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How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?

December 2, 2020

The amount of time required to become a doctor can depend on the type of specialty you choose. The type of specialty you select establishes the amount of time spent in a residency program once you receive your undergraduate degree and finish medical school. Before you decide to pursue becoming a physician, take time to consider if you're willing to complete an education that goes beyond a four-year undergraduate degree and advance your career in medicine.

In this article, we talk about how long it takes to become a doctor and how to fulfill the requirements to work in this profession.

Read more: How to Develop Your Skill Set to Advance Your Career

What does a doctor do?

A doctor, also referred to as a "physician," is mainly responsible for giving diagnoses and treatment plans to their patients. They also speak with patients about the symptoms they have as a result of their diagnosis, administer exams, order further tests, write prescriptions and make referrals to specialists if necessary. They also work with and train assistants who work within their practice to ensure they uphold administrative standards and are in compliance with regulations regarding patient confidentiality. You'll need to have strong interpersonal, technical and time management skills to be successful in your career as a doctor.

Read more: 10 Best Skills to Include on a Resume

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How long does it take to become a doctor?

Doctors must complete a four-year undergraduate program, along with four years in medical school and three to seven years in a residency program to learn the specialty they chose to pursue. In other words, it takes between 10 to 14 years to become a fully licensed doctor. Once you finish your medical education, including your residency program, you need to take an exam for the state you plan to practice medicine in.

While the amount of time and money it can take to become a doctor is high, you also have a high earning potential as a doctor—especially if you decide to open a private practice. The average annual salary for a doctor is $163,908 per year, but salaries can increase if you live in an area with a higher cost of living.

Read more: Learn About Being a Doctor

How to fulfill the requirements to become a doctor

Follow these steps to become a doctor:

  1. Complete your undergraduate degree program.
  2. Perform well on your Medical College Admission Test.
  3. Finish four years of medical school.
  4. Enroll and complete your residency program.
  5. Obtain a medical license in your state.

1. Complete your undergraduate degree program

Four-year undergraduate education is the precursor to going to medical school. Even though you don't need to have a specific major to be eligible for medical school, a lot of aspiring doctors major in biology or chemistry. Other applicable degrees include pre-med, psychology, nursing, medical technology or exercise science. Some of these undergraduate courses include subjects like anatomy, physics, biological studies and human genetics. Be sure to check the undergraduate degree programs each school offers so you can select the right major and make a relevant choice to put you on the path to becoming a doctor.

During this time, you can also network with doctors operating in your area by scheduling an informational interview or a job shadowing opportunity, which can give you full exposure to the daily responsibilities of a doctor. It provides you the chance to ask key questions about the career path they took and get personalized tips about your education and professional career.

2. Perform well on your Medical College Admission Test

While you're receiving your undergraduate education, you can prepare for and take the Medical College Admission Test. The MCAT is a five-hour, multiple-choice exam taken on a computer that displays if you possess valuable knowledge to proceed in enrolling to a top medical school. You'll be tested on subjects like biology, critical thinking and physical science. A score of around 500 is considered average for this exam.

It's practical to take this exam one full calendar year before you begin medical school. For example, if you plan to start medical school in July 2021, then you should aim to take the MCAT in April or May 2020.

3. Finish four years of medical school

Medical schools supply you with four years of medical training to help you excel as a doctor. The first two years consist of learning inside a classroom and working on labs to treat patient conditions. You'll also learn advanced concepts related to biology and chemistry. The last two years of medical school pertain to earning clinical experience, where you can evaluate how you apply medical knowledge outside of the classroom by completing rotations at hospitals or clinics.

The next benchmark you must account for is the United States Medical Licensing Examination, which is a three-step exam that shows your competency in medical terminology. You'll need to take the first two steps while you're in medical school. The results of your exam can be an indicator of your progress with your medical education.

4. Enroll and complete your residency program

A residency program is equivalent to an internship for a doctor, and they take three to seven years to complete. Pay attention to the specialty you select so you know how long it should take to finish your residency program. The good news is residents earn full-time salaries, which can help cover living expenses and potentially some of the loan payments incurred in medical school.

Usually, you start training for your residency program during your fourth year of medical school. The majority of your time is working directly with patients in a certain medical environment. If you want to specify your experience in an area like internal medicine or pediatrics, you can also complete a fellowship after you finish your residency program.

5. Obtain a medical license in your state

You are eligible to get your medical license after you complete the first year of your residency program. The combination of experience in an academic and clinical setting should set you up to pass the exam. Nevertheless, you must study the criteria for the state's exam, and you should consider taking practice tests to help you prepare for the questions you'll need to answer.

The questions should tie into your specialty, but it also helps to ask colleagues and your mentor for advice on what helped them get their license in addition to essential concepts you must know. If you pass, you'll be legally certified to treat patients in the state in which you take the exam.