Most students who dream of becoming a doctor want to save lives, discover a new miracle treatment or teach patients about self-care. The rewards of a medical career are plentiful, but they don’t come without hard work and determination.
It can take 11 or more years of education and training to become a medical doctor. If you want to be a specialist, you may spend 13 or more years in practice and study. The time and money invested in medical school and training is substantial, but job satisfaction and quality of life is high in this profession.
Make strategic choices in high school to prepare yourself for the 11 or more years of school and training needed to become a doctor.
Begin Preparing in High School
Embrace challenging classes in high school so that you will be prepared for the rigor of college and medical school. If offered, enroll in Advanced Placement classes or take advantage of postsecondary option courses at a nearby college. You’ll also want to be involved in extracurricular and volunteer activities to demonstrate your leadership skills. High school sets the stage for the fundamental knowledge that you’ll need to be successful in college and med school.
Earn an Undergraduate Degree
In college, you’ll want to major in the hard sciences to gain the best preparation for medical school. Popular options include physics, biochemistry, biology, behavioral neuroscience, chemistry or evolutionary biology. You may also select a pre-med program that offers a variety of courses geared toward preparing you for med school.
Top grades are important for your medical school application. Expect to spend a minimum of four years finishing your undergraduate degree.
Study or Volunteer Abroad
Studying abroad or an international volunteer opportunity will enhance your medical school application. Gaining cultural awareness and global understanding is essential to demonstrating the ability to interact with a wide range of people. After becoming a doctor, you may even choose to continue your service by volunteering in a Doctors Without Borders program.
Get Involved on Campus
It’s important to get involved in extracurricular activities while in college. Choose academic and social clubs that best match your interests. Serving in a leadership role while balancing a rigorous academic schedule will demonstrate your time and task management skills.
Become a EMT or CNA
Consider becoming certified as an Emergency Medical Technician or Certified Nursing Assistant while in college. You can earn a little extra cash and, more importantly, gain insight about what it’s like to work in the trenches of a medical facility. A side benefit is that working in the medical field will check another favorable box on your medical school application and help you learn more about doctor requirements in a practical setting.
Volunteer in a Medical Facility
Show your dedication to service learning by volunteering in the community. Choose a nursing home, assisted living facility or hospital for your volunteer experience. In addition to bonus points on your medical school application, volunteering will help you solidify your reasons for becoming a doctor.
Shadow a Physician
One of the best ways to glean a broader understanding of doctor requirements is to shadow a physician. In addition to seeing the work happen in front of you, you’ll develop valuable connections that may help you in the future. A practicing physician can give you first-hand advice about medical school and may serve as a reference for your medical school application.
Write a Passionate Personal Statement
Invest time and energy in the personal statement that accompanies your medical school application. This is your chance to communicate who you are and why you will make a stellar med student. Include details about all that you have done to prepare for this moment. Show your love for learning and the personal details that demonstrate your potential as a med student.
Secure Impressive Letters of Recommendation
Think strategically about the best people to ask for letters of recommendation. Your references should be able to speak to your work ethic, intellect and how you’ve overcome obstacles along the way. A compelling story about your perseverance and drive will set you apart from others.
Get a High Score on the MCAT
Begin studying for the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, during your senior year in college. Expect to spend three months or more preparing for the test. Identify your academic weaknesses and take practice tests to become familiar with the question format. Be ready to retake the test if you aren’t satisfied with your score.
Be a Stand Out Med Student
Get ready for the most immersive academic experience of your life during med school. It goes without saying that you’ll spend most of your time studying as a med student. Ask for help or seek assistance from a tutor when you encounter classes that seem overwhelming.
Med school may be the first time that you’ve faced a seriously tough academic challenge, so be ready to work hard. Doing well as a med student will help you be competitive when you apply for residency programs.
Apply for a Residency Program
You’re in the home stretch when you enter your residency program. You’ll begin applying for residency programs during your last year of med school. Residencies vary based upon the specialty that you choose. Hands-on experience and practical knowledge are the hallmark outcomes of a medical residency. A sample list of residency lengths include:
- Anesthesiology (four years)
- Dermatology (four years)
- Emergency Medicine (four years)
- Family Medicine (three years)
- Internal Medicine (three years)
- Genetics (four years)
- Neurology (four years)
- Nuclear Medicine (four years)
- Obstetrics and Gynecology (four years)
- Ophthalmology (four years)
- Otalryngology (five years)
- Pathology (four years)
- Pediatrics (three years)
- Physical Medicine (four years)
- Psychiatry (four years)
- Radiation Oncology (five years)
- Radiology (five years)
- Surgery (five to seven years)
- Urology (five years)
You can tack on one to three years for subspecialties in each category.
Become Licensed as a Physician
After you finish your residency, you’ll take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination, or USMLE. The first step of this exam is a full day of comprehensive testing on the fundamentals of medicine. The second part assesses your clinical application knowledge, and the final step determines your knowledge about patient management and other clinical principles. Once you’ve passed this exam, you’ll be licensed to practice medicine in the U.S. or go on for a subspecialty fellowship.
Consider a Fellowship
If you’re pursuing a subspecialty, you’ll need to apply for a fellowship. Common areas for fellowships include cardiology, gastroenterology, hematology, ophthalmology, oncology and pulmonology. If your dream is to become a surgeon, a surgical fellowship will concentrate on areas like pediatrics, vascular, colon and rectal, orthopedic, organ transplant or surgical oncology.
Virtually every area of medicine offers a subspecialty fellowship, but you don’t have to pursue one to practice general medicine. You can expect to spend one year in most fellowships, but some surgical fellowships may be longer.
Enjoy a Comfortable Salary and Benefits
In 2017, the average salary for a physician or surgeon was $208,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some make substantially more. Specialty and subspecialty areas influence pay, as does location. Job openings for physicians and surgeons are expected to increase by 13 percent between now and 2026. An aging population will add to the need for increased medical services.
- American Medical Student Association: How to Stand Out as a Medical School Applicant
- St. George’s University: Why Become a Doctor? MDs Share What They Love Most About Their Careers
- Northeastern University: Pre-Med in the College of Science
- Yale Office of Career Strategy: Writing the Personal Statement for Medical School
- Association of American Medical Colleges: How I Prepared for the MCAT Exam
- Stanford Medicine: Residency & Fellowship Programs
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Physicians and Surgeons
Dr. Kelly Meier earned her doctorate from Minnesota State Mankato in Educational Leadership. She is the author and co-author of 12 books and serves as a consultant in K-12 and higher education. Dr. Meier is is a regular contributor for The Equity Network and has worked in education for more than 30 years.