How To Become a Doctor in 6 Steps: A Complete Guide

Updated March 10, 2023

If you're interested in pursuing a career in health care, you may find a job as a doctor fulfilling. A doctor, also called a physician, is a medical practitioner who helps people improve and maintain their health. Learning about the role of a doctor and how to become one can help you decide whether this career path suits your talents and professional goals.

In this article, we discuss what a doctor does, how to become a doctor and their average salary, and we offer answers to frequently asked questions about pursuing this career.

What does a doctor do?

A doctor is a medical practitioner who helps people prevent, improve and maintain their health. They communicate with patients about health concerns the patient may have, evaluate the status of their health and help them develop healthy habits. Doctors also assess illnesses and injuries, perform testing and provide diagnoses and treatments for medical conditions.

There are many types of doctors, and they often refer their patients to a different provider if the patient requires specialized care in a certain area of medicine. A doctor's practice area is called a specialty, and it allows them to provide patients with quality care by focusing on specific body systems and functions. Here are some common specialties for doctors:

  • Family physician: A family physician works with children or adult patients seeking preventive care or treatment for minor illnesses or injuries. They can detect major health concerns, conduct tests and refer patients to specialists.

  • Internal medicine physician: An internal medicine physician provides primary care to adult patients. They often work within a hospital setting, but they may open a practice or join a medical group as a general practitioner.

  • Pediatrician: A pediatrician cares for the medical needs of children. They provide annual checkups, vaccinations and care for minor conditions like a sore throat or the flu.

  • Obstetrician/gynecologist (OB/GYN): An OB/GYN is a specialist in reproductive and sexual health. They provide contraception, wellness exams, infertility treatments and pregnancy care, including the delivery of babies.

  • Surgeon: A surgeon operates on patients to evaluate internal conditions, take samples for diagnostic testing or remove damaged tissues to restore the patient's health. Surgeons can pursue subspecialties, such as cardiac surgery or neurosurgery.

Read more: Learn About Being a Doctor

How to become a doctor

You can take the following steps to become a doctor:

1. Earn your bachelor's degree

The first step in becoming a doctor is earning a bachelor's degree. Medical schools don't typically require candidates to choose a specific major, but they usually have mandatory prerequisite courses to complete before you can gain entry. Earning a degree in biological science or chemistry can help you meet these requirements as part of your undergraduate degree program.

Excelling in mathematics and science courses may improve your chances of receiving admission to selective universities. To bolster your undergrad and med school applications, you can also take part in extracurricular or volunteer programs. These programs allow you to gain practical experience in an academic and professional setting that may help you succeed in medical school and your career.

Related: 10 Undergraduate Majors To Prepare for Medical School

2. Pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) exam

During the third year of your undergraduate program, you can take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This standardized exam measures your preparedness for medical school, and your score can determine whether you receive acceptance. Score requirements vary by university, but many have a minimum for entrance. The test consists of multiple-choice questions and tests your problem-solving and verbal skills.

You can prepare for the exam by studying subjects like biology, chemistry and physics to help you earn a higher score. There are also MCAT books you can buy or check out from the library, online practice tests and preparation classes you can take before the exam. You may take this test up to three times a year, so many college students sign up for the MCAT as soon as they're eligible.

Related: Applying to Medical School: Tips and Requirements

3. Enroll in medical school and finish your training

You can begin applying to medical schools in the summer before your senior year. Candidates typically apply through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). This centralized database allows you to find application deadlines for medical schools around the country and apply through the AMCAS system.

Once you enroll in medical school, programs normally take four years to complete. The curriculum involves two sections: classroom work and on-site clinical work with doctors, which allows you to learn different specializations in medicine. Some courses you take in medical school include:

  • Pathology

  • Anatomy

  • Biochemistry

  • Medicine

  • Chemistry

  • Organic chemistry

  • Statistics

  • Calculus

Related: FAQ: Prerequisites and Crucial Experiences for Med School

4. Pass the first two parts of the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE)

The next requirement for becoming a doctor is taking the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). This exam evaluates your suitability for a career as a doctor, including your foundational knowledge and understanding of medical standards and practices. The USMLE contains three parts, and students take the first two sections during medical school.

