How Long Does It Take To Become A Doctor

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 28, 2020

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Doctors in the United States are required to complete rigorous and thorough training before they earn the title of physician. It takes many years of studying and preparation, but for very good reasons. Doctors have the incredible honor of holding a patient’s health, and sometimes even life, in their hands.

In short, it will take at least a decade to complete this schooling, depending on factors such as your area of specialization and your educational choices.

Becoming a doctor involves completing college and medical school, along with other requirements, such as a residency program. The type of specialty you work in largely determines the length of your residency, as well as additional training requirements.

If you’re thinking about becoming a doctor, it’s essential to get a realistic look at the time frame for your education requirements. From there, you can decide if you are willing to invest the time and energy into this in-depth (but worthwhile) process.

In this article, we’ll talk about the process of becoming a doctor and how long it takes to meet these requirements.

What Do Doctors Do?

Doctors are responsible for a wide variety of medical duties depending on their specific title. In general, this profession is focused on diagnosing and treating patients. Doctors meet with patients to discuss symptoms, administer medical tests and exams, write prescriptions and treatment plans, and make referrals when necessary.

Doctors also need to be great teachers, trainers, and communicators. They regularly work with and train assistants to ensure HIPAA standards and other patient protection measures are upheld.

To be a successful doctor, you need to balance concrete medical knowledge with excellent listening and interpersonal skills. You will also need to develop an efficient schedule, good time management skills, and the ability to hold appropriate workplace boundaries.

The Process of Becoming a Doctor

  • High School. While high school isn’t typically considered as a formal part of medical education (as it’s a generalized education), the process of learning to become a doctor does technically start here.

    High schoolers wishing to become doctors one day should focus on their math and science education, taking ambitious classes, and working diligently. To get a head start on becoming an excellent doctor, you can begin studying and learning about human behavior and what it takes to be an effective listener and communicator.

    Graduating high school, and doing well enough to get accepted into a college program, is a pre-requirement for your medical education.

    However, this doesn’t mean you should start stressing about what you’ll be doing at 27 when you’re only 16. Take your time exploring your different areas of medical interest, and enjoy the learning process.

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    How Long Does it Take: 4 years, but this is not considered a formal part of your medical education and is not factored into the final count.

  • Undergraduate Study. College is where preparation for the rigor of med school, and the hectic life of a doctor, really begins. Successfully completing a four-year undergraduate program and obtaining a bachelor’s degree is required for attending medical school.

    You don’t have to be any specific major to be considered for medical schools, but many aspiring doctors choose science-based programs. Biology and chemistry are two of the most popular choices for undergrads hoping to go to medical school as these subjects are largely the basis of medical study.

    However, so-called “soft sciences” such as psychology or even sociology are becoming increasingly popular choices for future medical school applicants as they offer a fresh, human-centered perspective on the role of medical doctors.

    Whatever route you choose, be sure your undergraduate education includes courses on subjects you will need to know as a physician, such as anatomy, genetics, and other relevant classes. Some schools may even offer a pre-med track, which is specifically designed to prepare you for medical school.

    Along with taking the necessary classes in your undergraduate schooling, you can also use this time to build your professional network and find out more about what it means to be a doctor. You can conduct interviews with doctors to find out more about their profession or even shadow them.

    It can prove invaluable to take time in your undergraduate study to engage in low-stakes opportunities in the medical field. Shadow, interviewing, or interning for physicians helps you get a full picture of what a doctor’s daily work life looks like and gives you a chance to inquire about the path to becoming one someday.

    How Long Does it Take: 4 years

  • Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and Applying to Medical Schools. After graduating from your undergraduate program, your next step is to take the MCAT (and hopefully score well). The MCAT is a standardized, multiple-choice test that you must pass before applying to medical schools. The test is taken on a computer, and it lasts a total of 7.5 hours.

    The MCAT has four sections, which are as follows:

    • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems. Tests knowledge of biology, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and biochemistry.

    • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems. Tests knowledge of biology, organic chemistry, general chemistry, and physics.

    • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior. Tests knowledge of biology, psychology, and sociology.

    • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills. Tests reading comprehension and critical thinking skills.

    When looking at the basic test content, it’s clear that you will need to have an excellent working knowledge of biology, as this discipline appears in almost every section. You can stay sharp and informed by challenging yourself to read difficult pieces on a variety of subjects.

    A passing MCAT score is a fundamental requirement of almost every medical school, but a good MCAT score will help you get some serious leverage as you apply. However, your score is not the only thing taken into account.

    Medical schools also factor in your grades, experiences, recommendations, and personal characteristics. It’s a good idea to take the MCAT a full year before you plan on starting medical school.

    How Long Does it Take: Variable, depending on how long you would like to study and research medical schools.

  • Medical School Training. Once you’ve made it into med school, get ready for some in-depth and rigorous training. In med school, you’ll need to take specific subjects per the requirements of your school and your field of study, and you’ll need to comply with tests and licensing requirements.

    Most medical schools in the United States have a four-year program, with the first two years typically being different from the last two years.

    The first two years of med school transition you out of undergrad learning by being centered around classrooms, formal lectures, and labs to treat patient conditions. In these years, you’ll be studying subjects such as anatomy, biochemistry, psychology, pathology, immunology, and other basic sciences.

    The final two years of medical school are focused on practice and gaining professional experience in clinical environments. You’ll get hands-on training in many different medical fields and a chance to apply your knowledge. At this point, you will be able to examine and diagnose patients with the supervision of a licensed physician.

    Your next step to consider is the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This exam is taken in three parts, and the first two parts are taken while you’re still attending medical school. The first part is taken during your second year, and the second part is taken during your fourth year. This exam tests your medical vocabulary and competency.

    How Long Does it Take: 4 years

  • Residency. Once you’ve graduated from medical school, it’s time to start your residency program. Residencies are essentially like internships for doctors, and during this time, you’ll practice managing, diagnosing, and treating people without supervision.

    Preparation for residency programs usually begins in the final year of medical school.

    Your residency program will depend on your specialty. Different medical areas of expertise have different requirements for how long their residency should last and what should be included in the program. During this time, you’ll be paid a full-time salary (though you won’t be earning as much as a licensed practitioner).

    You’ll spend most of your time in this residency having direct interactions with patients to prepare you for independently practicing as a physician.

    After the first year of residency, you’re able to take the third and final part of the USMLE. Though the already-completed educational training and real-world practice carry a lot of the weight of this exam, you should still study and familiarize yourself with the concepts you’ll be tested on.

    Try interviewing mentors or professional colleagues about their best tips for passing this final step or taking practice tests. The questions are going to be related to your area of specialty.

    After completing this step, congratulations, you’re a licensed medical doctor. You can begin practicing of your own accord at this point, or you can further build your skills and knowledge by completing a fellowship.

    How Long Does it Take: 3-7 years, depending on the area of specialty.

  • Fellowships. Fellowships are for doctors who would like to specialize even further in a subset of their field of study. These programs last at least a year, but the length depends on the specialty.

    For instance, one might complete a residency that gives them the title of an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor). Then, through a fellowship at a specialized medical care facility, one could gain a pediatric otolaryngologist’s title.

    Fellowships are ways to learn more and more specialized knowledge and become an expert in your specific lane. They can also lead to increases in salary.

    How Long Does it Take: 3-7 years typically, but at least 1

Final Thoughts

So, if you’ve been following these numbers, you’ll know that our final tally for how long it takes to become a doctor is: 11-18 years (keeping in mind that education continues even after you have officially become a doctor.)

If these numbers shock you, you may want to take the time to consider your own path and what’s practical for you. After some searching, you may find that what you’re really after is something a little different. Keep in mind that there are tons of different positions in the medical field, and maybe find something that suits you better.

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Chris Kolmar

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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