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

April 25, 2024


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 4/25/24

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?” 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?

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:

  • Finish high school
  • Get your bachelor’s degree
  • Complete medical school
  • Complete a residency

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 to 12 years of hard work before having a secure, rewarding, and lucrative career. 

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How Long Will It Take to Become a Doctor? An 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 prerequisites. 

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 this: 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 with a better insight into your interest in the topics and help you 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. You will need to do an intense amount of studying 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 (USMLE) 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.

How Long It Takes to Be a Doctor 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 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 seven 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. Fellowships allow you to do research and become more skilled in a subspecialty area. A 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 USMLE — before you get your license. 

While you may be nervous about the USMLE, your practical and theoretical medical experience will help you ace the test. 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 of 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 developments happen now and then. You cannot expect to study medicine and remain qualified indefinitely. As a physician, you will need to be recertified 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 — both tangible and intangible — are vast. 

In terms of tangible rewards, working as a physician is one of the best-paying jobs. According to The Washington Post, a doctors’ average salary is around $350,000 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. 

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

As mentioned above, the average time required to become a doctor is around 11 to 12 years. If most prospective MDs begin medical school at 18, they will be around 30 when they begin practicing independently, although taking a gap year or a longer residency can prolong this process. 

It is possible to become a doctor before turning 30, but it is particularly challenging. So, let’s explore what steps you need to take to become an MD before you turn 30. 

Every MD program requires an undergraduate degree, so choose a bachelor’s program and focus on your studies. Any delays in graduation or changes in undergraduate focus can delay your plans. Taking a gap year before completing your bachelor’s degree will also cause delays. So, choose the right undergraduate program and stick to it. 

Several BS/MD programs can be completed in three years, which is one year faster than most undergraduate programs. A few courses, like Penn State’s Accelerated Premedical-Medical Program, also 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

Residency choice is an essential deciding factor in how long it takes to be a doctor, as its length varies between specialties. While some residency lengths are shorter than others, your decision should be motivated by an interest in the specialty, not just the length of the residency. However, if you want to shorten how long it takes to become a doctor, 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. Consider the table below, which outlines several residency lengths: 

Source: Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis 

How to Become a Doctor as Quickly as Possible

Calculating how long it takes to become a doctor depends on how quickly you complete each of the key steps, including your undergraduate degree, med school, and residency. Although this process takes time, the total years required to become a doctor can be shortened if you plan and work hard. The list below outlines how long it takes to become a doctor as quickly as possible: 

  1. High school (undergrad preparation): Complete classes in high school that satisfy your undergrad prereqs, such as AP biology and chemistry 
  2. Undergraduate degree (at least three years): Complete your pre-med major in three years by taking a combined bachelor’s and med school program or completing summer school courses, extra credit projects, and additional courses (three years) 
  3. Med school (four years): Satisfy your med school prereqs during your bachelor’s so there is no need for a gap year 
  4. Residency (at least three years): Complete your chosen residency.
  5. Fellowship (if needed): Complete a one- to two-year fellowship after residency if your subspeciality requires additional training 

FAQs: Time It Takes to Become a Doctor

Knowing how long it takes to be a doctor can be off-putting, but the rewards are exceptional. 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. How long does it take to get your MD?

You need to devote around 10 to 12 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 to $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.

8. How long do you need to study to become a doctor?

Prospective MDs usually spend four years completing their bachelor’s and four years at med school before completing their residency requirements and the USMLE.

9. How long does it take to become a doctor 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 10, depending on your chosen medical specialty. 

A Decade to Become a Doctor, a Lifetime of Rewards

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 11 years. But 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. Ultimately, how long it takes to be a doctor is up to you. 

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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