Choosing a School, College, and Degree Program for Medical Doctor
A medical doctor, also known as a physician, can either train to serve as a primary care- or specialized health care provider. Medical doctors are the healthcare professionals responsible for diagnosing illnesses and administering the appropriate treatment to patients. In order to receive the training and experience necessary to identify disease, prescribe medicine, and accommodate the needs of patients, a medical school education is required. The overall number of years of study and clinical training that a medical doctor is expected to complete varies according to the specific career path that an aspiring physician chooses.
According to the American Medical Association’s Health Care Careers Directory, about one-third of the medical doctors in the United States are generalists (or ‘primary care’ doctors), who provide lifelong medical services to patients. Internists, family physicians and pediatricians are found under this umbrella of physicians, which the AMA identifies as the top three largest specialties for medical doctors.
Generalists address a wide range of health concerns for adults and children, and when a specific medical issue requires further care, it is the medical doctor who specializes in a more targeted field, such as cardiology (for heart-related problems) that a patient is sent to see. To become a specialist, a physician must concentrate their studies on a specific area of medicine during their residency and oftentimes obtains additional years of training, such as pursuing a fellowship.
The majority of medical doctors work directly with patients in a variety of healthcare environments, primarily in a hospital-, health clinic-, or private practice setting. Some physicians opt for a career in academics and/or research, and may pursue a position at a college, university, or teaching hospital. The training, education and experience that medical doctors undergo also qualifies them to work for other industries and apply for positions at pharmaceutical companies, health insurance companies, medical equipment manufacturers, and health/safety programs.
According to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report (2014), medical doctors earned a median salary that ranged from $174,000 to $413,000 in 2013. Medscape identified orthopedists as making the highest average salary amongst all other specialties with $413,000, followed by cardiologists ($351,000), and urologists and gastroenterologists ($348,000). Due to continued development of healthcare-related industries and an increasingly aging population throughout the nation, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a projected 18 percent rise in jobs for the occupation from 2012 to 2022, which is a faster-than-average rate.
Browse the information below to learn more about the required and optional educational decisions associated with becoming a medical doctor, which includes fulfilling undergraduate education requirements and applying to a medical school:
Although an associate degree program for medical doctors does not exist, individuals with an interest in becoming a doctor may take science and math courses at a community college before applying to a bachelor’s degree program, which is the first step towards pursuing a career as a physician.
Although the minimum educational requirement to gain entry into a medical school is three years of undergraduate study, most applicants possess at least a bachelor’s degree. When applying to an undergraduate program, it is not a requirement to major in Biology or enter a pre-med program in order to become a medical doctor. However, those who major in a related science or mathematics are typically viewed as being more well-prepared to take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), which most medical schools require in order to gain admittance.
Conducting research before choosing an undergraduate school is suggested. For example, some institutions offer programs that allow students to obtain a bachelor’s degree and medical degree at the same time. Other colleges have associated medical schools that a student may transition into after completing their undergraduate degree.
Before applying to a medical school, there are certain prerequisites that a student must fulfill, which generally include classroom instruction and lab work in chemistry (organic and inorganic), biology, biochemistry, English, and calculus (or another college level math).
A student with aspirations to become a medical doctor lays down the groundwork for a career in medicine while in undergraduate school. In addition to completing coursework in math and the sciences, students also take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT); some of which do so as early as their sophomore year. The MCAT is a multiple-choice exam that measures a student’s knowledge of the natural-, behavioral-, and social sciences, as well as tests their critical thinking- and problem solving skills.
In addition to reviewing MCAT scores, the overall medical school admission process typically includes submitting a completed application, school transcripts, overall GPA, letters of recommendation, and personal statement (or essay). Interviewing with a selection committee is also expected of many applicants. Students typically start sending out applications during their junior year of college to multiple schools. According to the U.S. News & World Report, the high level of competition to obtain a medical school education sees prospective students applying to an average of 14.3 medical schools.
The more respected or sought-after a medical school is, the higher a student’s MCAT scores need to be in order to gain acceptance. Average scores and other criteria required to gain entry into a program vary by school, and generally take into account the number of available slots; the supply and demand of medical students; and the ranking of an applicant in relation to their peers.
