Becoming a Doctor at a Glance
|Degree Levels||Bachelor's degree followed by M.D. or D.O.|
|Field(s) of Study||Pre-med or biological sciences then medicine|
|Prerequisites||High school diploma or equivalent; satisfactory MCAT scores|
|Program Length||4 years for bachelor's degree; 4 years for medical school; 3-7 years in residency and fellowships depending on specialty|
|Licensure/Certification||State licensure required|
|Job Outlook (2018-2028)||7% growth|
|Median Annual Salary (2019)||$208,000 or greater (for physicians and surgeons)|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
The requirements for becoming a doctor in the U.S. may vary by specialty. In general, doctors complete a 4-year undergraduate degree program, spend 4 years in medical school, and then complete 3-7 years of residency training before they are eligible for medical licensing. Both degree programs typically include general medical coursework, while prospective doctors can choose a specialty later, during their residencies.
Completing a bachelor's degree program is necessary to prepare prospective doctors to enter medical school. Though medical schools do not require specific degrees for admission, many students opt for programs heavy in biology and chemistry. Some schools offer specific pre-med programs that include the required classes for medical school, as well as prepare them to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Common courses in a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Biology program include:
- Biological studies
- Human genetics
MCAT - Medical College Admission Test
The MCAT is a multiple-choice examination that students must pass before they are admitted to medical school. Physical science, biology, critical thinking, and verbal skills are all tested in a 5-hour computerized test. Most medical schools use this score when considering applicants for admission, so it's important to score well to be considered for top programs.
Medical school consists of four years of medical training and education. The first two years of a prospective doctor's medical school experience are devoted to book study and laboratory work to prepare students for diagnosing and treating illnesses. During the second year of med school, students take the first portion of the United States Medical Licensing Examination, which is administered by the National Board of Medical Examiners.
During the last two years of medical school, students begin their clinical experience, going through rotations at clinics and hospitals. Students work under attending physicians to begin their practical training in medicine. The fourth year of medical school is when the second licensing test is issued, as well as when students begin their residency training. As an alternative to undergraduate degrees and medical school, some institutions allow students to take a 6-year combination training and education program, which gives students a compressed medical and academic education.
A doctor's internship or clerkship period is known as a residency. Most doctors complete their residency in a 3- to 7-year period, depending on specialization. The first year of residency is when the final medical licensing exam is given, while the residency itself focuses almost completely on practical training in a medical environment, rather than classroom learning. Post-residency fellowships might also be beneficial, as doctors can choose to sub-specialize in areas such as internal, geriatric, or vascular medicine.
Licensing requirements for doctors vary by state, but most states require at least a 1-year residency program and the passage of a board certification exam in the medical specialty the student has chosen. Once these requirements have been met, a doctor is normally considered a fully licensed medical professional and is legally able to practice in their respective field.
Employment Outlook and Salary
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physicians and surgeons earned a median salary of $208,000 or greater in 2019. Based on data from the BLS, there were 756,800 physicians and surgeons working in the U.S. in 2018, and employment opportunities for these professionals are expected to increase by 7% over the 2018-2028 decade.
It takes 11-14 years to become a doctor in the United States, including earning a bachelor's degree, attending 4 years of medical school, and completing a 3- to 7-year residency program after medical school. After residency, doctors may apply for a state license to practice medicine.