Sign up to our Newsletter

Photo of a Medical resident standing with arms folded

What is a Medical Resident?: A Complete Guide

July 20, 2022
image of dots background
What Is a Medical Resident?What Do Medical Residents Do?How To Become a Medical ResidentHow Long Are Medical Residencies?How Do You Find Medical Residencies?Medical Resident Salary Medical Resident Work HoursOrganizations for Medical ResidentsMedical Residents vs. InternsMedical Residents vs. DoctorsMedical Resident FAQs

”Luke

Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 7/20/22

Graphic with "What is a medical resident?" written in big letters

How do you define “medical resident?” And what does a medical resident do? This complete guide will teach you everything you need to know about being a resident. 

If you’re beginning your medical school journey, you may wonder what the medical resident definition is. Medical residency is an essential step in becoming a doctor.

We’ll go over everything you need to know about medical residents. You’ll learn everything from salary and work hours. Read on for a better grasp of what a medical resident is.

image of dots background

What Is a Medical Resident?

A medical resident is a doctor in training. Becoming a medical resident means you’ve graduated med school and are training with licensed physicians in your specialization. For example, a medical resident who wants to become a pediatrician would complete their residency at a pediatric clinic.

So, what’s residency training? 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’re ready to become a practicing physician.

Medical residents spend their first year as interns, working in a clinic or hospital under close supervision. After their first year, residents have more freedom concerning: 

GME programs allow students to practice medicine on real patients. The goal is to bridge the gap between student and doctor with exposure to everyday life as a medical professional. 

Sign up to our Newsletter

What Do Medical Residents Do?

So, what does a medical resident do? Let’s look at a day in the life of a medical resident. According to Kunal Sindhu, MD, a typical day starts with a 7-7:30 am “sign out.” The overnight resident fills in the morning resident on patients under their care, and then the morning resident gets to work.

After signing out, medical residents begin rounds and discuss their patients with the attending physician. After rounds, daily work begins for medical residents, meaning they perform duties such as: 

A medical resident’s primary job is to learn. Most medical residents have a lecture period during the day dedicated to conferences and education. For the remainder of the shift, residents complete more tasks before signing out.

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 aware that a resident would like to perform a procedure and the patient agrees, residents are allowed to do so under supervision.

How To Become a Medical Resident

Infographic showing the steps it takes to become a medical resident

Prospective doctors must complete a residency before becoming physicians. Typically, med students try to match with a residency in their fourth year of medical school. 

There are several residency matching programs to help you find the perfect match. The National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) is the most popular, though many others cater to specialty-specific matching.

Students must determine which specialty they’re interested in pursuing. Residencies place students in clinics or hospital departments that practice their chosen specialty. 

How Long Are Medical Residencies?

Infographic outlining that residency lengths can vary between 3 and 7 years depending on the specialty

Residency lengths vary by program, though they typically take 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 due to lack of availability. 

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

How Do You Find Medical Residencies?

Though making connections to your future residency through school staff is possible, most students aren’t so lucky. Most students use the NRMP to match their future residency, though there are plenty of other options. 

Here is a list of matching residency resources.

These are the most popular matching services used in the U.S. and Canada, though specific medical areas may have their own matching services. 

Medical Resident Salary 

Infographic showing that residents of medicine earn around $56,000 during their first year

Salaries for medical residents vary between specialties, just as for fully licensed doctors. Geography can also affect how much a resident makes.

In a survey conducted by the AAMC in 2019, residents reported receiving a $56,126 physician stipend in their first year, which grew in their fourth year to $63,014. Typically, residents are eligible for benefits on top of salary, which varies by program. Once you become a doctor, you can earn much more depending on your specialty. 

Residents may be eligible for student tax breaks depending on where the program is based. While many countries consider a resident as an employee, some states say that a medical resident is a student. 

Medical Resident Work Hours

Infographic showing that medical residents' work hours are set at a maximum of 80 hours of week with a mandatory day off

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

In a 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 ensure the safety and well-being of medical residents. The following list has resources within them to guide residents through their programs.

The American Medical Association

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

Medical residents can find information on leadership and committee opportunities and representation in courts and legislative bodies through the AMA.

Resident Doctors of Canada

Resident Doctors of Canada (RDoC) is a not-for-profit organization founded 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 residents across Canada can access 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 U.S. Its goal is to empower student leadership and improve the medical student experience. Their website offers insights into several student-based: 

They also have a calendar where students can see scheduled events in upcoming months, with opportunities to get involved.

The Emergency Medicine Residents Association

The Emergency Medicine Residents Association (EMRA) aims to help residents, students, fellows, and alumni become great doctors with resources such as: 

EMRA is 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 helpful resources for residents. There are typically on-campus or on-site resources for residents to contact with questions surrounding residency. 

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, medical residents can practice medicine under a licensed physician’s supervision in a hospital or clinic.

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

Medical Residents vs. Attending Physicians

The duties and freedoms of an attending vs. resident are different. A medical resident is a doctor in training. Doctors are fully licensed and have completed their 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 complete more than one year of a residency program to practice medicine. This policy has been adopted to address doctor shortages throughout the U.S. Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma 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. The American Medical Association opposed the notion, stating that more funding would increase residency positions and address the doctor shortage.

Medical Resident FAQs

If you still have questions about medical residency, read on to learn more. 

1. What Does Residency Mean In Medicine?

Medical residency programs are three to seven-year programs that transform a medical school graduate into a full-on doctor. Students are matched with a place of work (either a clinic or hospital) to study and practice with physicians in real patient scenarios. Residency training is what prepares students to become board-certified physicians. 

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. Is a Medical Resident a Doctor? 

A medical resident is a doctor in training. Residents are allowed to practice medicine under a physician’s supervision.

4. Are Medical Residents Students or Employees?

The legal definition varies by state. Though widely debated, medical residents are generally recognized as employees rather than students. Residents have reported being denied access to student tax credits by the CRA in recent years, affirming that residents are employees. However, residents are considered students in some states and medical circles. Some places recognize them as employees and students. 

5. What Are Medical Residency Lengths By Specialty?

A residency’s length depends on the state, program, and specialty. The University of Washington in St. Louis provides a list of program lengths by medical specialty that can be used as a frame of reference: 

Table showing Medical Residency Lengths By Specialty

The specialty you choose dictates the length of your residency. 

6. What’s 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 decisions. Medical residents are doctors in training who work alongside (and aspire to be) attending physicians. 

7. Do Residents Perform Surgery?

Surgical residents do not perform entire operations but can perform smaller parts of a more extensive operation under a surgeon’s supervision. Throughout their training, residents are given more opportunities to practice surgery. By the last year of a surgical residency, residents should be capable of performing an entire surgery. 

8. Do All Hospitals Have Residents? 

No, some hospitals don’t have residents. Residents can attend minor or major teaching hospitals to learn the practical skills needed to become a doctor. While there are over 1,000 teaching hospitals in the country, they are part of more than 6,000 total hospitals

Is a Medical Residency in Your Future?

A medical resident has completed a medical degree and is training to become a doctor in a residency program. The duties and freedoms of an attending physician versus a resident are different. 

After completing your residency program, you can become a board-certified attending physician. With patience and hard work, you can make the most of your residency program and become an excellent physician. 

Schedule A Free Consultation

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

You May Also Like

Exclusive Webinar: How Are Medical School Admissions Decided: What Matters Most - our team of MDs and former admissions committee members have the answers you seek!
Register NowClose