What Classes To Take To Become a Doctor

Updated March 3, 2023

If you're interested in becoming a doctor, you may be curious about which classes you need to take. Aspiring doctors complete extensive education, training and professional development to become specialists in their fields. Knowing what kind of classes you need to advance your medical skills, prepare for important exams and maintain your certifications can help you plan your education more efficiently.

In this article, we explore what classes to take to become a doctor, get into medical school, prepare for medical licensing and become a specialist.

Related: Learn About Being a Doctor

What subjects do you need to learn to become a doctor?

Doctors are highly educated medical professionals who typically spend about eight years completing their undergraduate degrees and going to medical school. During that time, they take classes in the following subjects:

  • Science

  • Mathematics

  • Humanities

  • General medicine

  • Specialized care

After graduating from medical school, aspiring doctors complete a residency program where they train and practice medicine under the supervision of an experienced physician for three to seven years. They may also complete courses related to their specialty, such as classes about heart disease for cardiologists. Doctors often pursue career-long education to maintain state licenses, keep specialty certifications and ensure their skills are up to date.

Related: How Long Does It Take To Become a Doctor?

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What classes do you need to take to become a doctor?

In the United States, aspiring doctors follow two main educational paths: allopathic and osteopathic. Both programs offer similar courses, though allopathic students focus on medicinal care and earn a traditional Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree, while osteopathic students learn more about holistic and therapeutic care to obtain a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. Over the course of their medical education, allopathic and osteopathic students take a wide range of classes to become doctors, including sciences, mathematics and humanities.

To become a fully licensed and board-certified physician, you can follow this educational track:

Undergraduate degree

Aspiring doctors begin their education with a bachelor's degree that typically takes about four years to complete. Many students pursue a major in chemistry or biology, which can help them prepare for medical school, residencies and their future careers. However, non-science majors can also fulfill the basic requirements to qualify for medical school, including:

  • Two terms of general chemistry, including a lab component

  • One to two terms of organic chemistry, with lab instruction

  • Two terms of biology

  • Two terms of physics

  • Two terms of English

  • One term of collegiate-level mathematics, such as calculus

Some medical schools may also require:

  • One term of biochemistry

  • One term of statistics

  • Several terms of humanities courses, including history and political science

To enter medical school, you need to pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), which you can prepare for by taking the following courses:

  • Psychology

  • Sociology

  • Microbiology

  • Epidemiology

  • Pharmacology

  • Genetics

  • Human anatomy

  • Psychophysiology

Most medical programs look for candidates with two letters of recommendation from undergraduate teachers or advisers, including one letter from a science field and another from a different field.

Related: Applying To Medical School: Tips and Requirements

Medical school degree

Medical school often takes about four years to complete. During the first two years of medical school, students typically focus on classroom-based lectures and laboratory work in subjects like:

  • Anatomy

  • Psychology

  • Biochemistry

  • Pharmacology

  • Medical ethics

  • Genetics

  • Immunology

  • Cell biology

  • Human development

  • Foundations of cells and molecules

  • Clinical epidemiology

  • Critical care

  • Human organ systems

  • Medical ethics

  • Health law

  • Communication, including how to properly interact with a patient

  • Medical examination practices

During the third and fourth years of medical school, students gain practical training where they interact with patients in clinical environments like hospitals and clinics. Experienced physicians typically supervise this on-the-job training, ensuring students learn how to use diagnostic tools and handle medical equipment and develop a well-rounded understanding of:

  • Internal medicine

  • Obstetrics

  • Gynecology

  • Pediatrics

  • Family medicine

  • Surgery

  • Psychiatry

In order to earn a medical license, aspiring doctors must pass the first and second part of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). You can prepare for this exam by taking additional classes on the following subjects:

  • Fundamental medical principles

  • Medical ethics

  • Essential clinical skills, including patient care

  • Systems of the body, especially courses with an in-depth focus on one system like the respiratory system

  • Multisystem processes and disorders

  • Biostatistics and population health

Internship and residency program

At the end of their medical school education, aspiring doctors decide which specialty they want to pursue, such as pediatrics or anesthesiology. Depending on their chosen specialty, they follow one of two possible tracks:

  • Residency only: In this situation, the National Residency Matching Program (NRMP) processes a doctor's residency application and links them to the right program. Since the matching process can take about a year, doctors often apply for a residency at the beginning of their fourth year of medical school. The NRMP may also place a training doctor in a temporary residency while searching for the right match, which is why doctors sometimes call the first year of a residency program an internship.

  • Internship, then residency: In this situation, an aspiring doctor's specialty requires a completed internship in a particular field before applying for a residency. This internship usually takes about a year and may include fundamental coursework such as training in the use and interpretation of echocardiogram equipment readings for aspiring cardiologists.

All residencies include specialized coursework and supervised clinical training in a doctor's chosen specialty, typically with extensive hours. For example, a neurologist in training may take clinical classes on treating brain trauma by treating a real patient while under supervision at a training hospital. Though the length of the residency depends on the specialty and the candidate, they typically range from three to seven years to complete. For example, a residency to become a pediatrician often takes about three years, while one to become a urologist takes five years.

The final step of a doctor's residency experience is to pass the third part of the USMLE, which is both cumulative and includes additional topics. You can prepare for it by taking classes focused on the following subjects:

  • Clinical testing

  • Management skills

  • Safety practices

  • Interpretation of medical literature

  • Communication skills

  • Patient safety

After passing the complete USMLE and finishing a residency, doctors can receive a federal license to practice medicine independently.

Related: Common Residency Interview Questions (and How To Answer Them)

Board certification in a medical specialty

Doctors often earn a certification in a subspecialty after they've completed their residencies. Established doctors may also seek board certification to expand their skill set, sub-specialize and advance their careers. There are 24 medical specialty boards in the United States, which the nonprofit American Board of Medical Specialties oversees. These boards administer certification examinations, allowing doctors who pass the tests to specialize in hundreds of different specialties and subspecialties. You can prepare for these specialty certification tests by taking specific, relevant courses related to your specialization. For example, you might take classes on the following topics:

  • Anesthesiologist: Pain medicine, critical care medicine and pediatric care

  • Neurologist: Epilepsy care, movement disorders, headache treatment and neuroinfectious diseases

  • Allergy and immunology specialist: Immune system conditions, allergic reactions and immune deficiency diseases

  • Orthopedic surgeon: Sports medicine and hand and foot surgery

  • Internist: Infectious diseases, hematology and gastroenterology

  • Cardiologist: Cardiothoracic surgery, echocardiology and heart transplanting

  • Family physician: Hospice and palliative medicine

  • Oncologist: Medical oncology, surgical oncology and radiation oncology

  • Pediatrician: Pediatric cardiology, adolescent medicine, endocrinology and pulmonology

Related: 12 of the Highest-Paid Medical Specialties

Fellowships and continuing education

To maintain most licenses and certifications, doctors continue their education by completing fellowships. Fellowships, or additional medical training, can offer doctors management experience, access to new information in the field and updated clinical practice in their chosen specialty. For example, an oncologist pursuing a fellowship might become a residency supervisor for an aspiring cancer doctor or complete clinical practice courses on radiation treatment, surgery techniques or medical care for specific types of cancer.

Fellowships often last for one year or more. After completing a fellowship, a doctor can resume practicing medicine in their specialty or seek further continuing education like:

  • Clinical development courses, such as modernizing bedside manner

  • Seminars or talks, such as a panel discussion about developing theories on a public health problem

  • Conferences, such as presentations about recent discoveries in a doctor's specialty

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