So now that you’ve chosen to pursue your dreams by becoming a physician, it’s useful to know when you can reap the benefits. While you’re thinking about getting into the best medical school possible and taking stock of your medical school requirements, you’ve probably already begun asking yourself, how long does it take to become a doctor?
One of the greatest concerns for students considering a career in medicine is how much additional education is needed—along with the associated time, effort, and medical school debt.
The timeline can seem daunting. Four years for medical school, a minimum of three years for residency, and a few more if you want to specialize with a fellowship. Combine that with an average starting age of 24 (or 26 for DO—doctor of osteopathic—applicants), and this means the vast majority of medical students don’t become independent physicians until their early 30s.
What is medical school like?
The structure of an allopathic or osteopathic program, while very similar among medical schools, are quite different from their undergraduate counterparts. Generally, medical school is divided into two major components: pre-clinical and clinical (rotation) sections. Each of these are two years long, though there can be minor differences from school to school.
The pre-clinical block focuses heavily on science and clinical skills, and while most are done through didactic lectures, some schools employ problem-based learning (PBL) or organize courses based on organ systems rather than subject. This part of the medical school requirement is similar to taking upper-level courses in undergrad, albeit at an accelerated pace.
At the end of the second (M2) year, med students take the USMLE Step 1, which may arguably be the most important examination of your medical education (yes, even more than the MCAT!). Residency committees commonly use it to evaluate candidates, meaning it has a large impact on what type of medical specialty you can later compete in.
In your third (M3) and fourth (M4) year, you will be on clinical rotations, meaning you will spend several weeks at a time in a hospital or other clinic setting, observing and learning from the physicians there. M3 often consists of core rotations near and at your school, giving you a solid foundation in the most common fields that people pursuing a career in medicine go into. M4 is very similar, though you will have more freedom in choosing the field in which you would like to do rotations. You will also have the option of going to other institutions to “audition” for their residency programs.
You will still be responsible for studying, however, and passing the USMLE Step 2 before moving on to residency. Step 2 is divided into two separate exams: USMLE Step 2 CK is the multiple-choice section and USMLE Step 2 CS includes simulated patient interactions.
You’ve accomplished a lot at this point, now that your medical school requirements are over, but the journey toward becoming a doctor is not yet done [READ: What happens after Medical School?]. Residency is where the bulk of your clinical skills will be learned and refined. A good residency can make a big difference in the quality of a physician—as much as getting into a good medical school.
After your first year of residency (PGY1 = post-graduate year 1), you are faced with another examination: the USMLE Step 3. The good news is that this is the final exam in the USMLE series, which is designed to assess whether a medical school graduate can apply medical knowledge and understanding of biomedical and clinical science essential for the unsupervised practice of medicine.
The remainder of your residency requirements begin after you take USMLE. This stage can last anywhere from three to five years, and there is the opportunity to further specialize with a fellowship after you are finished. Finally, you move onto your board certifications and begin practicing medicine.
We commend you for doing your research to map out the years ahead and figure out how long it will take you to become a doctor. Setting appropriate expectations is important when you’re focused on the end goal of living the “good life” of a doctor. There are sacrifices to be made on this journey, during some of the best years of your life, but in the end, being able to care for patients in the specialty of your choice can go a long way to living a fulfilling and rewarding career in medicine.