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Earning a Doctor's Degree: Schooling to Become a Doctor

This article discusses the schooling required of individuals who want to become doctors. See educational prerequisites and program coursework for professional medical programs.

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Essential Information

In the United States, a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) is a professional degree that, in combination with state licensure, qualifies its holder to practice medicine. In the first years of an M.D. program, students commonly train in advanced techniques in fields like biology, anatomy and physiology. They also might explore various specialty fields, such as cardiology, toxicology, orthopedics or oncology. Most programs then require students to complete one or more comprehensive exams before beginning several semesters of clinical rotation, which allow students to gain experience working with patients.

The last year of a doctor's degree program might culminate in a dissertation or exit exam. Graduates then must complete a residency to qualify to practice medicine in the United States. Most such programs for aspiring doctors offer services that help students look for and apply to subsequent medical residency programs.

For bachelor's degree holders, M.D. programs commonly take four years of full-time study to complete. However, some schools offer specialized programs that allow students to earn a bachelor's degree and a medical degree simultaneously. These programs usually take 6-7 years from start to finish.

Educational Prerequisites

Applicants to doctor's degree programs typically must hold a bachelor's degree, and some programs require a master's degree. Medical schools also require applicants to submit scores from the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), a standardized test that evaluates a student's scientific and communicative knowledge. A personal statement might also have substantial weight among application materials.

Program Coursework

Coursework in medical programs often varies according to which specialty a student elects to pursue; however, some courses are required for all medical students. Examples of these core courses include the following:

  • Cell biology
  • Parasitology
  • Bioethics
  • Gastrointestinal and liver pathology
  • Musculoskeletal system
  • Pulmonary system

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The employment rate for physicians and surgeons was expected to rise 24% between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ( This growth was anticipated mostly due to expansion of the health care industry and an aging population that would require additional medical care. Since there are numerous specialties for doctors to pursue, salaries may be very different. For example, the median annual salary for family and general practitioners was $172,020 in May 2012, according to the BLS.

Continuing Education

While a medical degree is a terminal degree, graduates still must complete a residency and earn licensure. Medical licenses are awarded by state medical boards. Applicants typically must complete 1-2 years of residency, in addition to passing the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination.

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