Long road representing the long journey to becoming a doctor

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

July 5, 2021
Part 1. IntroductionPart 2. OverviewPart 3. Before Medical SchoolPart 4. During Medical SchoolPart 5. After Medical SchoolPart 6. Certification and ExaminationsPart 7. How to Decide if You Should Become a Doctor - Is it Worth It? Part 8. FAQsPart 9. Conclusion

Introduction

Once you have made up your mind to pursue your dream of becoming a doctor, the next question you may be asking yourself is, “How long does it take to become a doctor?” You must have heard that the process of becoming a doctor is a very time-consuming one. 

You are likely aware that it will take years to become a doctor, but let’s find out exactly how many years it takes before you can finally practice as a doctor. 

The necessary steps involved in becoming a doctor are:

To be honest, there is no clear and defined answer to this question. The reason is that the number of years you’ll spend before becoming a doctor depends entirely on your area of specialization.

However, you should prepare yourself to invest at least 11 years of hard work before having a secure, rewarding, and lucrative career.

Overview 

Choosing this career requires a lot of time, effort, and discipline. Doing well in school, attending all the right classes in college, and acing the MCAT are a few of the many things you must do.

Perhaps you chose to become a doctor at a very early stage in life, or maybe you decided quite later in life while studying or working in a completely different field.

These two situations require two different routes, the traditional route, and the non-traditional route. Let’s talk a little bit more about these two routes:

Traditional Route: 

Suppose you are someone who decided to enter medical school just after you finished your undergraduate program; you are a traditional medical school applicant and can take the conventional route to become a doctor. 

Since you have made this decision beforehand, you know the requirements. You will know what courses to take throughout your college.

In such cases, you should apply to med school either in the spring or summer before your senior year. This way, you can start your medical college right after your graduation. 

However, if you want to take some time off between college and medical school, that’s understandable. Many students tend to take one or more gap years to prepare for the MCAT or gain experience. 

Taking a gap year has become so common that it is now considered one of the traditional routes. Thus, whether you take a gap year or proceed to medical school directly after college, you will follow the traditional route. 

Non-Traditional Route:

On the other hand, if you decide to take a few gap years before attending medical school, you fall under the non-traditional student category. For you, it might take more time to become a doctor. Various students follow this route before actually becoming a doctor. 

Students who fall under this category are students who initially did not think of attending medical school. These students may not have completed the medical school requirements during undergraduate school.

People who realize later that they want to pursue a medical career might need to devote extra time to fulfill all the prerequisite requirements. 

Another example of people who might have to go through the non-traditional route are people who haven’t been in college for some years now and are working. They could be working either in the medical field or in an entirely unrelated area to medicine.

These people have decided to attend medical school instead of continuing their current career path. These people are called career changers. 

The main question that arises here is how long does it take to become a doctor if you follow a non-traditional route?

There is no straightforward answer to this, but you will need to put in extra time and effort since it could be an entirely new field for you.

Before Medical School:

Like any professional school path, becoming a doctor requires you to have an undergraduate degree before matriculating to a medical school. Thus before attending medical school, you need to have a four-year degree.

You should aim to do well in high school and acquire a strong GPA to secure competitive university attendance.

Medical schools usually prefer students who have a good foundation in science and some healthcare experience in their background. You can gain this experience by volunteering in any hospital or healthcare environment. 

It is necessary to study subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics before applying to medical school. Taking these subjects will provide you a better insight into your interest in the topics and pursue a career in this field. 

You will also need a sound knowledge of these topics to do well on the MCAT. Some medical schools require specific prerequisites, like a year of biology or chemistry with lab experience.

You should check the school’s prerequisites you wish to apply to and make sure to take those subjects in your undergraduate program. 

Acceptable undergraduate degree programs for medical school are four-year programs. You should make full use of this time and start preparing for medical school. You should work hard to build an excellent medical school resume so you can stand out and make a fantastic impression in front of the admission committees.

Before you apply to medical school, aim to gain as much experience as possible in a clinical setting. For example, you should try to shadow a doctor.

Doing so will provide a fair amount of knowledge and will also help you develop some necessary skills such as compassion and empathy. Don’t forget to use this time to prepare for your MCAT as well.

On the other hand, if you have taken the non-traditional route to medicine, you need to research the medical school application requirements. The AAMC guide will likely be your primary resource.

 

During Medical School

During your days at medical school, there might be nights when you will question your decision about becoming a doctor. There is an intense amount of studying that you will need to do during school days. Surviving this is what will help you achieve your dream of becoming a doctor.

In the first two years, you might be bombarded with a lot of information. These two years are the preclinical years. Your coursework enables you to gain clinical skills theoretically and practically by working in labs during this time. You are made aware of everything about a normal and healthy human body.

Once you clear the last semester of the second year, you start learning about a human body’s abnormalities. In the following years, pay more attention to gaining clinical experience.

During medical school, you will have to complete clinical rotations. Each rotation is around four weeks long and helps students understand everything they have learned through hands-on practice. 

To become a doctor in the United States, you need to take the United States Medical Licensing Examination eventually. The exam has three parts, two of which you have to complete while you are in medical school. 

