How to Become a Doctor in 7 Steps
If you’re thinking about how to become a doctor, you probably already know that there’s a lot of work ahead of you. Physicians are one of the most respected and well-paid professions for a reason – it takes years upon years of education, training and work before one can even call themself a doctor, let alone start practicing medicine.
However, when it comes to medical school and beyond, it can be hard to know where to start looking for help. Just how many steps are there? How long does it take to become a doctor? Should you have started preparing already? Which are the best medical programs, and how many exams do you have to pass to start practicing?
This article – as well as many of the resources and programs featured elsewhere in TeenLife’s 2022 Guide to Your Future in Healthcare – aims to answer these questions. Take a look at this roadmap, and start learning how to become a doctor today!
1. Prepare Yourself In High School
If you’re a teen and already know that you want to enter into the healthcare field when you get older, then there is no time like the present to begin preparing. In fact, there are a number of things you can do right now in high school to begin preparing yourself for a career in medicine.
For starters, you need to make sure to keep relatively high grades. At this point in your academic career, it’s not just about getting high marks in the maths and sciences either. No, you also need to ensure that your grades in the humanities and other subjects are high enough to get you into a college of your choice.
Of course, there are all kinds of pre-med programs out there for students of different skill levels and types, but, generally, a teen interested in a career in medicine needs to be an above average student, even in high school. Your standardized test results will also likely be important (though maybe not as important as they might’ve been a few years ago).
“It’s not just about getting high marks in the maths and sciences. You need to ensure that your grades in the humanities and other subjects are high enough too.”
The next best thing you can do while still in high school to prepare for a career in medicine is to join extracurricular clubs related to healthcare. If your school is large or specialized enough to have a pre-med club or other organization dedicated specifically to medicine, then be sure to become an active member. If such things aren’t an option, many schools have general science clubs or competition teams too, and these are great to join as well, even if the organization isn’t specifically healthcare focussed.
If your school’s options are really limited, consider an out-of-school enrichment program with a healthcare focus (for some of the best programs of this type, check out the Guide to Your Future in Healthcare). This can be a pre-college course, a summer program or even a gap year activity. These healthcare enrichment opportunities not only look great on college resumes but also give you a leg up and will help prepare for the rigorous schooling still ahead.
2. Complete Your Undergraduate Degree
The next step is a logical one; to become a doctor you must first obtain a four-year undergraduate degree, in most cases a Bachelor of Science. There is no set requirement for undergraduate majors at most medical schools, but The College Board recommends biology, chemistry, pre-med and exercise science as good options for students interested in further healthcare education.
In addition to a related area of study, most medical schools require coursework in biology, chemistry (organic and inorganic), math and physics to start, with associated labs required for each. It’s important to keep your grades up as well – perfection is not expected, but medical school applications are competitive, and every few GPA points count.
It’s not all about grades though. If you’re wondering how to become a doctor then there’s some other work you need to do as well. Firstly, you need to be sure and establish relationships with professors and other mentors. These adults – who are likely former medical professionals or practicing doctors themselves – can not only write you recommendations when it comes time for medical school, but will also give you leads on jobs and other opportunities.
“It’s not all about grades though. If you’re wondering how to become a doctor, there’s some other work you need to do as well.”
The final thing you need to try and do is attempt to get real-life experience outside of the classroom. Just like in high school, extracurriculars and internships can be vital in college, and such items on a resume can be the difference between acceptance and rejection to a medical school. While grades are important, most medical schools use a holistic approach when considering applicants, meaning that admissions officials are looking for all sorts of things – grades, research experience, community service, former jobs and more – to see if you’ll be a good fit for their program.
3. Pass the MCAT
Administered 30 times a year and taking nearly 8 hours to complete, the MCAT is a comprehensive multiple-choice examination that measures a student’s preparedness for medical school (in fact, that’s even what the test stands for: the Medical College Admissions Test). Students hoping to pursue a career in medicine must take and pass the MCAT in their junior year of college.
Sections on the MCAT include biology, chemistry, physical foundations of living systems, psychological behavior and more.
