Becoming a doctor in the United States requires extensive schooling beyond high school and a college degree. Length of training varies significantly depending on your interests, goals and chosen specialization. Ideally, you should start preparing for a medical career in high school or even earlier by taking difficult math and science classes. Admission to medical school requires excellent grades in pre-med courses, and you will need a competitive score on the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT. Although the amount of schooling seems daunting and costly, doctors receive lucrative salaries, social prestige and the immeasurable reward of saving lives.
Becoming a doctor in the U.S. typically takes four years of college, four years of medical school and three to seven years of residency, possibly followed by a fellowship of one year or longer.
What’s the Fastest Way to Become a Doctor?
If you are passionate about wanting to earn your U.S. medical license and become a physician, the fastest route is to jump start your career by enrolling in a combined undergraduate/medical school program. For example, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, you can earn your bachelor’s degree and finish medical school in just six years total. By contrast, most aspiring medical students spend four years in college followed by four years in medical school. After medical school, physicians complete three to seven years of residency, sometimes followed by a fellowship. Graduates of medical schools outside the U.S. must meet the licensing requirements of the state in which they seek to practice. Medical licensing laws vary by state, but all states require graduates of international medical schools to complete one to three years of U.S.-accredited medical education to qualify for licensure.
How Long Is Medical School?
Medical school lasts four years. The first two years of the curriculum include classes and labs in subjects such as anatomy, biochemistry and pathology. Students also learn patient communication and interviewing skills. During their third and fourth year, clinical experience is emphasized. Students rotate through different areas of the hospital, such as pediatrics, surgery and emergency room. Rotations involve observing procedures, interviewing patients, charting notes and giving physicals. Rotations do not fully prepare medical students to treat patients, which is why residencies are required after medical school. The residency provides extensive hands-on training. After residency is completed, students can sit for a national licensing exam. Specialists spend up to seven years in residency and may seek board certification in addition to a medical license. Certification boards like the American Board of Physician Specialties administer qualifying exams to eligible candidates.
Length of Allopathic and Osteopathic Training
In the U.S., physicians hold an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) or a D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). The traditional route to becoming a doctor is enrolling in a school of allopathic medicine that awards M.D.s. However, interest in osteopathic medical education is growing. Osteopathic schools focus more on disease prevention, holistic therapies and hands-on work with the musculoskeletal system. In 2018, 25 percent of future doctors chose a D.O. over the better-known M.D. program, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. Both the M.D. and D.O. career path requires four years of medical school and three to seven years of residency, as required by the intended specialization. However, admission to D.O. programs is less competitive, and many students go on to become general practitioners, which involves fewer years of residency.
Which Medical Specialty Earns the Highest Salary?
Physician salaries vary depending on the type of specialization and supply and demand for services, employer and geographic region. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that specialists in disciplines like anesthesiology earn more money than family and general practitioners, who make an average annual wage of $208,560 as of May 2017. Physicians with heavy responsibility, extensive training and demanding work schedules command the highest salaries:
- Anesthesiologists: $265,990
- Surgeons: $251,890
- Obstetricians and Gynecologists: $235,240
- Psychiatrists: $216,090
The job outlook for physicians and surgeons is projected to increase an impressive 13 percent between 2016 and 2026. Opportunities look especially bright for specialists in the areas of neurology, cardiology and radiology to treat the serious health conditions of the aging baby boomer population. Generalists and specialists alike may negotiate higher than average salaries if they are willing to work in rural, underserved regions of the country.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Physicians and Surgeons
- The Princeton Review: What to Expect in Medical School
- American Medical Association: State Licensure Board Requirements for International Medical Graduates
- UCLA: DO vs. MD: What's the Difference?
- American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine: Fast Facts About Osteopathic Medical Education
Dr. Mary Dowd is a dean of students whose job includes student conduct, leading the behavioral consultation team, crisis response, retention and the working with the veterans resource center. She enjoys helping parents and students solve problems through advising, teaching and writing online articles that appear on many sites. Dr. Dowd also contributes to scholarly books and journal articles.