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Doctor of Medicine: Steps to Become a Medical Doctor

Research the requirements to become a doctor of medicine. Learn about the job description and duties and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a doctor.

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Do I Want to be a Doctor of Medicine?

Medical doctors (M.D.s) are physicians who work in hospitals, clinics, medical centers, or private practices. M.D.s treat people for illnesses and injuries. They also prescribe medications, order diagnostic tests, diagnose ailments, and record patient information. Doctors of medicine often have a specialization such as general practice, gynecology, dermatology, pediatric medicine, orthopedics, or many others. All surgeons are medical doctors.

Medical doctors' jobs vary by specialty and work environment. While emergency room physicians will work in fast-pace, high-stress environments, many family doctors are able to set their own schedules in a private medical practice. Overall, most doctors make good money. The rewards of helping people in illness and injury are great, but not all patients can be helped; the job can carry an emotional toll, as well.

Job Requirements

Becoming a medical doctor requires completing specific undergraduate coursework, graduating from medical school and completing a residency program. The following table contains essential requirements for doctors of medicine:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Doctorate*
Degree Field Medicine*
Licensure/Certification M.D.s must pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE); board certification by the ABMS is optional*
Experience Most doctors complete a residency that lasts at least three years*
Key Skills Able to pay attention to detail; empathy, critical thinking, physical stamina, leadership, and communication skills*
Computer Skills Medical software, Microsoft Excel, accounting software**
Technical Skills Use a variety of medical and diagnostic equipment such as Ophthalmoscopes**
Additional Requirements States may require doctors to continue their education in order renew their license*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*NET Online.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Most medical school applicants complete a bachelor's degree program. Students can choose a variety of majors for undergraduate study; however, students should be sure that their course load includes a significant amount of science studies. Students are also expected to complete undergraduate work in the social sciences, English, and mathematics.

Success Tip:

  • Take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). The MCAT performance scores are required by almost all U.S. medical schools. Content areas that are tested on the MCAT include biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. Anyone planning on applying to medical school can take the MCAT up to three times in a year.

Step 2: Complete Medical School

Medical school takes four years to complete. In the first two years, students take foundational coursework in the practice of medicine, bodily systems and diseases. During the last two years of medical school, students rotate through various hospital specialty departments and gain experience in patient care under faculty supervision. Students must also pass a series of examinations in their final year, which may include the USMLE.

Step 3: Complete a Residency

Individuals choose residency programs based on their career interests. These programs usually last from three to eight years and cover general medical principles and specific medical specialties. Residents perform a variety of extensive duties, such as conducting physical exams, taking patient histories, attending conferences and interpreting lab information. The National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) uses individual preferences to match residency applicants to programs.

Step 4: Obtain Licensure

Before practicing medicine, all doctors must obtain a license. To qualify for licensure, candidates must earn a degree from an accredited medical school. Candidates are also required to complete a residency program and pass the USMLE. Each state has different requirements to become licensed; for example, some states may only give candidates a certain number of attempts to pass the USMLE, while others have no limit on USMLE attempts.

Success Tip:

  • Continue education after receiving a license. Continuing education is required before doctors can renew their licenses. Licensure renewal is usually required every couple of years. The specific education requirements and time restrictions vary by state.

Step 5: Earn Certification in a Specialty Area

Earning a specialty certification is not required, but it may increase employment opportunities. Certification by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) is voluntary and involves an extensive process of evaluations and assessments. Doctors who wish to keep their certification must continue their education before testing for certification renewal.

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How to Survive Medical School

Other Schools:

  • School locations:
    • California (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Stanford University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Medical and Health Professions
      • Medical Administrative Services
      • Medical Informatics and Illustration
      • Medical Residency Programs
        • Medicine - MD
  • School locations:
    • Massachusetts (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Harvard University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: Postbaccalaureate Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Associate, Bachelor
    • Medical and Health Professions
      • Dental
      • Medical and Health Preparatory Sciences
      • Medical Residency Programs
        • Medicine - MD
      • Public Health and Safety
  • School locations:
    • Pennsylvania (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at University of Pennsylvania include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: First Professional Certificate, Post Master's Certificate, Postbaccalaureate Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Associate, Bachelor
    • Medical and Health Professions
      • Dental
      • Medical Administrative Services
      • Medical Ethics and Bioethics
      • Medical Residency Programs
        • Medicine - MD
      • Mental Health Services
      • Nursing Professions
      • Public Health and Safety
      • Veterinary Medicine and Clinical Sciences
  • School locations:
    • Rhode Island (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Brown University include:
      • Graduate: First Professional Degree, Master
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Medical and Health Professions
      • Medical Ethics and Bioethics
      • Medical Residency Programs
        • Medicine - MD
      • Public Health and Safety
  • School locations:
    • North Carolina (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Duke University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: Postbaccalaureate Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Medical and Health Professions
      • Medical Diagnostic and Treatment Professions
      • Medical Residency Programs
        • Medicine - MD
      • Nursing Professions
      • Therapeutic and Rehabilitation Professions
  • School locations:
    • Indiana (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at University of Notre Dame include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Medical and Health Professions
      • Medical and Health Preparatory Sciences
  • School locations:
    • Columbia (D.C.) (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Georgetown University include:
      • Graduate: First Professional Degree, Master
      • Non-Degree: Coursework
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Medical and Health Professions
      • Medical Administrative Services
      • Medical Diagnostic and Treatment Professions
      • Medical Residency Programs
        • Medicine - MD
      • Nursing Professions
      • Optometric and Ophthalmic Services
      • Public Health and Safety
  • School locations:
    • Tennessee (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Vanderbilt University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Medical and Health Professions
      • Communication Disorders Sciences
      • Medical Administrative Services
      • Medical Residency Programs
        • Medicine - MD
      • Nursing Professions
      • Public Health and Safety
  • School locations:
    • Florida (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at University of Florida include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: Post Master's Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Associate, Bachelor
    • Medical and Health Professions
      • Communication Disorders Sciences
      • Dental
      • Health and Fitness
      • Medical Administrative Services
      • Medical Diagnostic and Treatment Professions
      • Medical Residency Programs
        • Medicine - MD
      • Mental Health Services
      • Nursing Professions
      • Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration
      • Public Health and Safety
      • Therapeutic and Rehabilitation Professions
      • Veterinary Medicine and Clinical Sciences
  • School locations:
    • New York (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Cornell University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Non-Degree: Coursework
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Medical and Health Professions
      • Medical Administrative Services
      • Medical and Health Preparatory Sciences
      • Nutrition Services
      • Veterinary Medicine and Clinical Sciences

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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics