The road to becoming a doctor isn’t easy, and that’s a good thing. Whether you’re the patient or physician, the treatment provided needs to be of the highest possible quality. So it’s no surprise that achieving expertise in healthcare takes many years of education and training.
If you’re an aspiring doctor, we know you aren’t going into this field because it’s easy. We also know you aren’t going into it because you love working a night shift or wearing scrubs (even though you look great in them). Before considering the best degree program or even starting high school, you may have felt a calling to help people. The drive to become a physician begins from a place of empathy, a deep interest in medicine, a desire to change people’s lives, and intellectual curiosity.
Read on to learn how to direct these incredible qualities into your career as a physician, starting with choosing the perfect degree for doctors.
How to become a doctor
Physicians have one of the most challenging jobs there is, and the amount of required education for doctors reflects this. As medical students, you and your peers will be in school for years before receiving your medical degree.
But, it’s not all long nights of studying and challenging exams. You also gain experience with hands-on patient care through your internship and residency training. And even once your training is officially over, you’ll embark on a lifelong learning journey, keeping current on the latest research and advances in your field.
Here are the most common steps to becoming a physician:
- Get your undergraduate degree: The first step in your medical education is earning a bachelor’s degree in a related field (see below for some common options). Consider this prerequisite a “must.” Many colleges have a pre-med program that will cover many of the educational bases you’ll need to succeed on the MCAT entrance exam and in medical school.
- Take the MCATs: After completing your undergraduate degree, you’ll need to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This standardized test will help you demonstrate your knowledge to prospective med schools.
- (Apply to and) attend medical school: When you feel ready—and, no, this doesn’t have to be right after you get out of college—you can fill out your medical school application using the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). Once accepted to a school, you’ll start a two-part curriculum: general coursework and studies devoted to the medical specialty you intend to pursue.
- Complete an internship and residency program: After you graduate from med school, you’ll gain first-hand experience in your medical specialty, working alongside a seasoned professional.
- Get board certified: Before you can practice medicine, you’ll need to obtain the certification that pertains to your medical field. There are 24 different specialty boards that certify doctors, but how do you get board certified? You guessed it: passing yet another exam.
- Obtain your licensure: Read up on the requirements in the state where you intend to practice and obtain your license before practicing in your field.
What major do you need to be a doctor?
There are many degrees for doctors, and you’ll need more than one before becoming a medical doctor—more specifically, an undergraduate degree backed by plenty of science courses and a doctorate in medicine.
If your university offers a pre-med program, you’re already off to a great start. So, what are some of the potential undergraduate majors for pre-med students? You may be surprised to find out that not all are science-based.
So if you’re wondering what to major in to become a doctor, here are some of the majors that medical hopefuls commonly specialize in when choosing courses:
- Behavioral science
- Organic chemistry
- Exercise science
- Foreign languages that are common in your region
How long does it take to become a doctor?
There’s no short answer to this question, nor is there a shortcut to becoming a doctor. But we know you have the energy to push through the long haul.
You can think about your medical education in three parts:
- Your undergraduate (pre-med) studies
- Medical school
Since the lengths of residencies vary greatly based on the specialty, the entire educational path to becoming a doctor can take 10-14 years.
Your undergraduate experience (aka the pre-med part of your education) will account for roughly four years of your path to becoming a physician. Some students like to take a yearlong break before entering rigorous medical school, so you may want to plan time off accordingly.
This second stage of your career accounts for another four years of the 10-14 years.
As we mentioned, residency lengths vary based on your specialty. Some of the shortest take three to four years, while others, like those for surgery, can last from five to seven. Here is an overview of how long residencies for common specialties and subspecialties last.
- Preventive medicine
- Primary care
- Internal medicine
- Genetics and genomics
- Osteopathic neuromusculoskeletal medicine
- Family medicine
- Emergency medicine
- Physical medicine
- Obstetrics and gynecology
- Nuclear medicine
- General surgery
- Orthopedic surgery
- Vascular surgery
- Child neurology
- Diagnostic radiology
- Radiation oncology
- Plastic surgery
- Thoracic surgery
- Interventional radiology
- Neurological surgery