How to Become an Internist

October 12, 2023


Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 10/11/23

Are you considering becoming an internist but don’t know where to start? Read on to learn how to pursue a career in internal medicine.


As the name would suggest, internists are doctors who specialize in internal medicine. This discipline deals with the prevention, diagnosis, and non-surgical treatment of diseases of the internal organs, such as the heart and lungs, in adults.

The inner workings of the human body are complex and certain conditions often involve multiple organ systems. Becoming an internist could be right for you if you are interested in solving puzzling medical issues, helping patients deal with chronic health issues, promoting preventive medicine, and building ongoing relationships with your patients.

image of dots background

How to Become An Internist: Step by Step

If your interest in this discipline is piqued, but you don’t know where to go from here, keep reading the step-by-step education requirements for internists.

While each step is necessary to become a registered internal medicine doctor in the U.S., they can be completed at your own pace and any stage in your life. Don’t be discouraged by how you perceive other people’s professional journeys.

1) Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

Many North American medical schools require you to enroll in an undergraduate program for at least two years before applying to medical school. Medical schools don’t typically care about your major as long as you take the necessary prerequisites.

However, many students complete four-year Bachelor of Science degrees. Such degrees can help guarantee that you’ve completed the prerequisites for your target schools and also help prepare you for the MCAT (more on this below).

Besides taking the necessary courses, ensure to maintain a high GPA. Outside of class, partaking in extracurricular activities, shadowing physicians, working in a medical office, and taking on internships are great ways to build your pre-med resume

Taking on these activities outside of class can also develop your sense of self and help you understand if and why you want to become an internist. Don’t be afraid to consider a gap year to explore your options, if needed.

2) Take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)

Many medical schools require the completion of the MCAT before admission. The MCAT consists of multiple-choice questions that assess the taker’s problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and scientific knowledge. 

Some schools require the completion of other tests as well. For instance, some schools require the CASPer to assess the applicant’s empathy, communication skills, and more. While preparing for exams like the MCAT can seem daunting, many private tutors, prep courses, and online materials are available to help you succeed.

3) Medical School

After completing the necessary exams and prerequisites for medical school, you’re ready to apply! Fast forward a series of interviews and months of anticipation, and you’ve received your medical school acceptance letter! This is where your official training as a medical doctor starts.

Medical school is typically four years long and includes the pre-clinical and clinical phases. In the pre-clinical phase, students complete two years of courses focused on general medical concepts. The clinical phase is when you get more hands-on medical training experience in clinical rotations in hospitals and clinics. 

Under the supervision of medical professionals, you can start to get a taste of what specialty you might enjoy and whether being an internist would be right for you.

Finding a mentor is also a beneficial way to learn more about which branch of medicine you would enjoy most. 

During medical school, you will be required to take the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). The USMLE is a three-step exam necessary for medical licensure. You’ll complete Steps 1 and 2 by your final year before you can apply for residencies.

4) Residency

After you graduate from medical school and prepare the proper application materials, you can match into an internal medicine residency program. Residency is the stage of your medical education where you’ll spend most of your time in a hospital or clinic learning a specific specialty. 

While this is a paid position, you’ll still be supervised and need to develop the skills to become a fully licensed and board-certified doctor.

Internal medicine residency programs typically take around three years and prepare you to become a board-certified general internist. During this time, you’ll learn how to diagnose and treat many illnesses, especially chronic ones. For this reason, internal medicine residency programs are regarded as very broad and intensive.

5) Subspecialization

You may choose to undergo a fellowship to subspecialize in a specific area in internal medicine beyond your residency program. These include specialties in cardiology, endocrinology, and oncology.

6) Licensing and Board Certification

Upon completion of residency, you’re eligible to secure medical licensure for your state. The process of board certification requires that you pass the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM)’s certification exam.

Once board certified, you can practice as an internist in private practice, hospital setting, a professional setting like the American College of Physicians, and more.

How Long Does it Take to Become an Internist?

