private practices.

Becoming a doctor and being successful involves seven main steps, including earning an undergraduate degree, taking the MCAT, completing medical school, completing a residency program, earning a medical license, seeking continuing education opportunities, and advancing as a medical professional.

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