How Long Does It Take to Become A Doctor?

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Doctors are an essential part of society because they save lives. However, becoming a doctor requires additional education, effort, and medical school debt. Education takes time.  How long does it take to become a doctor, you may ask? If you want to pursue your dream of becoming a physician, we’ll show you common medical school requirements so you can see just how long it may take you to become a doctor. 

​How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?

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Medical doctors must go through rigorous education and training that takes around eight years or more on average to complete. They need to earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree from a medical school, and go on to specialize in a particular type of medicine, such as:

  • Radiology
  • Surgery
  • Oncology
  • Anesthesia
  • Gynecology
  • Pediatrics
  • Internal medicine
  • Psychiatry  

The requirements to become a medical doctor vary based on where you live and what specialty or area of medicine you want to practice. Requirements also vary based on the type of degree and the schools you select. 


In the United States, it takes many years of study to practice medicine. Doctors don’t typically begin an independent practice until they’re in their 30s. After earning a high school diploma, people who want to become a doctor usually gain an undergraduate education from a university with an emphasis in science, math, or pre-med. Then, you need to graduate from medical school, spend time in a residency program, and to specialize in a particular area, spend a few years in a fellowship. 


Most students follow a similar timeline to become a doctor, which includes:

  • Bachelor’s degree – 4 years
  • Medical school – 4 years
  • Residency – 3 years minimum
  • Fellowship – 1-3 years (optional if you want to specialize in an area of medicine)

The length of time you may spend in a fellowship depends on the specialty or program, as each varies. Specialties and fellowships are not always required, although you may need to complete a fellowship to join certain concentrations in medicine. Lengthy fellowships could extend your college education to a total of 15 years or more. 


So how long does it take to become a doctor? That depends on your career goals and education.  

What Education Do You Need to Become a Doctor?

Becoming a doctor requires many years of study and additional training. The amount of time it takes students to become a doctor varies based on your career goals, what type of school and program you select, and the requirements for your location. 

Training in medicine takes longer than most careers because students slowly gain more responsibility and gradually learn to work with patients. They’re supervised for the beginning years to make sure the correct care is given to patients, and there's a high level of oversight until you’re allowed to practice medicine on your own. Use the following steps to get through your education and become a doctor:

Step 1 - Bachelor’s Degree​​​​​

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To become a doctor, you need to complete high school first and head to college. Make sure the university or college you choose is accredited, which is required by most medical school admission boards. There isn’t an undergraduate degree necessary for doctors, but studying a similar area is recommended for students who want to go to medical school. Doctors can earn undergraduate degrees in any field, but they typically focus on topics including:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Math
  • Pre-med

Although not all schools offer a pre-med major, you may find this form of undergraduate study or recommended courses for pre-med students at your college. Joint majors may also set you apart when it comes to entrance applications for medical school as well. 

Step 2 - Medical School​​​​​

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Next, you need to attend a four-year medical school. Entrance to a medical school program is very competitive, so you’ll want to start working toward this goal while earning your undergraduate degree. Many students begin applying the summer before their senior year in college. 


Some schools may also offer combined undergraduate and medical school courses to help students become doctors faster, and these programs often take only 6-7 years to complete rather than eight years. 


Before you graduate with your bachelor’s degree, students send in applications to medical school. You must take and pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and send your scores in along with your application, college transcripts, and letters of recommendation. The MCAT is the standardized test used by all med school admission committees to determine if a candidate will succeed in the program. 

Medical school takes around four years of full-time study. The curriculum is split between classroom instruction and clinical rotations. Expect to spend the first two years studying in classrooms and laboratory settings. Students learn topics surrounding how to examine and diagnose patients as well as courses like:

  • Medical ethics
  • Psychology
  • Biochemistry
  • Advanced anatomy of physiology
  • Medical-legal topics

In the final two years of medical school, students start to work hands-on with patients in a clinical setting like a hospital or doctor’s office. During this time, you’ll learn how to take medical histories from patients and work on real-life cases under supervision.

Step 3 - Residency Program​​​​​

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To practice medicine and join a residency program, you’ll need to acquire licensure. Students need to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMILE), which is a three-part exam that you begin before graduating from med school. The first part of the test is administered before your third year of medical school, the second part is taken during your fourth year of study, and the final part of the exam is taken after your residency program. 


After you complete medical school, acquire a paid residency. These programs typically take place in hospitals, but you may find programs in outpatient clinics. Students tend to locate a residency program they want to attend during the final year of medical school. The school may offer options as well. 


However, don’t worry if you’re not sure what specialty (if any) you want. In your residency program, you’ll gain more expertise in working with patients and begin to find the specialty area of medicine you want to practice. 


Residencies last from around 3 to 8 years, depending on your specialty. Family and pediatric doctors, for example, are required to take a three-year-long residency. Surgeons, on the other hand, must have a five-year residency, according to the American Medical Association

Step 4 - Exams, Certification, and State Licensure

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At the end of your residency, complete the final part (part three) of the USMILE exam. This section of the test covers issues to determine a doctor’s ability to work safely with patients and practice medicine effectively, as it’s more clinical in nature than the other parts of the exam. 


You need to obtain certification and state licensures in your field before you can land a job. Doctors have over 24 specialty boards to choose from to earn their certification, and the one you select may be based on your specialty or sub-specialty. To gain board certification, you must pass exams. 


Each state will also determine the requirements and procedure for getting your state licensure to practice medicine. Keep in mind that if you move, you’ll need to get new state licensure in your new area to practice medicine. 

Step 5 - Fellowship Program (Not Required for All Doctors)​​​​

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In addition to your education and residency, you may be required to take a fellowship. A fellowship is additional training in a specialty area that normally takes around one to three years of study. 


To know if you need a fellowship, think about your career focus and goals. You may need a fellowship if you want to focus on a specific type of medical practice. Certain specialties and sub-specialties require more in-depth training. If you want to work with psychology and kids, for example, you may need a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry. 


According to the American Medical Association, there are over 200 specialties, including:

  • Gastroenterology
  • Allergy and Immunology
  • Critical care medicine
  • Orthopedic surgery
  • Cardiology
  • Anesthesiology

Final Step – Find a Job

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Students apply for jobs during the residency or fellowship program. You may be able to land a position with the hospital where you interned, as clinical experiences are great ways to make contacts. While many doctors prefer to look around and find career openings that align with their goals, some physicians are contacted by recruiters after graduation, especially top-of-the-class students. 

​A Final Thought

How long does it take to become a doctor? The short answer is anywhere from 8 years on. The biggest defining factor of the length of time it takes you to begin your career is your fellowship program. Check out the AMA’s list of things to consider before pursuing a fellowship to find the best option for you. 

Author: Rose Boettinger

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