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Isobel Cameron

What is a Medical Resident? A Complete Guide

December 9, 2021
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Part 1: IntroductionPart 2: What Is a Medical ResidentPart 3: What Does a Medical Resident Do?Part 4: How To Become a Medical ResidentPart 5: How Long Are Medical Residencies?Part 6: How Do You Find Medical Residencies?Part 7: Medical Resident Salary Part 8: Medical Resident Work HoursPart 9: Organizations for Medical ResidentsPart 10: Medical Residents vs. InternsPart 11: Medical Residents vs. DoctorsPart 12: FAQs & Conclusion

If you’re just beginning your medical school journey, you may be wondering, “What is a medical resident and what do they do?” Medical residency is an essential step in becoming a doctor, so it’s vital to get informed. 

In this guide, we will go over everything you need to know about medical residents. You will learn everything from the length of a typical program to the salary and work hours. By the end of our guide, you should have a good grasp of what a medical resident is.

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What Is a Medical Resident?

A medical resident is a doctor in training. Medical residents have graduated med school, obtained an MD, and are now training alongside licensed physicians to develop their specialization. For example, a medical resident who wishes to become a pediatrician would carry out their residency at a pediatric clinic.

Residency means taking part in a graduate medical education (GME) program. Once a doctor in training has completed their GME and passed all three steps of the USMLE, they are ready to become a practicing physician.

Medical residents spend their first year as medical interns, working long hours in a clinic or hospital under close supervision. After their first year of residency, residents have more freedom concerning scheduling, pay, and practice.  

Medical residency is typically an essential step in becoming a doctor. GME programs allow students to practice medicine on real patients while under supervision. The goal is to bridge the gap between student and doctor with full exposure to everyday life as a medical professional.  

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What Does a Medical Resident Do?

To answer this question, let’s take a look at a day in the life of a medical resident. According to Kunal Sindhu, MD, a typical day for a medical resident starts with a 7-7:30 am “sign out.” This is when the overnight resident fills in the morning resident on the patients under their care, and then the morning resident gets to work.

After signing out, medical residents begin rounds and discuss their patients with their attending physician. After rounds, residents will typically start completing any tasks they have for the day, such as ordering tests, reviewing results, completing discharge paperwork, etc. 

A medical resident’s primary job is to learn. Most medical residents will have a lecture period during the day dedicated to conference and education. For the remainder of the shift, residents complete more daily tasks and sign out to pass on patient information to the overnight residents.

Residents practice medicine under the supervision of an attending physician. Much of the day is spent following the lead of senior doctors and taking notes. If a patient is made aware that a resident would like to perform a procedure and the patient agrees to it, residents are allowed to do so under supervision.

How To Become a Medical Resident

After completing a medical degree, prospective doctors must complete a residency before becoming physicians. Typically medical students will try to match with a residency in their fourth year of medical school. 

To find your perfect match, there are several residency matching programs available to students. The most popular among them is the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP), though plenty of others cater to specialty-specific matching.

This is also the time for students to figure out which specialty they are interested in pursuing. Residencies place students in clinics or hospital departments that practice their specialty of choice. 

How Long Are Medical Residencies?

The length of a medical residency varies from program to program, though they typically take between three and seven years to complete. The time required to learn and implement the art of a specialty depends on the specialty itself. 

The shortest residencies are typically in family medicine, while more extended programs are related to surgical practice. Some specialties are more popular and may take longer to complete simply due to lack of availability. 

Surgical residencies are the longest programs due to the complexity of training. Residents are also not allowed to perform full surgeries, so the hands-on learning in surgical programs may be more limited than others.

How Do You Find Medical Residencies?

Though it’s possible to make a connection to your future residency through school staff, most students aren’t so lucky. Most students go through the NRMP to match with their future residency, though there are plenty of other options. 

Here is a shortlist of matching residency resources.

These are the most popular matching services used in the US and Canada today, though specific areas of medicine often have their own matching services.

Medical Resident Salary 

Salaries for medical residents vary between specialties, just as they do for fully licensed doctors. Geography can also affect how much a resident makes by the end of the year.

In a survey conducted by the AAMC in 2019, residents reported receiving a $56,126 physician stipend in their first year of residency, which grew in their fourth year to $63,014. Typically, residents are also eligible for benefits on top of salary, which varies from program to program. 

Depending on where the residency program is based, residents may also be eligible for student tax breaks. While many countries consider residents to be employees rather than students, it varies from state to state in the U.S.

Medical Resident Work Hours

The dreaded long work hours for residents are widely discussed among medical students. Some doctors have reported barely seeing sunlight in their first year of residency, though restrictions are in place to limit shift lengths.

In a 2017 memo posted by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), the organization reaffirmed a maximum of 80 hours per week with a mandatory day off. This was said to realistically frame “real world” work hours while allowing adequate time for rest.

The memo also states a 24-hour cap on a single work shift, emphasizing that this number is a “ceiling, not a floor.” The maximum permitted is not to be confused with the expectation.

Organizations for Medical Residents

There are plenty of resources and organizations to help ensure the safety and well-being of medical residents. The following list of organizations has resources within them to guide residents through their residency programs.

The American Medical Association

According to their website, the American Medical Association (AMA) is “the largest and only national association that convenes 190+ state and specialty medical societies and other critical stakeholders.” 

Through the AMA, medical residents can find information on leadership and committee opportunities and representation in courts and legislative bodies.

Resident Doctors of Canada

Resident Doctors of Canada (RDoC) is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1972 to provide a unified voice for its members. Their ultimate goal is to “optimize the ongoing education and professional development of resident doctors, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the best health and care for patients.”

