Steps to Become a Doctor: Education and Career Roadmap

Research the requirements, including education and experience, to become a doctor. Learn about the job description and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a doctor.

Do I Want to Be a Doctor?

Doctors provide diagnoses, treatments, and counseling to individuals with illnesses, diseases, or injuries. Some of their many responsibilities include examining patients, collecting patient information, performing diagnostic tests, and discussing test results. Physicians fall into two main categories: medical doctors (M.D.) and doctors of osteopathic medicine (D.O.). Both types of doctors treat patients, but D.O.s also use preventive medicine and holistic care methods. Within the medical field, doctors most often have a field of specialization.

There is great reward in being able to help people feel better and perhaps even saving their lives. The education required to become a medical doctor is long and may be expensive. Few doctors are able to limit their work hours to normal business days; most work irregular hours including during the night and on the weekends. The financial potential in the field of medicine is great; all doctors, but especially those working in private practice, are able to earn high incomes. The job is stressful and requires emotional stability.

Job Requirements

Nearly all doctors complete undergraduate degree programs and four years of medical school. Completion of a residency is also required to become licensed. The following table contains essential requirements for doctors:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Doctorate*
Degree Field Medicine*
Licensure/Certification M.D.s must pass all three parts of the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination and D.O.s must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination-USA; board certification by the ABMS is optional*
Experience Most doctors complete a residency (between three and eight years)*
Key Skills Skills in problem solving, leadership, empathy and communication*
Computer Skills Medical software, Microsoft Excel, accounting software**
Technical Skills Use a variety of medical and diagnostic equipment (surgical clamps, ophthalmoscopes)**
Additional Requirements Must continue education to maintain licensure or certification; requirements vary by state*

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

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's degree is required to get into medical school. Medical schools seek applicants who have a broad educational background, a solid foundation in the natural sciences and experience in healthcare settings. While a specific major is not required, all medical school applicants need to complete undergraduate coursework in biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics.

Success Tip:

  • Gain healthcare experience while in school. Students can do this by volunteering in hospitals, clinics or other healthcare environments. This is a good way for students to make sure they want to become doctors before committing to medical school.

Step 2: Take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)

MCAT performance scores are required by almost all medical schools in the nation. Content areas that are tested on the MCAT include biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry and physics. The MCAT is a standardized examination that is also designed to assess problem solving, verbal reasoning and writing skills. Students planning on going to medical school can take the MCAT up to three times in a year.

Step 3: Earn a Medical Degree

Medical school programs generally last four years. The first two years usually entail classroom and laboratory work, while the last two years allow students to work directly with patients under the supervision of experienced doctors. Medical school coursework generally covers topics in pharmacology, pathology, anatomy and biochemistry. Students also study the practice of medicine and legal issues related to healthcare. The clinical experiences that students participate in (usually in their third year) cover a variety of specialty areas, including neurology, radiology and medicine. The clinical experiences also give the student a chance to find out what type of residency he or she would prefer to pursue after graduation.

Step 4: Complete a Residency Program

Residency programs offer aspiring doctors the opportunity to work directly with patients in a specialty area of medicine. Some specialty areas include internal medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine, psychiatry and anesthesiology. Residents may be responsible for a number of patient care activities, including developing problem lists, performing physical exams and compiling medical histories. Depending on the specialty area, a residency can last from anywhere between three and eight years. Most residents usually complete their programs in hospitals.

Step 5: Obtain Licensure

All states require physicians to become licensed before allowing them to practice medicine. Graduation from an accredited medical school is required before qualifying for licensure. Candidates must also complete a residency training program and pass exams. The U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) is a three-step examination that is required for M.D.s. The Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) must be taken by D.O.s. For specific state information about licensing, individuals should contact their state's medical board.

Success Tip:

  • Seek continuing education opportunities. Doctors applying for license renewal must typically complete at least 50 hours of continuing education before taking the renewal exam. Each state has different licensing requirements, so it may be beneficial to learn what those are as soon as possible.

Step 6: Get Certified

Certification is not required, but it may increase employment opportunities. A professional designation can demonstrate that a doctor is an expert in a specific area of medicine. Certification by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) involves a thorough process of evaluations and assessments. Continuing education is often required for recertification.

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