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What is a Doctor/Physician?

A doctor is a medical professional who is highly educated in a field of medicine, and they work as physicians, surgeons, and other highly trained medical experts. Doctors provide healthcare to patients in a variety of forms, such as performing tests, prescribing medications, diagnosing illnesses and diseases, operating on them, implementing treatments, and much more.

These medical professionals must complete years of higher learning and a number of rigorous exams, as well as completing years of intense training. Doctors are also required to work closely with other healthcare professionals and to be able to communicate with patients and the families of patients in a compassionate manner without technical or medical jargon.

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Steps to Becoming a Doctor

It will take at least eight years of higher learning to become a doctor if you pursue your degree full-time. If you pursue alternative medical careers while you complete your medical degree, it will take even longer. You will also be required to take a number of intense exams during which many people fail and drop out of the process and complete a residency training program, which lasts for at least three years. And, in the end, you must complete state board certifications and obtain a state license to be able to practice medicine on your own.

  • Step 1: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree

  • Step 2: Pass the MCAT and Start Medical School

  • Step 3: Pass Medical Licensing Part I and II and Select a Residency

  • Step 4: Complete Medical School and Begin Residency

  • Step 5: Final Exams and Certifications


Step 1: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree in healthcare or a bachelors in health science is the first step to becoming a doctor. Most higher learning institutions offer a pre-med program that offers courses in areas such as biology, chemistry, and mathematics. It is possible to pursue a variety of majors that will prepare you for medical school, such as biology, health studies, exercise science, and others.

While it traditionally takes individuals four years to complete a bachelor’s degree, some people will finish their degree program in three years. This can occur by taking courses in the summer, adding additional courses to your workload each semester (most colleges allow up to 18 credits per semester), and by completing a number of college credits in high school. It is also important to note that some accredited medical schools offer a combination program of undergraduate and medical school that reduces the overall time to six years. These programs are quite intense and should only be pursued by individuals who are certain they wish to pursue a career as a medical doctor.

Step 2: Pass the MCAT and Start Medical School

You will be required to complete the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) before you are able to apply to medical schools. This is a standardized test that examines your potential ability to succeed in a medical school program. Each medical school will have a different minimum score required to apply to their medical program. Essentially, the better your score the more options you will have for medical schools. Keep in mind that the medical school from which you graduate can also influence your residency and career opportunities. This is an important step to start your career.

You do not have to take the MCAT at any specific time; however, most people who plan to attend medical school immediately after their undergraduate degree will register and complete the MCAT as a junior in their undergraduate program. You can also wait to take it until after your bachelor’s degree if you plan to take off a year between your undergraduate degree and medical school.

To apply to medical school, you simply have to use the Association of American Medical Colleges application processing service. This centralized program will distribute applications to all the medical schools of your preference at the same time. Once you are accepted to and select the medical school of your choice, you will begin a long and rigorous program that will have you take courses in a variety of areas, such as pharmacology, psychology, pathology, medical ethics, law, and microbiology. You will also spend time in laboratories before you begin to work with patients whilst being supervised by a licensed physician. During this time, you will complete various rotations within a wide variety of medical specialties.

Step 3: Pass Medical Licensing Part I and II and Select a Residency

During the final year of medical school, students will begin to decide upon their medical specialty and apply for a residency. A residency placement could be anywhere in the US or even a year or two in another country. It is possible that you will not have a say in the location or type of employer at which you complete your residency.

It is also during this time in which students must begin taking the first two stages of the United States Medical Licensing Examination. Part I must be completed before the start of your third year and part II will be completed during year four. A passing score will be required on all parts before you are able to begin practicing medicine as a resident.

Step 4: Complete Medical School and Begin Residency

You will transition straight from medical school to your residency. It can take a year for the residency matching process to complete. A residency can take anywhere from three years to eleven years of training. The length of time typically depends upon your specialization. During this time, you will be supervised and trained by experienced and licensed medical doctors. To officially complete the residency process, all residents must complete the final stage of the United States Medical Licensing Examination. You can also choose to complete a fellowship after your residency or to begin practicing as a medical doctor without supervision once you pass the state licensing process and the board certification exam.

Step 5: Final Exams and Certifications

Now that you have completed your medical degree and your residency, it is time to complete your board certifications and your state license. You must select from 1 of 24 board specialties that will allow you to practice medicine in over 200 specialties and subspecialties. You might have to take a written and an oral exam or simply a written exam. After the completion of your board exam, you must obtain a state license to practice medicine legally in the state you wish to work. If you move from one state to another, it is relatively easy to obtain a new state license. With your board certification and state license, you can officially begin to practice medicine as a legitimate doctor.

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What Does a Doctor Do?

The daily tasks of a doctor will vary greatly based on the type of doctor you choose to become. The same is true of the type of employer or place of work. If you work at a hospital, your job duties will differ somewhat from someone who works at a doctor’s office, clinic, or a laboratory. However, some of the typical tasks and responsibilities will remain similar for all doctors.

