How long does it take to be a doctor

How Long Does It Take To Become A Doctor?

Whether you’re thinking about becoming a doctor or know someone who is, you may be wondering just how long does it take to become a doctor? How long before the training ends? Here at The MedCommons, we get so many questions from our readers who are trying to understand the process and how long this road can be. Let’s just say, buckle up for the ride.

If you want the easy answer, anyone dreaming of becoming a doctor should plan on a minimum of 7 years of additional training AFTER earning a 4-year college degree. Yes, you read that correctly. A minimum of 11 additional years after high school. That being said, some specialties require even more training than that. 

Interested in digging deeper to understand the process? Let’s take a look. 

How long does it take to be a doctor

College (4 years)

Admission to medical school is highly competitive; therefore, anyone making plans to become a doctor should prepare themselves as much as possible by taking what are considered ‘pre-med’ courses. These are mainly science courses such as chemistry, biology, physics, etc. While there are no “required” courses or degrees to get into medical school, students would benefit from taking these courses to prepare for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).

Didn’t major in a scientific field during college and still want to go to medical school? It can happen. Aspiring physicians will need, at a minimum, a high GPA (think at least 3.7+), a high score on the MCAT, and experience in some field of healthcare. While many medical schools tend to consider applicants with more traditional science degrees, a few are more open to accepting a ‘non-traditional’ path to becoming a physician. A bit of research will easily identify these institutions.  

Something else to keep in mind, it’s not uncommon for some physicians-to-be to take a gap year or two (not part of the 7 years) before attending medical school. During this time they can work to save money, accumulate more clinical hours/experience in healthcare, study for the MCAT, get some rest before they move on to the next phase of training, and contemplate if they really understood – Really! How long does it take to become a doctor?!

Medical School (4 Years)

Yes, there’s more school. The next four years consist of post-graduate training in medical school. Generally speaking, the first two years are spent in the classroom, learning coursework and participating in labs. Years 3 and 4 are spent in clinical rotations at both a ‘home’ hospital and at ‘away’ hospitals. During this time, students will begin to practice (by intention or sheer survival) balancing their studies with their own wellness; both necessary skills to develop to become a successful physician.  

Aspiring physicians can choose to apply to two different types of medical schools: an allopathic medical school (traditional) or an osteopathic medical school. Students attending an allopathic medical school will graduate with a Doctor of Medicine degree (M.D.). Students attending an osteopathic medical school will graduate with a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree (D.O.). 

Common abbreviations when discussing years in medical school are: 

  • MS1 or M1 (1st-year medical school)
  • MS2 or M2 (2nd-year medical school)
  • MS3 or M3 (3rd-year medical school)
  • MS4 or M4 (4th-year medical school)

Here are some major milestones medical students must achieve before moving on to the next phase of training:

  • USMLE Step 1 & USMLE Step 2CK exams: Two of the three required USMLE exams are taken during medical school. Step 1 is considered the most difficult and is generally taken after MS2, and before MS3 clinical rotations. Step 2CK is generally taken anywhere after MS3 clinicals, through the beginning of MS4.
  • Residency program applications: The Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS) begins the residency program application process. Medical students submit applications and supporting documentation to the ERAS to let residency programs know they’re interested in pursuing training with them after graduation. The ERAS opens around May during the 3rd year of medical school. 
  • Residency Interviews: After receiving applications through the ERAS, residency programs consider them and request interviews with medical students of interest. Residency interviews generally occur during the fall and winter of Year 4.
  • MATCH: In February of Year 4, both residency programs and applicants rank their preferences. The National Residency Matching Program (NRMP) then uses an algorithm that places the applicant into their residency position. During “Match Week”, medical students find out where they’re placed for residency and residency programs find out who will become their next set of interns. This usually occurs in mid-March of Year 4.  Not all applicants will ‘match’ with a residency program during Match Week. Here’s a great article about what happens if a medical student doesn’t match. 
  • Graduation: At graduation, medical students receive their Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. They are now officially addressed as “Doctor”. Yay! Happy graduation! Take time to celebrate…but not too much time. Newly graduated MDs and DOs report to residency in late June. Many will have to pack up and move across the country before this time. 

Side note: Most medical school graduates carry over $250,000 in student loan debt. Once they reach residency, they will begin to earn a salary, albeit minimal.

Residency (3-7 Years)

Finally done with school, our official (in name only) doctors, start their residency. While still considered part of their education process, this is really hands-on training for them. Lucky patients may be treated by a resident. No worries! These new physicians in training will know the latest and greatest in the ever-evolving medical field. Plus, they’re supervised. These are the days our budding physicians, bleary-eyed and foggy brain, are asking themselves (again), just how long does it take to become a doctor? Keep reading…you’ll see. It’s all worth it in the end (for doctor and patient!).

Depending on a resident’s chosen specialty, residency lasts anywhere between three to seven years. Albeit typically a small sum, residents do earn a salary. Proportionately speaking, with all that schooling behind them, the type of work they do, and the number of hours they spend in the hospital (80+ hrs/week), you’d think they’d be making more than around $13/hr!

Common abbreviations to keep in mind when discussing the residency years are: 

  • PGY-1 (Postgraduate Year 1)
  • PGY-2 (Postgraduate Year 2)
  • PGY-3 (Postgraduate Year 3) and so on…

All PGY-1 resident physicians are considered ‘interns’. During their internship, most PGY-1 residents usually work in several departments throughout the hospital (i.e. emergency room, pediatrics, OB-GYN, etc). Some specialties, however, require a different PGY-1 experience. They also take the USMLE Step 3 exam, the last of the USMLE series, during PGY-1. Upon completion of the intern year, residents spend the rest of their residency focusing on their chosen specialty. 

Once residency is complete, doctors graduate and obtain a state medical license to practice medicine. They also take a comprehensive exam to become board certified in their specialty. This is optional; however, oftentimes, it is required for practice. 

Congratulations! Our newly graduated physician may begin practicing medicine and work in private practice, hospital, or clinic. It may or may not be over, as they also have the option to pursue a further specialty. This is called a fellowship and typically ranges between one to three more years after residency. Further specialization requires additional training.

Fellowship 

Like we’ve said before, depending on the specialty, there could still be one to three more years of hands-on training after residency. 

During fellowship, physicians work side-by-side with other physicians who practice their specialty. The good news is, they do earn a higher salary than they earned as a resident; however, not as much as they’ll earn once training is fully completed. 

Practicing Physician

Whether physicians decide to become a practicing physician after their residency or after fellowship, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel has been reached. Our highly trained doctors (and their families) have sacrificed years of their lives to learn the art of caring for others and now they’re ready to go out on their own and save some lives. 

May the healthcare force be with you!

  • Elizabeth is a Physician family advocate, Certified Life Coach for Physician Wives, EM wife of 20+ years, mother, and founder of The MedCommons – a marriage between her tech/business dev background and passion for helping physician families.

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