How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?
June 21, 2023
Whether you’re halfway through undergrad or changing careers in your twenties, knowing the time and dedication it takes to become a doctor is crucial before going down that path. You probably know it takes years of studying and clinical experience to achieve the coveted title. But how long does it take to become a doctor, specifically? What’s needed to be accepted into medical school? And what professional training is required after medical school? The journey to becoming a doctor isn’t an easy one, so let’s break down every step you’ll need to take before deciding if it’s the best profession for you.
What Degree(s) Do You Need to Apply to Medical School?
To be accepted into medical school, you’ll need to have graduated from both high school and a four-year college or university. While it may be different in other parts of the world, a medical degree in the U.S. is considered to be “second entry,” meaning you can’t pursue a bachelor’s degree in medicine. Instead, it’s recommended that you obtain a Bachelor of Science in some related field, like biology or chemistry. However, you can apply to medical school with a non-science degree, too. In fact, many non-traditional applicants seek education or work for years in a completely unrelated field. They may not have realized their desire to become a doctor until later in life after an impactful experience.
Some schools even offer unique pre-med, early assurance, or combined medical programs. Early assurance programs offer students the chance to secure a place in medical school as early as their sophomore year of college and take prerequisite courses prior to graduating. In contrast, combined BD/MD programs have high admissions standards and can be extremely selective, with medical school, acceptance depends on how well you perform academically in pursuing your bachelor’s degree.
While an undergraduate science degree isn’t typically required to apply to medical school, it helps you fulfill at least some of the prerequisite coursework. For example, many schools require both a year of biology, chemistry, and physics with accompanying lab experience. In addition, they may expect at least a semester of math and a year of English. By taking core and elective classes that teach you the foundational skills necessary to be a doctor, you’re already demonstrating relevant abilities to medical school admissions. If you didn’t pursue a science-related degree, you may need to take some extra classes to meet those prerequisites before you can apply.
How Long Does Medical School Take?
You can count on spending four years in medical school if you attend a program in the U.S. (The duration of medical school can vary in other countries.) You’ll spend the first two years primarily in a classroom setting. Sometimes, schools consider these years to be “pre-clerkship” or “pre-clinical.” Required classes will include anatomy, physiology, microbiology, immunology, pathology, and pharmacology, among others. In addition, you’ll work on gaining the clinical skills you’ll actively need to employ in clinical rotations during your third and fourth years.
Following your second year, you’ll take Step 1 of the three-part United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Once you pass that, you’re onto the latter half of medical school, typically called the clerkship phase. To clarify, you’ll participate in clinical rotations that last several weeks and learn in hands-on environments from doctors. Most often, you’ll do core rotations at your medical school in your third year and then choose a specialty or specific field in your last year.
What stands between you and residency is passing USMLE Step 2 at the end of your fourth year. While you may not be taking official classes any longer, you’re still responsible for studying in addition to preparing for the residency match process. Just like applying to college and medical school, you must apply to, interview for, and then rank residency programs that best support your chosen specialty. On the third Friday in March of your fourth year, you’ll find out where you matched for residency.
How Long is Residency for Doctors?
Following medical school, you’ll enter residency for your particular field at a hospital or academic center. Your first year is considered your “intern year,” where you learn the communication and administrative skills needed to succeed as a practicing physician, such as consulting with patients and their families. During the internship phase, a medical resident may sometimes rotate through specialties that are related to the one they’re ultimately pursuing. This is called a transitional year. Specialties like anesthesiology, dermatology, and neurology require transitional years in PGY-1, or post-graduate year one in order to become board-certified.
Next, the last portion of the USMLE is taken after your intern year. Overall, this exam tests whether a medical school graduate can properly and safely apply the knowledge and skills they learned in coursework and clinical rotations without supervision. But after you pass USMLE Step 3, you move on to the rest of your residency and obtain a medical license in your state. This portion can last anywhere from three to five years depending on the specialty. Neurosurgery takes the longest, while specialties like pediatrics and internal medicine take the shortest.
Length of Residencies
|Specialty||Minimum number of years of postgraduate training for eligibility for board certification|
|Anesthesiology||3 years plus PGY-1 Transitional/Preliminary|
|Dermatology||3 years plus PGY-1 Transitional/Preliminary|
|Emergency Medicine||3-4 years|
|Family Practice||3 years|
|General Surgery||5 years|
|Internal Medicine||3 years|
|Neurology||3 years plus PGY-1 Transitional/Preliminary|
|Ophthalmology||3 years plus PGY-1 Transitional/Preliminary|
|Orthopedic Surgery||5 years (includes one year of general surgery)|
|Physical Medicine||3-4 years|
|Plastic Surgery||6 years|
|Radiation Oncology||4 years plus PGY-1 Transitional/Preliminary|
|Radiology, Diagnostic||4 years plus PGY-1 Transitional/Preliminary|
|Urology||5 years (includes one year of general surgery)|
What Comes After Residency?
After residency, you’ll reach a fork in the road with two choices: apply for a job to be a doctor or go into a fellowship. Typically, a fellowship lasts for one to three years, but they’re extremely competitive. The few who are lucky enough to participate spend that time studying and training in their specialty more deeply, helping them transition from resident to specialist.
Physicians who complete a fellowship earn the title of being “fellowship-trained,” which is considered to be the highest form of medical education. They provide dynamic, in-depth, and labor-intensive experiences in doing rounds, patient consultations, and specialty training. Oftentimes, fellows work under the mentorship and direction of a senior specialist.
If you decide to apply for a fellowship, the process should feel like riding a bike – you’ve done it many times before at this point in your medical career. You need to write a personal statement, fill out an application, polish up your medical resume, and prepare for interviews. The application process takes a lot of time and effort, but the laboriousness of a fellowship pales in comparison.
In addition, you’re paid much less than if you went straight into working as a normal doctor. Fellows usually make anywhere from $60,000 to $70,000. For comparison, it’s very similar to a resident salary, but the range can vary depending on the specific fellowship program. The hours of a fellowship are also long, though this is normal industry practice for medicine. Some fellows have reported working between 50 and 80+ hours.
Are There Any Shortcuts to Becoming a Doctor?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. There are ways to expedite the lengthy process of becoming a doctor, but there are no true shortcuts (as there should be). Would you want to be treated by a doctor that cut corners in their education and clinical training? Probably not! However, if you’re really early in your education, you can make some advantageous decisions to help move you along more quickly. The key is planning ahead.
If you’re in high school, apply to colleges that most frequently feed students into medical school. Consider those BS/MD and early assurance programs. If you’re already in college, knock out as many prerequisite classes as possible before applying to medical school. Choose a major that would easily meet those prerequisites. You should also try to get some lab experience and research published in scientific journals. Start studying for the MCAT early and get your ducks in a row for the medical school application timeline (i.e., writing a personal statement, and asking for letters of recommendation).
Once you’ve done all the upfront work prior to medical school, the only other ways to become a doctor more quickly are to choose a specialty that requires fewer years of residency and not to participate in a fellowship. Everything else – four years of medical school and the minimum three years of residency – are mandatory in the U.S. It may take less or even more time to become a doctor in another country, but doing that research is up to you.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Doctor? – Final Thoughts
The bottom line is that it takes a long time to become a doctor! Think long and hard about whether this is the right path for you. There are other medical professions that take much less schooling, like becoming a physician assistant or nurse, but they don’t come with the same experience as being a doctor. Ultimately, just weigh your options before making any big decisions.