You will be required to observe, listen, examine, diagnose, test, present results, and prescribe medications to your patients. Those who choose to specialize will have unique job performance responsibilities from other specializations and general physicians. Many doctors today are incorporating preventative care as part of their overall medical care as a way to prevent issues from developing in the first place. This helps to save time and money by both the medical care providers and the patient. Of course, this won’t be an option for many specialists who are only called on when looking for a diagnoses for an existing condition.

Doctors can work in private practices, specialized clinics, hospitals, laboratories, and even from a remote location with telemedicine. Today, you can even work as a private doctor for businesses, on a cruise ship, or at a hotel. You can specialize in a wide variety of medical professions, such as emergency medicine, general medicine, pathology, pediatrics, psychiatry, surgery, anesthetics, obstetrics, gynecology, neurology, endocrinology, sports medicine, cardiology, internal medicine, trauma, orthopedics, and more.

Doctor Skills to Acquire

For years, a growing trend was for doctors to push patients out the door as quickly as possible. This practice was having grave consequences to the image of doctors in the US. With the help of online review sites for all medical professionals, customer service and doctor-patient interactions began to take precedence again. This has also helped with the increasing number of physician assistants and nurse practitioners that greatly reduce the workload and patient load of doctors.

Communication, empathy, compassion, and positive human interaction are all essential components to being a great doctor. This will also help you to keep your job if you have an employer and increase your patient load if you have your own practice. You must also be emotionally strong, as you must be able to be supportive of patients when they are scared and facing their own mortality. You must also have great patience, particularly when your patients refuse to listen to your medical advice despite the dire consequences of their personal lifestyle choices, such as smoking or refusing to stop eating poorly.

The following are some of the skills that are necessary to excel as a doctor regardless of your specialization:

  • Compassion
  • Empathy
  • Communicate
  • Listen
  • Observe
  • Problem Solve
  • Curious
  • Rational
  • Logical
  • Work Under Pressure
  • Work Long Hours
  • Open Minded
  • Be Decisive
  • Delegate
  • Humility
  • Creative
  • Analytical
  • Leader
  • Dedication to Continued Learning
  • Willingness to Accept Change
  • Technology Capable
  • Time Management

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Alternative Paths to Become a Physician

You must complete a medical degree and complete the required training and examinations to legally practice medicine. You cannot take a different education path to become a doctor in the US. The one exception might be is that if you complete your training and education in another country. You might still be required to complete the exams and pass the board to work as a medical professional in the US.

You can, however, pursue alternative careers in your quest to become a doctor. If you do not want to complete your medical degree all at once, you might start with a nursing degree and continue your education as you gain work experience and earn money to minimize your debt. You can work your way up to a physician assistant or a nurse practitioner, both have similar responsibilities to a doctor, and then complete your medical degree.

Doctor Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Most doctors work long hours with unpredictable schedules. Some doctors will work at a number of medical facility types rather than simply one location, such as to split your time between an office, hospital, and clinic. It is possible that doctors work for a hospital, with a group of doctors, as a solo doctor, in academics, in urgent care, and others. Doctors who are employed by groups or larger organizations have less independence in their care practices yet they will have more flexibility in time away from work due to the number of doctors who can cover their patients.

  • Hospital: 40%
  • Group: 26%
  • Solo/Direct Pay/Concierge: 2%
  • CHC/FQHC/his: 12%
  • Academics: 15%
  • Urgent Care: 3%
  • Other: less than 2%

The following are some of the most popular specializations for individuals with medical degrees and the average salary from 2018:

  • Psychiatry: $261,220
  • Ob/Gyn: $324,000
  • Hospitalist: $269,000
  • Emergency Med: $358,000
  • Dermatology: $425,000
  • Radiology: $371,000
  • Urgent Care: $234,000
  • Gastroenterology: $487,000
  • Pulmonology: $418,000
  • Cardiology - non-invasive: $427,000
  • Cardiology – invasive: $590,000
  • Orthopedic Surgery: $533,000
  • Neurology: $301,000
  • Anesthesiology: $371,000
  • Otolaryngology: $405,000
  • Urology: $386,000

Potential Career Paths

You can pursue a number of career paths with a medical degree. You can also work in a number of medical professions as you work your way to completing a medical degree. It is also possible to change careers after working as a medical doctor. You have to decide which medical profession is right for you.

A pharmacist will diagnose and treat patients by dispensing medications prescribed both doctors and to provide medication information to patients.

A dentist is a doctor of oral health. They diagnose and treat patients, diagnose, prevent, and treat diseases.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor with a specialty in mental health care. They also diagnose and treat substance abuse and physical issues.

Registered Nurse
A registered nurse will diagnose and treat patients with limited medical responsibilities, such as administering medication and performing tests.