As an internist, your patients entrust you with their health and well-being. Such a responsibility understandably takes years of training and dedication. How long it takes to become an internist depends on your personal timeline (such as whether or not you take gap years), but it typically takes 11 years:

  • 4 years of undergraduate studies
  • 4 years of medical school
  • 3 years of residency 

If you wish to subspecialize, this may take an additional 1 to 3 years. Below are examples of the lengths of fellowships for some subspecialties:

table outlining the length of fellowships for some subspecialties
Source: Carver College of Medicine

What Does an Internist Do? 

An internist provides long-term, complete care to adults and the elderly. Internists are trained to diagnose, prevent, and treat various diseases impacting multiple organ systems. They’re trained to diagnose and treat infections, cancer, and other illnesses that impact the: 

  • Heart 
  • Blood 
  • Kidneys 
  • Joints 
  • Digestive system 
  • Respiratory system 
  • Vascular system

Overall, internal medicine is a well-rounded specialty; internists also incorporate “disease prevention, wellness, substance abuse, mental health and effective treatment of common problems of the eyes, ears, skin, nervous system and reproductive organs” in their practices. 

Reasons to Become an Internist

As a doctor, your main goal is to aid in the health and well-being of your patients. Specializing allows you to do so by employing your specific interests and strengths. 

As an internist, you’re an expert in preventing, treating, and diagnosing a broad spectrum of diseases in adults. There are multiple reasons why going into this specialty can provide a fulfilling career.


Internists have the comprehensive knowledge to deal with multiple organ systems and interacting diseases at once. Patients often come to you with rare and/or complex diseases that other doctors couldn’t treat or even diagnose. 

Because of this, internists must use problem-solving and analytical skills, which can be intellectually gratifying.


Internists typically treat the same patients over a long period, often the length of their adult life. If you value building relationships with your patients, then this is a great specialty to look into.


Moreover, the daily life of a general internal medicine doctor offers variety! Because of your broad knowledge of multiple organ systems, you can see a patient with diabetes one hour and then move on treating COPD the next. This also allows you to interact with doctors from almost every field.

On the plus side, you can decide to subspecialize if you want to narrow your focus.

You can also work in various places, such as an office, clinic, or hospital (including all three at once). Some internists even work in rehabilitation centers or long-term care facilities. 

Job Opportunities

Based on a recent U.S. physician employment report, internal medicine ranks as the second-most in-demand specialty.

FAQs: Becoming an Internist

Below are some frequently asked questions about becoming an internist.

1. What Skills Do You Need to Become an Internist? 

Like all physicians, you must develop a well-rounded skill set to become an internist. Because you’ll be forging many long-term patient relationships, compassion, empathy, and communication are critical skills. However, you must also understand different diseases and how to diagnose and treat them. 

2. What Are the Education Requirements to Become an Internist?

Going to school for internal medicine takes time: approximately 11 years. Your first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree, followed by your MD or DO, then finally completing a residency and becoming a fully licensed and board-certified internist. Throughout these steps, you’ll also need to take the MCAT and USMLE. 

3. Do Internists Only Work With Adults?

Most internists only work with adults, but there are subspecialties in adolescent medicine and pediatrics.

4. What Is the Average Internist Salary?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an internist’s average annual salary is approximately $225,270. However, your salary can depend on what state you’re practicing in, your experience, where you work, and whether or not you subspecialized.

5. What Are the Best Ranked Schools for Internal Medicine?

Johns Hopkins University is the best school for internal medicine, as it’s ranked #1 by U.S. News

Final Thoughts

If you’re a deep-thinker passionate about helping your patients with a broad range of health concerns, then becoming an internist might be right for you. Now that you know how to become an internal medicine doctor, you have a clear picture of the path ahead. Good luck! 

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Schedule A Free Consultation

Plan Smart. Execute Strong. Get Into Your Dream School.
Get Free Consultation
image of dots background

You May Also Like