Before applying to a medical school, a student must decide which type of education they’d like to pursue. Graduates of traditional medical schools (also known as allopathic medical schools) earn an M.D. degree. The Association of American Medical Colleges reports 141 allopathic medical schools currently train future doctors in the United States. The second most pursued medical degree is the D.O., which is granted to graduates of an osteopathic school – one that places special emphasis on the musculoskeletal system, preventive medicine, and Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT).
Volunteering at a local hospital, physician’s office, free health clinic, the American Red Cross, or any other health-related facility also helps to enhance an application to medical school.
A medical degree, such as a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) or Doctor of Medicine (MD), is required of all physicians. All medical doctors complete at least four years of medical school to learn the basics of health-related sciences, as well as complete onsite clinical training at local healthcare facilities that expose students to real-time patient interaction and care.
The first two years of medical school focus on classroom instruction and touch upon core subjects, such as anatomy, microbiology, physiology, pathology, biochemistry, medical ethics, and pharmacology. Doctors learn how to perform a physical examination, record medical histories, and gain a better understanding on how to diagnose disease.
At the end of a medical student’s second year, their medical competency is tested by taking the first part of the United States Medical Licensing Examination administered by the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME). Passing the exam is a requirement to progress to the third year of medical school.
Students start rotations during their third year of medical school, and spend 1-2 months exploring major specialties related to various career paths for a doctor, such as general surgery, psychiatry, pediatrics, gynecology, obstetrics, and internal medicine. They work with patients under the supervision and guidance of experienced medical staff in hospitals and health clinics. During this time, students make decisions as to which specialty they intend to pursue. The fourth year of medical school involves taking electives associated with a preferred specialty.
The last year of medical school is when students apply to a residency program, and take additional exams which test a student’s ability to examine a patient, and take a medical history. Successful completion of all examinations means that a student graduates with a medical degree, and officially earns the title of ‘doctor.’ However, graduates do not qualify to practice medicine until they complete additional training through a residency, and obtain a state license.
Physicians begin training to become a generalist or specialist after graduating from medical school, which typically means they learn how to address a particular system or part of the body. The length of time for a residency program varies depending on a chosen specialty. For instance, specializing in pediatrics, family medicine or emergency medicine takes a minimum of three years, while general surgery, radiology and urology can take more than five years of training.
Towards the end of medical school training, students research available residency positions, contact teaching hospitals, and interview at local facilities where they’d like to complete a residency. Physicians are also placed in the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP), which helps pair applicants with hospitals. During training, a resident earns a salary, which is on average, between $40,000 and $50,000 per year. Salaries are kept at a minimal because graduates are not fully licensed to practice medicine.
Senior residents and attending physicians supervise and oversee the training of new residents as they care for patients. Residents go on ’rounds’: individually, where they speak to each patient about their care; and with a team that includes an attending or teaching physician. They can also admit new patients and perform a physician examination.
During a residency, physicians-in-training can also opt to take their final boards to become a licensed doctor who can practice medicine in the United States.
Medical doctors also have the option to later gain certification in their specialty, which demonstrates to patients and the medical community that they are dedicated to upholding the highest standards within their profession. While pursuing board certification is a voluntary action, many hospitals and managed care organizations require their physicians to undergo the process.
A fellowship is an optional, highly specialized program that trains a doctor to excel in a medical sub-specialty, such as pediatric cardiology or vascular surgery. Depending on the specialty, the average time it takes to complete a fellowship varies between as short as 6 months and up to three years. The additional training that a medical doctor receives increases their value within the medical community, as well as qualifies them to apply to a greater range of open job positions and earn a higher salary.
The demand for physicians with sub-specialties will continue to grow as technology and treatment options continue to advance and the number of retiring specialists increase.
In conclusion, the educational path for becoming a medical doctor is a lengthy process that begins with an undergraduate education, and includes earning a degree from a medical school. Medical doctors also pursue at least four years of post-graduate residency training to gain the proper knowledge, experience and skills to either become a general physician or specialize in a specific area of medicine. Additional training related to a specialty is optional, and requires the completion of an average of two to three years of a fellowship. In the end, medical doctors enter a profession that is rewarding on both an emotional and financial level.