If you’re curious about how to become a doctor but aren’t the best test-taker, don’t be discouraged. Many students use study guides, books, tutors and prep courses to prepare themselves for the test, spending hundreds if not thousands of hours studying beforehand.
4. Apply to Medical School
Your next step on the path to becoming a doctor is to begin applying to medical schools. Lots of students do this during their senior year of undergraduate study, but many may also take a gap year as well (either for financial reasons or because they need a break).
At this stage in your road to becoming a doctor, you’ll definitely want to do some research. You’ll likely already have a general idea of what field you’d like to specialize in, so be sure to look for programs and universities that have degrees that match your interests and goals.
Whenever you decide to apply, be sure to send your application out to no fewer than a dozen different medical schools. This optimizes your chances of getting in and is common practice for many. Since almost all medical schools in the U.S. use the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), you’ll likely only need to submit one application which will then be automatically distributed to each of the institutions you’re interested in.
5. Attend Medical School
Once you’ve been accepted to a medical school (oftentimes after a long, grueling process that includes a number of interviews and specialized secondary applications), it’s time to start on your next four years of schooling. Don’t be tricked into thinking that these four years will be similar to undergrad though – in medical school, there are a lot more licenses to earn and decisions to be made.
Though each school sets its own curriculum, your first two years of medical school will largely be classroom-based work. After that, before entering your third year of studies, you will need to pass the first of three parts in the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This first section, which covers basic medical principles, determines if you’re ready to continue your schooling and actually begin working in healthcare under supervision.
“Don’t be tricked into thinking that these four years will be similar to undergrad. In medical school, there are a licenses to be earned and decisions to be made. This is how you become a doctor”
In your third year of medical school, you will begin going on “rotations” within different medical settings. This will help you further determine your speciality as well as give you hands-on experience with patients and the healthcare world at large. You will also begin to do significant research work during this time.
In your fourth year of medical school, you will take elective classes that are related to your chosen specialty. You will also need to pass the second part of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), which covers disease development and clinical diagnoses, before proceeding along your path to becoming a doctor.
After that, your time in the classroom will come to a close. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have graduated from medical school! However, if you think that’s all there is to know on how to become a doctor, you’re in for an unwelcome surprise. There’s still a few more steps (and years) to go before you can call yourself a doctor.
6. Complete Your Residency
In your final year of medical school, after you’ve narrowed down your medical speciality, you will be matched with a residency program that matches your interests. A residency, which acts like a required internship of sorts for doctors who are between medical school and their own practice, can last anywhere between three and seven years depending on speciality.
Residencies can take you anywhere in the country, and, while you will be able to designate preferences for your placement, the decision is ultimately out of your hands. Instead, the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) connects programs nationwide with young professionals based on clinic needs and student experience. Residencies are paid, though the salary is not nearly as high as that of an licensed physician.
Before completing your residency, you will also need to take and pass the third and final part of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), which covers clinical management and safe medical practices.
7. Receive Your Final Certifications
Once your medical education is complete, there are a few more steps you’ll have to take before officially calling yourself a doctor.
First, you’ll need to obtain board certification in your chosen speciality. 24 different medical boards grant certifications for all kinds of specialities and subspecialties. These boards often require a written and oral examination, and some even require recertification after a certain number of years have passed.
After that, you’ll also need to obtain a state license to practice where you live. You’ll have to keep up to date on the latest medical procedures and research too, as medical knowledge is constantly and rapidly changing. In fact, you’ll probably find that the information you learned all the way back in undergraduate school is already going out of style by this point!
Conclusion: How to Become a Doctor
Only now, after 10+ years of school and a half dozen nail-biting exams, will you finally have earned the right to call yourself a doctor. Congratulations!
Is it worth it? For most in the profession, the answer is yes. Not only is the job rewarding and well paid, but you get the benefit of knowing you’re helping people and making the world a better place. The decision to become a doctor is not one to take lightly though, so if you’re considering it, take a close look at this roadmap and be sure you know what’s in store. Best of luck!