How to Become a Doctor: 5 Steps to Follow (2024)

There are many reasons to become a doctor. It’s one of the most rewarding roles out there, and it’s also one of the most exciting.

Being a doctor in real life isn’t too dissimilar from the likes of Dr Meredith Grey or Dr Gregory House; it’s a career where no two days are the same, resilience and passion are needed in spades, and where, yes, you’ll need a touch of their genius as well.

This article will cover all that you need to know about becoming a doctor, including what kinds of roles are out there, what the job is like and, critically, a step-by-step guide to getting started in this incredible profession.

What is a doctor?

Doctors are experienced and licensed medical professionals who work in a variety of settings to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries. They can provide general healthcare or specialize in certain fields, such as pediatrics or anesthesiology.

Doctors can provide different types of care, such as performing surgery, alleviating symptoms, providing advice and prescribing medicine.

What are the different types of doctors?

There are many different types of medical doctors. Each one is equally important and provides a nuanced level of care to patients. Here are the 10 most common types of doctors:

  • Anesthesiologists, who administer anesthesia and monitor patients’ reactions to it
  • Cardiologists, who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of heart conditions
  • Dermatologists, who focus on skincare and treating skin, hair and nail conditions
  • General practitioners, who operate as a first point of contact for many medical issues
  • Obstetricians/Gynecologists, who primarily focus on women’s reproductive health and childbirth matters
  • Oncologists, who specialize in diagnosing and treating various types of cancer
  • Orthopedic surgeons, who diagnose and treat musculoskeletal injuries and conditions
  • Pediatricians, who provide a wide range of medical care for infants and children
  • Psychiatrists, who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders and mental health conditions
  • Surgeons, who perform complicated medical procedures to treat medical illnesses and, in some cases, undertake cosmetic processes

What does a doctor do?

Doctors not only provide care but also have preventative and supportive responsibilities. Here is a list of the five main duties of a doctor:

  • Communicating with and supporting patients, as reassuring them in times of stress
  • Correctly diagnosing medical conditions and issues
  • Prescribing appropriate medications for patients to benefit from
  • Advising patients on the best ways they can take care of themselves to prevent illness
  • Formulating treatment plans and adapting these according to changing needs

What is their workplace like?

Doctors primarily work in healthcare buildings such as surgeries, hospitals or clinics, but some might be field-based, undertaking house calls or providing healthcare to people who cannot leave where they are, such as a ship’s crew or military personnel. Some doctors can be office-based, such as those that work for insurance companies.

A doctor’s role can be very structured and rewarding, but it’s also subjected to challenges such as high levels of stress, burnout, conflicting priorities (such as balancing patient needs with administrative duties) and a risk of being in close contact with biohazards.

How many hours do they work?

Sadly, the healthcare industry is beleaguered with staff shortages, and this, as well as a naturally high workload, means that many doctors work very long hours.

Working patterns and hours might vary from specialization to specialization, but doctors will generally work between 40 and 60 hours a week. They will be expected to work overtime, being on call during certain periods, and working a variety of shifts (early, late and over the weekend).

Doctors on residencies might work much longer hours (in some cases up to 80 or 100 each week). On-call periods, especially over weekends, can be 24 hours long.

How much do they earn?

Due to the pressure that they work under, as well as their high degree of responsibility, doctors are paid very well compared to the US average of $63,795.13.

According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the mean average wage for doctors is $248,640 per year ($119.54 per hour). Salaries generally start at $66,260, with a reported median annual wage of $236,000. At the other end of the spectrum, specialists like cardiologists typically earn over $400,000 a year.

What is their job outlook?

Being a doctor is a secure profession. An aging population, as well as people living longer, is increasing the need for medical professionals. According to the BLS’s Employment Projections survey, there were close to 331,000 doctors in the US in 2022, of which 316,000 were waged and salaried, and the remaining 14,000 were self-employed.

The number of doctors is forecast to reach 341,000 by 2032, an increase of 10,000, a 3% change from 2022. The number of self-employed doctors is forecast to decrease to around 13,000 by 2032, moving from a 4.2% share of the workforce in 2022 to a 3.8% share by 2032.

What are the entry requirements?

Becoming a doctor is exceptionally challenging. It takes a lot of perseverance, plenty of preparation and considerable skill. Here’s what you need to get started when planning to become a doctor.

Education and training

Becoming a doctor will require hard work at high school, where good grades will enable you to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a renowned university, leading to the Medical College Admission Test that will qualify you to apply to medical school.

Skills and qualities

Doctors need to draw upon a lot of hard and soft skills, such as medical and clinical ability, resilience, dexterity, empathy, teamwork and leadership skills. Doctors must also have a good bedside manner and be upstanding, ethical individuals with a genuine care to help others.