The RDoC offers volunteer opportunities for residents who want to participate in shaping their training environment. They have several provincial partners so that residents across Canada can have access to their services.

The American Medical Student Association

The American Medical Student Association (AMSA) is the largest and oldest independent association for doctors-in-training in the United States. Their goal is to empower student leadership and improve the medical student experience.

Their website offers insights into several student-based action committees, campaigns, initiatives, and activism resources. They also have a calendar where students can see what events are taking place in the upcoming months, with opportunities to get involved.

The Emergency Medicine Residents Association

The Emergency Medicine Residents Association (EMRA) aims to help their residents, students, fellows, and alumni become great doctors with their resources such as clinical books, apps, committees, representative council, and more.

EMRA is also job-focused and offers job-finding assistance to its members. To become a member, one must also be a member of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP).

These organizations are teeming with resources for doctors in training to help in all areas. There are typically on-campus or on-site resources for residents to contact with questions surrounding residency as well. 

Medical Residents vs. Interns

In the words of Albany Med, “An ‘intern’ is a physician in their first-year of residency after graduating from Medical School.” At this stage in their residency, medical residents can practice medicine under the supervision of a licensed physician in a hospital or a clinic.

After their first year of medical residency or “intern” phase, residents typically receive a pay raise along with more benefits. The further a resident is in their program, the more responsibilities they are given.

Medical Residents vs. Doctors

A medical resident is a doctor in training. Doctors are fully licensed and have completed their three to seven year residency program that most states require. Residents are in the process of earning their license and have not yet completed their residency, which is usually an essential step to becoming a doctor. 

Some states do not require doctors to have completed more than one year of a residency program to practice medicine. This policy has been adopted to address doctor shortages throughout the US. Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma are all states that have enacted these measures.

Many of America’s most influential healthcare organizations oppose these measures and believe a three to seven year residency program is necessary for doctors to complete. The American Medical Association opposed the notion, stating that more funding would increase residency positions and address the doctor shortage.


1. What are medical residency programs?

Simply put, medical residency programs are three to seven-year programs that exist to transform a medical school graduate into a full-on doctor. Students are matched with a place of work (either a clinic or a hospital) to study and practice alongside physicians in real patient scenarios.  

2. How does medical residency matching work?

Though not all matching programs use the same method, the NRMP uses a mathematical algorithm to place applicants into appropriate residency and fellowship positions. This unique algorithm was awarded a Nobel prize in 2012 and is widely regarded as the most efficient matching method available to students today.

3. When do medical residents take the USMLE?

The USMLE is divided into three steps. The first two steps occur during medical school before students have completed their MD. Medical residents take their third and final USMLE test after their first year of residency.

4. Is a medical resident a doctor?

A medical resident is a doctor in training. Residents are allowed to practice medicine under the supervision of a senior physician.

5. Is a medical resident a student or an employee?

The legal definition varies from state to state. Though widely debated, medical residents generally seem to be recognized as employees rather than students. Residents have reported being denied access to student tax credits by the CRA in recent years, which would seem to affirm that residents are employees.

However, residents are considered students in some states and medical circles. Some places also seem to recognize them as both employees and students. 

6. What are medical residency lengths by specialty?

The length of a residency depends on the state, program, and specialty. McGill University keeps a detailed list of program lengths by medical specialty that can be used as a frame of reference. Generally speaking, the shortest residencies (three years minimum) are in family medicine, while the most extended residencies (up to eight years) are in general surgery.  

7. What is the difference between a medical resident and an attending physician?

An attending physician is a doctor who has completed medical school and residency training. They are board-certified in their specialty and appointed by their hospital to overview patient care and make final decisions. Medical residents are doctors in training who work alongside (and aspire to be) attending physicians. 

8. Do residents perform surgery?

Surgical residents do not perform entire operations, but they can perform smaller parts of a more extensive operation under the supervision of the attending surgeon. Gradually throughout the training process, residents are given more and more opportunities to practice surgery on patients. 

By the last year of a surgical residency, residents should be more than capable of performing an entire surgery. Residents typically practice surgical skills repeatedly in a simulation lab before performing surgery on a living patient.

9. Do residents live in the hospital?

Although the term “resident” once indicated that doctors in training lived at the hospital, this is not typically the case today. However, residents tend to have very long shifts that are sometimes close together, making it feel like they live at the hospital.

It is recommended that residents live close to their hospital to avoid driving for long periods while exhausted. Staff beds are typically available at the hospital for residents and doctors to take naps during long shifts. 

10. Do residents get weekends off?

On average, residents in their first year take one day off a week. Schedules typically become more lucrative after the first year of residency, though one day off a week is still fairly standard. Most programs also offer vacation days and benefits to their residents. 

11. Are patients in good hands with resident doctors?

Residency programs are tough to get into, and medical school is no joke. Most doctors would say that if advised by an attending physician, a patient is entirely safe under the care of a resident doctor. 

One doctor at Harvard Health states that “The residents typically have more time to spend with a patient than the supervising physician does. At the major teaching hospitals, like those here at Harvard, the competition to be selected for a residency is fierce.”

He continues, “In fact, a recent study found that the quality of care was better in teaching hospitals. In short, you generally are in very good hands with a resident. But if you are concerned about the way a resident is handling your care, you always have the right to speak to the supervising physician.”


A medical resident is a person who has completed a medical degree and is now training to become a doctor in a residency program. Residency programs are competitive and thorough so that the students who become residents are trustworthy to begin working with patients in real-life scenarios while under supervision.

Medical residency is typically a necessary step to becoming a doctor, although some states do not require it. Residencies attended outside a resident’s future country of

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