How to Become a Physician or Surgeon

Training and Education Jobs and Salaries

The common path to practicing as a physician requires eight years of education beyond high school and three to eight additional years of internship and residency. All States, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories license physicians. Formal education and training requirements for physicians are among the most demanding of any occupation: four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school, and three to eight years of internship and residency, depending on the specialty selected. A few medical schools offer combined undergraduate and medical school programs that last six years rather than the customary eight years.

Premedical students must complete undergraduate work in physics, biology, mathematics, English, and inorganic and organic chemistry. Students also take courses in the humanities and the social sciences. Some students volunteer at local hospitals or clinics to gain practical experience in the health professions. The minimum educational requirement for entry into medical school is three years of college; most applicants, however, have at least a bachelor degree, and many have advanced degrees. There are 146 medical schools in the United States out of which 126 teach allopathic medicine and award a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree and 20 teach osteopathic medicine and award the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree.

Acceptance to medical school is highly competitive. Applicants must submit transcripts, scores from the Medical College Admission Test, and letters of recommendation. Schools also consider the character, personality, leadership qualities, and participation in extracurricular activities of applicants. Most schools require an interview with members of the admissions committee. Students spend most of the first two years of medical school in laboratories and classrooms, taking courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, psychology, microbiology, pathology, medical ethics, and laws governing medicine.

They also learn to take medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illnesses. During their last two years, students work with patients under the supervision of experienced physicians in hospitals and clinics, learning acute, chronic, preventive, and rehabilitative care. Through rotations in internal medicine, family practice, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery, they gain experience in the diagnosis and treatment of illness.

Following medical school, almost all M.D.s enter a residency which is graduate medical education in a specialty that takes the form of paid on-the-job training, usually in a hospital. Most D.O.s serve a twelve month rotating internship after graduation and before entering a residency, which may last two to six years. Physician training is very costly and according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, more than 80 percent of medical school graduates are in debt for educational expenses.

All States, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories license physicians. To be licensed, physicians must graduate from an accredited medical school, pass a licensing examination, and complete one to seven years of graduate medical education. Although physicians licensed in one State usually can get a license to practice in another without further examination, some States limit reciprocity. Graduates of foreign medical schools generally can qualify for licensure after passing an examination and completing a U.S. residency. M.D.s and D.O.s seeking board certification in a specialty may spend up to seven years in residency training, depending on the specialty.

A final examination immediately after residency or after one or two years of practice also is necessary for certification by a member board of the American Board of Medical Specialists (ABMS) or the American Osteopathic Association (AOA). The ABMS represents 24 boards related to medical specialties ranging from allergy and immunology to urology. The AOA has approved 18 specialty boards, ranging from anesthesiology to surgery. For certification in a subspecialty, physicians usually need another one to two years of residency.

People who wish to become physicians must have a desire to serve patients, be self-motivated, and be able to survive the pressures and long hours of medical education and practice. Physicians also must have a good bedside manner, emotional stability, and the ability to make decisions in emergencies. Prospective physicians must be willing to study throughout their career to keep up with medical advances. Some physicians and surgeons advance by gaining expertise in specialties and subspecialties and by developing a reputation for excellence among their peers and patients. Many physicians and surgeons start their own practice or join a group practice. Others teach residents and other new doctors, and some advance to supervisory and managerial roles in hospitals, clinics, and other settings.