You can expect to take the first part, which tests you on medical principles, during your third year in the program. After your third year of medical school and immediately after you finish clinical rotations, you can take the second section of the exam. This part tests you on your ability to apply your knowledge and skills in the field. The third section takes place at the end of medical school.

Related: What Classes To Take To Become a Doctor

5. Choose your specialty and begin your residency program

During your third or fourth year of medical school, it's essential to choose a specialty so you can prepare to pursue a residency in that practice area. A residency is a postgraduate training program that allows you to work as a qualified doctor while supervised by an experienced physician in your specialty. Residency programs take three to seven years to complete, depending on the practice area.

As a resident, you can expect to provide direct care to patients. This might include evaluating patients, making diagnoses, performing tests and procedures and treating illnesses and injuries. Residents receive feedback from supervisory physicians, which enables them to understand their strengths and develop new skills to improve patient care.

Related: How Much Do Medical Residents Make? Salary and FAQs

6. Pass part three of the USMLE exam and obtain your state's medical license

The third section of the USMLE tests you on your ability to practice medicine effectively and prioritize patient care. You can take this section during your residency program to prepare you to practice independently in your state. Step three of the USMLE is a two-day exam that consists of multiple-choice questions and case simulations and takes 16 hours to complete.

Every state requires doctors to pass each section of the USMLE to become licensed. Other state medical board qualifications vary, but they may include:

  • At least one year of postgraduate training

  • Physical and mental health evaluations

  • Assessment for fitness of character

Related: Skills Every Doctor Needs: Definition and Examples

Doctor salary and job outlook

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment opportunities for physicians and surgeons may grow by 3% between now and 2030. Although this is lower than the average rate for all occupations, the agency anticipates approximately 22,700 job openings each year. The salary you may earn as a doctor depends on many factors, including your specialty, employer and the geographic area where you work. The national average salary for a physician is $213,830 per year. Here are some of the highest-paying cities for doctors:

  • Fort Lauderdale, Florida: $521,719 per year

  • Indianapolis, Indiana: $435,134 per year

  • Washington, D.C.: $264,326 per year

  • Cleveland, Ohio: $263,424 per year

  • Los Angeles, California: $248,351 per year

  • New York, New York: $230,960 per year

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the links provided.

Related: 31 Doctor Specialties and Their Salaries (With Job Duties)

FAQs about becoming a doctor

Here are some frequently asked questions and answers about becoming a doctor:

What are the admissions requirements for medical school?

Admissions requirements for medical school vary by school, but there are some general prerequisites and testing requirements for most programs. Most schools require candidates to submit MCAT scores to be considered for admission. Even if the school you want to attend doesn't have an MCAT requirement, including your score on your application may increase your chances of being accepted. Medical schools also require prerequisite courses, which you can take before applying if they weren't part of your undergraduate curriculum.

Read more: Entry Requirements for Medical School

Are there different types of medical schools?

Most candidates choose to complete a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree, but there is another option for candidates who prefer a more holistic approach to medical care. The Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree is a medical program that allows candidates to focus on preventive medicine and a whole-body approach to wellness. This is an alternative to an allopathic, or treatment-based approach, of an M.D. Instead of the USMLE, a D.O. takes the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) for state licensure.

Read more: Osteopathic Doctor vs. MD: Definitions and Differences

How long does it take to become a doctor?

It takes several years to gain the education, skills and experience required for a career as a doctor. Earning a bachelor's degree typically takes four years, and medical school takes another four. After graduating from medical school, you begin a residency program. This takes three to seven years, depending on the specialty you choose. For example, internal medicine residencies typically take three years to complete, while general surgery residencies take five years. In total, you can expect to spend 11 to 15 years becoming a doctor.

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