How to Become a Doctor

The Requirements to Become a Doctor Include Years of Education

So you want to become a doctor. It's certainly a lucrative profession: the mean salary of a doctor in the United States is around $300,000 per year. Not surprisingly, it's a tough profession to get into with a lot of schooling and training required.

Doctors, also called physicians, diagnose and treat people's illnesses and injuries. Based on differences in their training and philosophies, they have either the designation M.D. (doctor of medicine) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) after their names (for example, Jane Brown, M.D., or Jim Smith, D.O.).

The first step to becoming a doctor is to find out if you have the characteristics that will help you succeed in this career. Because your training will primarily consist of science coursework, you need a strong aptitude for this subject. You also will need specific soft skills, and you must be compassionate and sensitive to other people's feelings. Also necessary are strong critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as excellent listening and speaking skills, will allow you to communicate with patients and colleagues. You should also be well organized and detail-oriented.

Required Education

Medical students with clip board
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If you want to become a doctor, get ready to commit to spending at least 11 years on your post-high school education. After going to college for four years to get a bachelor's degree, you will have to attend medical school for four more years. That will be followed by three to eight years of graduate medical education (GME) in the form of an internship or residency program.

You must attend a medical school that is accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) or the American Osteopathic Association Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA). Both organizations' websites list accredited programs.

What can you expect to study in med school? Your coursework will probably include the following, but may differ depending on whether you attend an allopathic or osteopathic program:

  • Biomedical building blocks
  • Integrated pathophysiology
  • Human gross and developmental anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Medical genetics
  • Pharmacology
  • Histology and embryology
  • Human nutrition
  • Immunology
  • Infectious diseases
  • Ophthalmology
  • Principals of medicine
  • Principals of surgery

In addition to your coursework, you will also receive extensive clinical training through clinical rotations. Expect to work in a variety of clinical specialties including pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, family medicine, surgery, emergency medicine, and internal medicine.

Getting Into Medical School

Medical students in lecture with overhead projector screen
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Admission into medical school is very competitive. According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), an applicant with the best chance of getting into a school of osteopathic medicine "is well-rounded, has a broad background, [and] has demonstrated academic excellence." In addition, he or she "wants to get involved in his or her community and spend time getting know his or her patients, is compassionate, and has solid communication skills and a healing touch."

The article also states that many applicants to osteopathic medical programs are non-traditional students who are older (25% of admitted students are age 26 or older). They come from a variety of career backgrounds. 

Allopathic (M.D.) programs also are extremely competitive and selective. Like D.O. programs, they look for students who have performed well academically. They prefer applicants with excellent communication skills and who have demonstrated leadership qualities. 

Applicants typically must have fulfilled prerequisite college coursework in the sciences, including biology, general and organic chemistry, math, English, and statistics. Although specific requirements vary by school, the American Medical Association (AMA) states that a grade point average of three and a half to four on a four-point scale is required for admission. In addition, one must perform well on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).

After Completing Medical Education

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After completing your medical education, you will have to become licensed to practice medicine in the state in which you work. All 50 states in the United States, as well as the District of Columbia, have state medical licensing boards that are responsible for licensing doctors.

While each board has its own requirements, all of them require having completed an accredited medical school and graduate medical education. An M.D. must pass all three parts of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), and a D.O. must pass all three levels of the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). Contact the state medical board in your state to learn about its requirements. The Federation of State Medical Boards also publishes the State-Specific Requirements for Initial Medical Licensure.

In addition to getting a state license, many doctors choose to become board certified in a medical specialty. Each of the member boards of the American Board of Medical Specialties grants certification which must be renewed every several years. Initial certification requires completion of medical school and graduate medical education, and passing a written or oral exam in that area of specialization.

How to Get Your First Job

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Preparing to become a doctor takes a lot of effort, not to mention money: four years of college, four years of medical school, and three to eight years of post-graduate medical education. After all that, there's an exam to pass.

Getting a license can be a long process and a very expensive one with fees ranging from a few to several hundred dollars. By the time you are ready to look for a job, you will be well-prepared to work. Here are some of the qualities employers want in job candidates:

  • Adheres to the highest standards of medical practice, ethics, and professionalism at all times
  • Accurate and timely documentation of medical records
  • Shows respect and sensitivity for cultural differences
  • Ability to motivate and work effectively with others
  • Problem solves with creativity and ingenuity
  • Must be a team player and have a passion for what you do

Disclaimer: Please note that the information on this website is for guidance, ideas, and assistance only. You should consult the schools in which you are interested in order to obtain complete information regarding admissions procedures and curriculum as well as the jurisdictions in which you want to work to inquire further about licensing requirements.

Article Sources

  1. Nomad Health. "Complete List of Average Doctor Salaries by Specialty." Accessed Feb. 16, 2020.

  2. American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. "Qualities of a Successful Osteopathic Medical Student." Accessed Feb. 16, 2020.