What is a Medical Resident?: A Complete Guide

May 6, 2024
7 min read


Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 5/6/24

What is a “medical resident?” And what can you expect in a residency? This guide will teach you everything you need to know about being a resident.

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

You may have some questions if you’re beginning your med school journey. We’ll review everything you need to know about medical residents, from salary to work hours and more. 

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What Is a Medical Resident?

A medical resident refers to a Doctor of Medicine (MD) graduate who participates in an ACGME-accredited post-graduate training program.

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: 

  • Scheduling
  • Pay
  • Practice

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

What Do Medical Residents Do?

So, what does a medical residency consist of? Let’s look at a day in the life of a 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, and then the morning resident gets to work.

After signing out, medical residents begin rounds and discuss patients with the attending physician. After rounds, medical residents begin daily work. What you do during residency can include: 

  • Ordering tests
  • Reviewing results
  • Completing discharge paperwork
  • And more

A medical resident’s primary job is to learn. Most have a lecture period during the day dedicated to conferences and education. The rest of the shift is used for residents to complete tasks before leaving.

Residents practice medicine under the supervision of an attending physician. They spend much of the day 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 med school. 

Several matching programs can 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. Residencies place students in clinics or hospital departments that practice their chosen specialty. 

We offer professional help with residency applications to those aspiring to become medical doctors. Book a free consultation today!

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. How long residencies are depends on the time required to learn and implement the art of a specialty. 

The shortest (and some of the least competitive) residencies include family medicine, while longer programs are related to surgical practice. Some specialties are more popular and may take longer due to limited availability. 

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

Now that you know how long medical residency is, you can understand the commitment it entails. It's a challenging but essential journey that shapes future physicians, requiring dedication and hard work.

How Long is the Residency in the Top-10 Medical Schools in the US

In the top 10 medical schools in the US, the length of residency can vary depending on the specialty. But generally, it's around three to seven years. Some specialties, like family medicine or internal medicine, might have shorter residencies, while others, like neurosurgery or cardiothoracic surgery, could be longer. 

How Do You Find Medical Residencies?

Though making connections to your future residency program through school staff is possible, most students use the NRMP. However, there are other options. Here’s a list of matching residency resources: 

These are the most popular matching services used in North America, though some medical areas may have their own matching services. 

Medical Resident Salary by State

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

In a survey conducted by the AAMC, residents reported receiving a $58,650 physician stipend in their first year, which grew in their fourth year to $66,580. 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 an employee, some states classify a medical resident as a student. 

Here is a table of the yearly salaries of medical residents from each state. 

State Avg. Salary
New Jersey $290,174
Wyoming $288,068
Wisconsin $284,271
Washington $283,559
Massachusetts $282,289
Indiana $281,856
Alaska $281,843
Oregon $279,821
North Dakota $279,243
Arizona $276,028
Hawaii $273,786
New Mexico $273,288
Montana $271,869
Minnesota $271,007
Colorado $269,361
New York $268,957
Alabama $268,473
Nevada $266,490

State Avg. Salary
Ohio $264,463
South Dakota $263,915
Vermont $261,944
Rhode Island $259,182
Iowa $256,747
Connecticut $255,569
Delaware $254,904
Tennessee $252,503
Virginia $251,906
Mississippi $251,833
Utah $251,028
Georgia $250,099
Illinois $248,809
Maryland $247,036
Pennsylvania $246,410
California $245,830
Nebraska $242,259
Maine $240,684

State Avg. Salary
Missouri $239,454
New Hampshire $239,312
South Carolina $237,121
Kansas $237,038
Louisiana $236,608
Idaho $234,728
Oklahoma $234,608
Texas $232,751
North Carolina $232,226
Kentucky $223,781
Michigan $223,141
Florida $221,333
Arkansas $212,314
West Virginia $190,306

Source: ZipRecruiter

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 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 weekly 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 isn’t to be confused with the expectation.

Organizations for Medical Residents

There are 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.” 

The AMA provides information on leadership and committee opportunities and representation in courts and legislative bodies for medical residents.

Resident Doctors of Canada

Resident Doctors of Canada (RDoC) is a not-for-profit organization founded to provide a unified voice for its members. They aim 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: 

  • Action committees
  • Campaigns
  • Initiatives
  • Activism resources

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: 

  • Clinical books
  • Apps
  • Committees
  • Representative council
  • And more

EMRA 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. Residents can typically contact on-campus or on-site resources with questions about 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.” There is no difference between a medical resident and an intern; an intern is just a first-year medical resident. 

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

Medical Residents vs. Attending Physicians

The duties and freedoms of an attending vs. a resident are different. A medical resident is a doctor in training. Doctors are fully licensed and have completed a residency program. Residents are in the process of earning their licenses and haven’t yet completed their residency, which is usually an essential step to becoming a doctor. 

Some states don’t 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 more funding would increase residency positions and address the doctor shortage.

What Comes After Residency? 

After you complete your residency program, you have a few options. One option is to pursue a fellowship. Fellowships allow you to pursue a subspeciality within the specialty you learned in residency. These programs typically last one to three years.

After receiving their medical license, many doctors choose to become board-certified. According to the AMA, becoming board-certified is optional, though many employers expect it. 

After becoming board-certified, many physicians work in hospitals or private practices. After your residency is over, you’re ready to practice medicine without another physician’s oversight! 

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 med school graduates into doctors. Students are matched with a workplace to study and practice with physicians. Residency training 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 today.

3. Are Residents Doctors? 

A medical resident is a doctor in training who is 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. However, residents are considered students in some states. 

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: 

Specialty Length
Family Practice 3 years
Internal Medicine 3 years
Anesthesiology 3 years (plus PGY-1 Transitional/Preliminary
Dermatology 3 years (plus PGY-1 Transitional/Preliminary
Obstetrics/Gynaecology 4 years
Pathology 4 years
General Surgery 5 years
Urology 5 years
Plastic Surgery 6 years
Neurosurgery 7 years

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 med school and residency training. They are board-certified in their specialty and appointed by their hospital to oversee patient care and make decisions. Medical residents are doctors in training who work alongside attending physicians. 

7. Do Residents Perform Surgery?

Surgical residents don’t perform entire operations but can perform smaller parts of an 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. 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. You can make the most of your residency program and become an excellent physician with patience and hard work!

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