How to Become a Doctor: Step-by-Step Guide

Learn how to become a doctor. Research the education and career requirements, as well as licensure and experience required for starting a career as a doctor.

Do I Want to Be a Doctor?

Doctors diagnose illnesses and treat injuries by examining patients, performing procedures, taking medical histories, prescribing medications, and conducting tests. In order to prevent patients from getting sick, doctors may also advise them on preventive health care, diet, and exercise. While general practice doctors will assess patients' overall health, many doctors specialize in a specific area, such as cardiology, neurology, orthopedics, or pediatrics.

The potential for high income as a physician is strong; however, because of the long education and training demands, becoming a successful doctor can take a very long time. Work hours are extremely long and doctors will likely have to work nights and weekends in addition to regular business hours. Private practice physicians are able to have more control over their schedules than those working in hospitals.

Job Requirements

After earning a bachelor's degree, prospective doctors will need to enroll in an accredited medical school, complete residency training, and pass the necessary licensing examinations. The table below includes the requirements to become a doctor.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Medical degree*
Licensure Medical licensure is necessary to work as a doctor.**
Experience Doctors must complete a residency after completing medical school.**
Key Skills In addition to strong medical skills, doctors may need to have the dexterity to perform procedures, stamina to make rounds, problem-solving ability to figure out medical diagnoses, and interpersonal skills to communicate with patients and other medical professionals.*

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)*, (August 2012).**

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

There is no specific major that prospective doctors need to pursue before enrolling in medical school. However, it's important that students take several science and science-related courses. Examples of majors may include chemistry, physics and biology. Some colleges and universities may even offer a pre-medicine track that will include courses in anatomy and physiology.

Success Tips:

  • Work in a medical facility. Admission into medical school is very competitive, and it's important that applicants look for any possible advantage. While a strong grade point average is important, volunteering at a local health clinic or working in a medical facility may be beneficial since it adds to the extracurricular activities that candidates can list on a medical school application.
  • Get letters of recommendation. Medical schools sometimes require these, but it's important for applicants to get them even if they aren't a prerequisite. Students should build strong relationships with professors in the pre-med track to get positive letters of recommendation.

Step 2: Take the Medical College Admission Test

Medical schools require that individuals interested in applying take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This is a multiple-choice exam that covers areas involving critical thinking, problem-solving, scientific principles and writing. It's important to perform well on this exam in order to get accepted into medical school.

Step 3: Enroll in Medical School

A Doctor of Medicine (MD) program is four years in length and combines academic coursework with clinical training. The first two years of the program will teach medical students about several topics, including medical laws and ethics, microbiology, anatomy and physiology. During the final two years, students will have an opportunity to participate in clinical rotations. Rotations will be completed under the supervision of doctors, and students will be exposed to areas involving surgery, pediatrics, internal medicine, psychiatry, gynecology and obstetrics.

Success Tip:

  • Participate in an internship. Medical students will be expected to choose internships that focus on a specific specialty. This will help them get into a residency program. The internship is often completed during the summer between a student's third and fourth years.

Step 4: Complete a Medical Residency

After graduating from medical school, aspiring doctors must enter residency programs. In a residency, doctors will receive paid, on-the-job training. These can last anywhere from 3-7 years, depending on the specialty. Residencies take place in a hospital and offer an opportunity for medical school graduates to begin treating patients under the supervision of an experienced doctor.

Step 5: Obtain Licensure

Doctors must obtain medical licensure to practice in hospitals and other types of medical facilities. In order to earn licensure, doctors must pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). The exam is in three parts and covers topics involving scientific and medical concepts, patient care and patient management in ambulatory settings.

Success Tip:

  • Obtain specialty certification. Medical doctors have the option to earn certification in the specialty of their interest from an accredited organization. Earning certification will demonstrate a candidate's knowledge and skills in a specific medical specialty, such as immunology, dermatology, neurological surgery or ophthalmology. The prerequisites for certification typically include a certain number of years of experience working in the specialty (including within the residency period) and a passing score on an exam.

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