Physician Assistant
A physician assistant is able to diagnose and treat diseases and illness. They can prescribe medication too.

An optometrist is a doctor for the eyes. They provide examinations to diagnose and treat health issues and vision.

Nurse Practitioner
A nurse practitioner has some similar responsibilities to a doctor and significantly more responsibility than a registered nurse.

An audiologist is a doctor who will diagnose and treat patients with hearing issues in both children and adults.

Doctor Career Salaries

General Health Annual Salary Ranges by Occupation

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Dental Hygienist $40,000 $60,000 $80,000
Pharmacist $83,000 $115,000 $137,000
Respiratory Therapist $41,000 $57,000 $81,000
Athletic Trainer $39,000 $46,000 $57,000
Health Information Technician $28,000 $36,000 $51,000
Speech Pathologist $46,000 $64,000 $87,000
Audiologist $65,000 $72,000 $77,000
Health Administrator $52,000 $68,000 $97,000

Rehabilitation Therapies Annual Salary Ranges by Occupation

Occupations Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Occupational Therapist $51,000 $67,000 $87,000
Occupational Therapy Aide/Associate $30,000 $46,000 $63,000
Physical Therapist $67,000 $78,000 $88,000
Physical Therapy Aide/Associate $39,000 $50,000 $69,000
Speech-Language Pathologist $47,000 $62,000 $83,000
Recreational Therapist $33,000 $42,000 $58,000
Rehabilitation Services Coordinator $31,000 $69,000 $94,000
Athletic Trainers $34,000 $44,000 $59,000
Chiropractor $52,000 $64,000 $76,000

Career Outlook for Health Science Graduates

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Medical school is highly competitive in general, and it is even more competitive at the best medical schools in the country. Some schools only accept 4% of applicants. This level of competition can make it extraordinarily difficult to stand out as a potentially exceptional doctor compared to other students, and entry into your preferred medical schools may become less likely. Newly accredited medical schools are beginning to open each year to keep up with demand; however, they have not yet established their reputation which can discourage some students from applying.

Many starting salaries are actually in decline. Some medical specialties with salaries that are increasing are pulmonology, invasive cardiology, urgent care, hospitalist, emergency medicine, and dermatology. If you are looking for employment opportunities with greater demand for doctors, apply for jobs in rural communities and in low-income neighborhoods. These areas are severely lacking for medical professionals. The projected job growth by 2024, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for surgeons and physicians is expected to increase by 14%. This is significantly higher than the national average for all jobs. And, with the rapidly increasing number of elderly patients, it is expected that radiologists and cardiologist will have even greater job opportunities over the next 10 years over other specialties.

Advancing From Here

Once you become a doctor, your career does not have to plateau. You still have plenty of options for career advancement. It is possible to start your own practice where you are your own boss. You might choose to pursue healthcare administration positions to be able to make policy changes from within at a more influential level. Some doctors will be promoted to chief of their specialization, such as chief of surgery or chief of pediatrics. It is even possible to become the chief of medicine or the chief medical officer of the entire organization for which you work.

You might choose to work for a pharmaceutical company as a consultant or an executive. And you might become a professor at a medical school to shape the minds and futures of the next generation of doctors. While professors may make less money, many doctors prefer the elimination of stress in their lives after making the transition into education. Being a doctor with a medical degree is just the start to your long and successful career.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Are there different types of medical school programs?

There are two types of medical school programs in the United States: allopathic and osteopathic. Osteopathic programs focus more on holistic treatment and herbal treatments.

How much education does it take to become a doctor?

It typically takes around 11 to 16 years to become a doctor. This includes four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school and three to eight years of specialty training. Doctors are also required to continue their education throughout their careers. 

What is the workplace of a Doctor like?

In the event of an emergency, physicians and doctors often work longer hours. Patients are seen in an office setting, tests are run and interpreted, medications are prescribed, rounds are made in hospitals, and notes about patients' medical conditions are taken. For medical professionals to stay current and up-to-date with the latest technological advancements and procedures, they must take courses and read medical journals.

What is a residency?

Students in their final year of medical school need to begin preparing for residency. The residency program consists of three to eleven years of professional training for doctors under the guidance and supervision of an experienced physician educator. The length of a residency depends on the specialty. It takes nearly a year to match residents with residency programs. Through the National Residency Matching Program (NRMP), students can apply to open postgraduate residency programs. Medical students must pass Step 3 of the USMLE in order to complete their programs. The USMLE tests the candidate's clinical assessment and management knowledge and skills.

What is a fellowship?

Medical fellowships are the highest level of medical training. After completing undergraduate studies, this degree requires at least three years of postgraduate study. A doctorate may be required for some specialties such as surgery. The most common fellowships are MD/PhD programs that combine clinical rotations with research projects. Residents can complete their residencies before pursuing additional specialized studies through residency-fellowship programs.

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