How Long Does It Take To Become A Doctor? A Complete Guide

October 26, 2022

You know healthcare is right for you: now, you may be wondering how many years it takes to become a physician. Read on below to learn more about the timeline of becoming an MD. 

Illustration of a Doctor talking to a family with the phrase below: How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?

The process of becoming a doctor is time-consuming. You’ll need to complete many years of school to be a doctor, but let’s find out exactly how many years it takes before you can finally practice medicine. 

There’s no clear answer to how long it takes to become a practicing physician. The reason is that the number of years you’ll spend before becoming a doctor depends on your specialization. However, you should prepare to invest at least 10 to 14 years of hard work before having a secure, rewarding, and lucrative career. 

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How Long Does It Take To Become A Doctor? An Overview

Choosing this career requires a lot of time, effort, and discipline. Depending on your chosen specialty, it takes approximately 10 to 14 years to become a physician. You must complete the following steps after high school to become a physician: 

  • Complete an undergraduate degree (4 years) 
  • Finish medical school (4 years) 
  • Complete a residency in your specialty (3-7 years) 
  • Optional: Pursue a fellowship (1-3 years) 

This is a general timeline to becoming a doctor, but your time in college and medical school can be shortened depending on the program you pursue. After you complete the necessary steps, you can get your medical license and become a full-fledged physician! 

Timeline to Becoming a Doctor: Step-by-Step

Three main steps (plus an optional fellowship) lead to medical licensure. These are the steps you must take to practice medicine unsupervised. 

Image showing the timeline to becoming a doctor.

Complete an Undergraduate Degree (4 Years) 

Earning a bachelor’s degree is the first step in your timeline to become a physician. You must complete many science-related prerequisite courses before applying to medical school. Although you can pick any major as a pre-med student, many students choose science majors to prepare themselves for med school. 

Beyond achieving a high GPA and MCAT scores, you should seek meaningful medical-related and other extracurriculars such as: 

  • Medical shadowing 
  • Clinical experiences 
  • Research experiences 
  • Volunteer work 

How many years of college you need to be a doctor can be shortened by taking summer courses or using AP credits from high school to fulfill introductory course requirements. You can start applying to medical schools in your senior year.

Complete Medical School (4 Years) 

If your school follows a traditional curriculum, the first two years are spent taking advanced science coursework and labs to help build your clinical skills. In the last half of your medical school experience, you’ll gain more clinical experience and patient exposure. 

You’ll also complete clinical rotations. Each rotation’s length depends on its specialty: students use rotations to apply what they’ve learned through hands-on practice. You’ll also take Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) at the end of your second year and Step 2 at the end of your third or final year. 

Finish a Residency Program (3-7 Years)

The next step is to complete a residency program. You can apply to residencies through the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS) and rank and match with your preferred programs. Your program will last three to seven years, depending on the specialty. Here are some examples: 

Table outlining number of years it takes to complete residency programs.

Source: The American Medical AssociationWashington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

You can earn a partial salary during your residency years. Your residency provides you with hands-on experience under supervision. Residency will put your abilities and knowledge to the test. You can also take the USMLE Step 3 before or during your program. 

Even though residency can be challenging, you’re almost ready to practice medicine independently! 

(Optional) Complete a Fellowship (1-3 Years) 

Once you finish your residency, you can opt for a fellowship — which is optional. Fellowships allow you to do research and become more skilled in a subspecialty area.

Acquire a Medical License to Practice in Your State (~2 Months) 

You can apply for a medical license in your state during your third year of residency. Expect to wait at least two months from the time you submit your application to have your license granted. 

Is It Possible to Become a Doctor Before I Turn 30?

As mentioned above, it takes many years of school to be a physician: around 10 to 14 years. If you enroll in medical school at 23 or 24, you’ll be about 30 years old when you start practicing independently. Let’s explore ways to become a physician before turning 30. 

Don’t Take Gap Years

It’s possible to start your career as a doctor before turning 30, but it’s challenging. Taking a gap year at any point will move your timeline: before college, med school, or your residency program. To graduate sooner, consider not taking any gap years if possible.

Consider a BS/MD Program or Shorter Med School Program

Several BS/MD programs can be completed in three years, one year faster than most undergraduate programs. Some programs, like Penn State’s Accelerated Premedical-Medical Program, enable you to complete your bachelor’s in three years and dive into four years at med school. 

After completing your bachelor’s, choosing the right medical school and program is essential. Medical school typically takes four years to complete. But several MD programs offer three-year programs, including the McMaster University Medical School and Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary

Choose a Shorter Residency

Residency choice influences how many years it takes to become a doctor, as the length between specialties. While some residency lengths are shorter than others, your decision should be motivated by an interest in the specialty, not its length. 

However, if you want to shorten how long it takes to become a physician, consider a medical specialty with a shorter residency duration. For example, a pediatrics residency may only take three years to complete, whereas an orthopedic surgery residency may take five. 

Ultimately, it’s better to pursue the area you want to specialize in without much regard to the program’s length. 

Length of Traditional Route Vs. Non-Traditional Route 

Perhaps you’ve wanted to be a doctor since childhood, or maybe you decided much later in life. These two situations require two different routes: the traditional and non-traditional routes. 

Traditional Route 

Suppose you are someone who decided to enter medical school before high school or while in college; you’re a traditional medical school applicant and can take the conventional route. A traditional applicant completes all medical school prerequisites before applying and entering soon after they graduate college. 

Image showing how long it takes to become a doctor if you follow a traditional route.

Many students take one gap year to prepare for the MCAT or gain experience. Taking a gap year has become so common that it’s now considered one of the traditional routes; you’re still a traditional applicant even if you decide to take a year off. 

Non-Traditional Route

Non-traditional applicants don’t take the traditional path. Non-traditional medical school applicants can come in many forms, including: 

  • Those who have taken two or more gap years 
  • Mature applicants (those older than 25)
  • Career-changers 
  • Lane-changers (changed major from an unrelated field) 
  • Applicants from a non-science background 

The main question here is this: How long does it take to become a physician if you follow a non-traditional route? 

Image showing how long it takes to become a doctor if you follow a non-traditional route.

There is no straightforward answer: it’ll depend on how long it takes you to finish med school prerequisites and other factors. 

What is The Shortest Time to Become a Doctor In the USA?

Calculating the shortest time it takes to become a doctor depends on how quickly you complete each key step. Although this process takes time, you can shorten the timeline with hard work. The list below outlines the fastest time to be a doctor: 

Table outlining the fastest time to be a doctor.

Unfortunately, you can’t fast-track through a residency or fellowship. However, you can shorten your timeline through college and medical school. 

FAQs: Time It Takes to Be a Doctor

We’ve outlined several questions and answers below to help you decide if becoming a doctor is worth it and answer questions such as “How long does it take to get your MD?”

1. At What Age Can I Expect to Be a Doctor?

If you take the traditional route, you’ll begin medical school around 24 and have your medical license by the average age of 33.

2. Can I Take a Gap Year After My Undergraduate Degree?

Yes, if you need time to prepare for medical school, you can take a gap year after graduation. It will not affect your chances of getting into med school. It may even help if you use your time to become a more competitive applicant.

3. Why Is the Process of Becoming a Doctor So Long?

Becoming a doctor takes so many years because it involves a lot of education and responsibility. Doctors need a license before practicing. You can get a license only when you have enough years of training and experience.

4. How Many Years Do You Have to Go to College to Be a Doctor?

It usually takes four years of college to be a doctor, then four years at med school before completing residency requirements and the USMLE.

5. How Long Does it Take to Become a Physician After Med School? 

Medical school graduates can begin professional, independent practice after completing their residency requirements, necessary fellowships, and the USMLE. This process can take as little as three years or just under ten, depending on your chosen medical specialty. 

6. How Long Does It Take to Become a Surgeon? 

Most surgery residencies are five years long, but you may enroll in a longer program depending on the type of surgery you want to practice. You may also need to complete a fellowship to explore a subspecialty. 

A Decade to Become a Physician, a Lifetime of Rewards

When you sign up for a medical career, you also sign up for a significant amount of time and effort. When asking, “How long does it take to become a doctor?” you must consider program and residency lengths. Becoming a doctor can indeed take more than ten years. But at every step of this journey, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. 

The time it takes to be a doctor will be worth it. Research and planning will help you set your goals and timelines. Ultimately, how long it takes to be a doctor is up to you. When you have your medical license, white coat, and a stethoscope around your neck, you’ll realize how fruitful even the tiniest sacrifices have been. 

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