Licenses, certifications, and registrations

Licensing requirements will vary from state to state, but doctors will need to pass the US Medical Licensing Examination or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination in order to practice. Certification varies by specialism, but all doctors will also need to have a clean criminal record and reside in the US.

Do you have what it takes?

The best doctors are the ones that are passionate about what they do. You must enjoy working with people and have care and compassion in abundance. You must also have focus, show attention to detail and be a quick learner, as well as be resilient in the face of stressful situations.

If you have these traits and skills, and you’re wondering what other careers you might suit, or are simply wondering what jobs your personal career interests might align with, consider using CareerHunter, a series of professionally developed tests designed to match you with the best jobs and professions.

5 steps to becoming a doctor

If you have read this far and feel that becoming a doctor is not only a field that would interest you and engage you, but also you have the right skills and abilities to get started in this job, then read on for five steps to becoming a doctor. The process is rigorous and long, but it will all be worth it when you make it!

Step 1: Attain a bachelor’s degree

An undergraduate degree is essential to become a doctor, as having one is a prerequisite for attending medical schools to achieve an MD or DO degree. The best schools will require a high passing grade and excellent academic credentials.

There’s no mandate for a particular bachelor’s degree, but the best subjects to graduate in will be ones like mathematics, life sciences, chemistry, physics or any healthcare-related field.

During your bachelor’s degree studies, ensure you network with medical professionals and do all you can to learn about being a doctor, as this will help you later in your journey to become one. Request letters of recommendation from your tutors after you graduate.

Step 2: Pass the MCAT

Passing the Medical College Admission Test is your first bona fide step on your journey towards becoming a doctor. The MCAT is a standardized test aimed at assessing your medical knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The test score is important, and the higher the score, the more choice of medical schools you will have.

MCAT students who got into medical school in 2022–23 achieved a mean score of 511.7 (PDF), according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. If you didn’t get the MCAT score you were hoping for, the test can be taken up to three times in one calendar year and up to four times across two years.

Step 3: Attend medical school

Medical schools take four years to complete and focus on two general medicine programs, Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO); both enable you to train and practice as a doctor. Some medical schools offer combined training that includes an undergraduate degree which can take up to eight years in total.

Medical schools are a mix of theory-based classroom seminars, often seen as the first phase of medical education. The second phase will also include classroom training but will see students being taken into healthcare settings and working under the supervision of doctors to diagnose and treat illnesses in clinical rotations.

Step 4: Complete a residency program

The practical stage of medical school is an opportunity for students to discover the medical specialty they might be interested in. Once you graduate, you’ll be required to enter a residency program in this specialism. These programs are as competitive as medical school to get into and can last from three to nine years.

During a residency, you’ll work alongside experienced physicians in clinical settings, such as surgeries or hospitals, and receive extensive training and guidance in your specialism. Some residencies will allow you to focus on a sub-specialism and take on a fellowship in this area — a great way to elevate your credentials even further.

Step 5: Become licensed and certified

Whereas licensure requirements will vary from state to state, there are some standardized steps. MDs take the USMLE and DOs take the COMLEX-USA.

Certification isn’t mandated in some doctor roles (such as physician or surgeon), but it can increase your employability. Certification as a doctor requires completing a medical residency and passing an examination from a certifying board in your chosen area of expertise and specialty.

There are various certifying boards in the US, the most renowned ones being the American Board of Medical Specialties, the American Board of Physician Specialties and the American Osteopathic Association.

FAQs about becoming a doctor

Becoming a doctor is a unique role, and if you’re debating whether it’s for you or not, this takes a lot of thought and consideration. Here are three frequently asked questions aimed at demystifying the profession a little more:

Q: How long does it take to become a doctor?

It can take 10 to even 20 years to become a doctor. This consists of a three- to four-year bachelor’s degree, at least four years of medical school, residencies that can last as long as nine years, and potentially up to three more years to complete a fellowship.

Q: How do I choose a medical specialty?

You will start thinking about specialties in medical school, especially during your practical experience. Consider also asking your mentor. Let your performance and passion guide you, and refine this further when applying for residencies.

Q: What kind of career progression can I expect as a doctor?

Career goals for doctors can include pursuing fellowships or board certification. You can consider sub-specializations, moving into medical leadership roles or becoming an academic doctor, responsible for teaching others.

Final thoughts

Becoming a doctor is an amazing role. It’s exciting and rewarding, and a profession that makes a huge difference to people and communities.

Becoming a doctor is challenging and takes many years of preparation, a lot of hard work and a commitment to career-long learning to stay up to speed with industry trends. That said, if you’re passionate about becoming a doctor and have the right skills and determination to become one, then succeeding in this profession can not only result in a well-paid career, but also in a personally and professionally rewarding one as well.

Are you thinking about becoming a doctor? Let us know in the comments section below!

This article is a complete update of an earlier version originally published on October 20, 2017.

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