How well you do in these exams helps you understand where you stand in your medical education and determines what direction you will take in your medical career.

It is safe to say that these four years are the most useful and exciting years of your journey to becoming a doctor. 

During medical school, you discover endless things about the human body. In these four years, your studies might start as a compulsion but will hopefully lead to sheer enthusiasm and curiosity.

After Medical School

Once you have completed medical school, the next step for you is to complete a residency program. A residency program is essentially an internship for new doctors. This program lasts for three to seven years, depending on the specialty that you choose. 

For example, if you choose family medicine, your residency will be three years long. On the other hand, if you decide on neurosurgery, it will be seven years.

Three to eleven years is undoubtedly a long time, but you do not need to worry since you can earn a partial salary during this residency.

During the first year of your residency, you are called an “intern,” after which you become a “resident.”

The Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS) helps you apply for residencies in the United States. A computer algorithm helps to match your preferences and the program’s preferences. 

Residency is all about providing you with hands-on experience before you officially begin your career. You’ll be independently practicing your dream, under supervision, of course. This time can be stressful as you will have to work long hours. 

Residency will put your abilities and knowledge to the test, and chances are, you might even start questioning yourself and your experience.

Remember, you cannot give up. You have come close to your goal and need to keep pushing yourself harder. Your dream is all set to turn into a reality. 

Once you finish with your residency, you can opt for a fellowship- which is entirely optional. Fellowship allows you to do research and become more skilled in a subspecialty area. Fellowship usually takes another one to three years to complete.

Certification and Examinations

Once you complete the intern year of residency successfully, you are all set to get your hands on your medical license. You just need to pass an exam – the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), before you get your license. 

The examination should not stress you because you have gained immense experience both theoretically and practically by this time. All you need to do is examine the exam criteria and take practice tests to prepare thoroughly.

By the time you reach residency, you will have taken two out of three components of the USMLE.

The examination tests only your specialty along with your grasp over a few basic concepts. You need to pass three tests, Step 1, Step 2 CK, and Step 3. You need to use all your practical knowledge because simply memorizing facts will not be useful. 

Many questions will test your understanding of concepts and principles to evaluate if you are ready to become a doctor. 

Once you complete this examination, you are legally free to practice in the state where you took the exam. 

It is essential to note that medicine is always evolving, and new technological development takes place now and then. You cannot expect to study medicine and remain qualified indefinitely.

As a physician, you will need to be re-certified every couple of years. There is no doubt that your experience and these certifications will lead you to become a better doctor with each passing day. 

How to Decide if You Should Become a Doctor – Is it Worth it?

The amount of time, effort, and discipline required to become a doctor might cause you to question your choice throughout the course. You are not alone if you think to yourself, “is becoming a doctor worth it?” 

Almost all people who aspire to become a doctor have had this thought at least once. You must have heard that hard work always pays off. In the end, is it true in the case of becoming a doctor too?

There is no doubt that becoming a doctor takes most of your 20s from you, but the rewards of this sacrifice are vast – both tangible and intangible. 

When talking in terms of tangible rewards, working as a physician is one of the best paying jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a doctors’ average salary ranges between $200,000-300,000 per year. In addition, this profession has an excellent growth rate and fantastic job security. 

In terms of intangible rewards, you should keep in mind that each day you improve the lives of so many people. You would be responsible for making positive changes in people’s lives, and this makes the profession so satisfying.

Above all, the pride that comes when you wear your white coat is unbeatable and one of the world’s best feelings.

FAQs

1. How many years in total will it take to become a doctor?

You need to devote around ten to twelve years to become a doctor. The time includes an undergraduate degree (four years), medical school (four years), and a residency program (three to seven years). 

2. At what age can I expect to become a doctor?

If you take the traditional route to become a doctor, you’ll begin medical school around 24 and will become a doctor by the average age of 33.

3. Is there an age limit for medical school?

These days, many people take the non-traditional route to become doctors and there is no minimum or maximum age limit for entering medical school.

4. What is the average annual salary of a doctor?

The average salary of a doctor is around $200,000-300,000 per year. The pay varies by specialty. 

5. 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 the school. It may even help if you take the time to become a more competitive applicant.

6. How long are my medical school prerequisites valid for?

All colleges have different policies regarding the validity of the prerequisites. You should check with your medical school about their policies, however, most prerequisites are valid for five years.

7. Why is the process of becoming a doctor so long?

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

Conclusion

When you sign up for medicine as your career, you also sign up for a significant amount of time and effort. Becoming a doctor can indeed take more than eleven years.

At at every step of this journey, you will feel a sense of accomplishment. You will learn so many different things each day that you will become more and more curious with time.

The time it takes to become a doctor will be worth it. You should research and plan ahead once you know how long it will take to become a doctor in your ideal specialty. You need to set your goals and timelines to enjoy the vast benefits of becoming a doctor. 

You will need to work hard during some of the best years of your life to accomplish this. But when you have your medical license, white coat, and a stethoscope around your neck, you will realize how fruitful even the tiniest sacrifices have been.

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