How to Become a Doctor or a Surgeon

Doctors with a patient
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Becoming a doctor or a surgeon is an honorable goal, but it is a long and challenging process, beginning with pursuing a bachelor's degree after high school. It is important to note that medicine, and especially surgery, is not a career you can enter quickly. It takes a great deal of diligence and motivation to finish the training as it takes many years of study to practice independently.

The path to being a doctor typically takes a minimum of 12 years after graduating from high school. Not only is the process challenging academically, it requires perseverance to complete such a long course of training. Remember that some specialties with extensive training periods can take five or more additional years. Non-surgical specialties can often be completed in less time.

A family practice or internal medicine physician completes four years of medical school followed by 3 years of residency while a pediatric neurosurgeon may have an additional eight to ten years of training after medical school. 

The Road to Medical School Begins in High School

The path to being a doctor typically starts in high school or early in your college career. Good grades are necessary and science classes are required for medical school. During high school classes in biology, chemistry, math, physics, and other college preparatory classes are ideal choices.

Medicine as a Second Career

Do not be concerned if you did not know in high school that you wanted to become a doctor, or even in college. There is a trend of medical students and residents being older than the traditional 23-year-old first-year medical student. Some medical students are starting a second or third career and have families and experience in another field.

Some admissions teams look very favorably on older and more mature candidates. Older candidates may have an advantage during the interviewing process for medical school, as they have had more opportunities to hone this skill.

Preparing for Medical School During Your Bachelor's Degree

During the bachelor's degree portion of your education, you will need to take a year of organic chemistry, general chemistry, biology, and physics. Microbiology and biochemistry are also helpful. The higher your grades in these core required classes, the better, as they will be scrutinized closely by the admissions team at each medical school to which you apply.

It is highly advisable that you work or volunteer in a healthcare setting, to show that you have a reasonable idea what a physician does during their day. Most successful applicants to medical school have a GPA of 3.3 or higher. The grades obtained in the core science classes will be considered the most important in your application to medical school.

During your last year of school, or once you have completed the required classes, you will take the MCAT, the entrance exam for medical school. The MCAT is a challenging and difficult test. Many people choose to take a course to prepare for the test as the scores play a large role in obtaining acceptance to medical school.

Applying to Medical School

Once you have MCAT scores and you have completed your bachelor's degree as well as any additional prerequisite courses you didn't complete during your undergraduate degree, you may begin the application process. This process requires multiple letters of reference, interviews with each medical school that decides to consider you, and essays. Each application also has a fee, which may limit the number of schools to which you apply.

In addition to interviews, essays, and grades, the admissions team will also be observing your behavior. Do you seem mature enough to handle medical school? Are you self-motivated and able to complete the program? Do you present yourself in a professional manner? Are you clean and neat? It is also important to either be a non-smoker, quit smoking, or at the very least do not have an odor of smoke when interviewing.

The year when prospective medical students interview with the schools to which they have applied is often called the "year off". This is because the bachelor's degree has been completed, but they have yet to be accepted by a medical school, which leaves them in educational limbo. Some go directly from bachelor's degree to medical school, others choose to travel, work, or pursue additional classes to improve their application. You can also use this time to choose between an MD or a DO program.

The Medical School Years

Once accepted to medical school, there are four demanding years of education, including gross anatomy (the study of cadavers), normal and abnormal physiology and pharmacology, and hands-on learning that takes place in clinics, hospitals, and various rotations throughout different specialties of medicine.

The Match Run for Residencies

During medical school, you will be expected to decide what areas of medicine you are interested in. You will participate in the residency "match" in your fourth and last year of medical school. During the match, you will interview with different residency programs that you are interested in, in one or more specialties, if you are accepted as a candidate.

Once you have completed your interview, you will rank the programs based on your interest. The program you most prefer would be first, the next favorite program would be second, and so forth.

The residency programs will also rank the candidates who interviewed in much the same way. Once the data is compiled, the "match run" generates the match, determining which resident will be trained where. The vast majority of residency placements are performed this way, with a small minority being placed "off match" for a variety of reasons, including a failure to match during the initial match run.


Once your place of residency is determined, you will enter your residency program in June of the year following the completion of medical school. Your first year of residency is called the intern year, or PGY1. It can be a difficult time, making the transition from medical student to the sleepless doctor in training. Typically, an additional two to four years (PGY2-PGY5) of training follows the intern year, at the minimum. There are tests taken during residency as well, to monitor the progress of the resident.

For surgeons, the training after medical school may last as long as 8 or 9 years, if additional training after residency is required. Training often starts with a general surgery residency, which is takes five years (the intern year and an additional four years of surgical residency.

After Residency: the Fellowship

After residency, fellowships in a more specialized area can be done by physicians, typically lasting 2-3 years. These individuals may complete a pediatric, family or internal medicine residency, followed by more education in a specialty.

Surgeons can also complete fellowships after finishing their surgical residency. Those who want to be specialists complete a fellowship, typically three or more years in duration. There are exceptions, OB/GYNs, for example, take a slightly different path to practice and extremely specialized surgeons, such as a pediatric heart transplant surgeon may train for as long as 10 or more years after medical school.

When a Physician Is Considered Fully Trained

After the completion of residency, a physician is considered fully trained in the area of their residency. For example, a doctor who completed residency in family practice is fully trained to be a family practice physician and may practice independently. This is true of residencies in general, it is only specialties that require additional fellowship training.  

A physician is considered fully trained in a specialty upon completion of their fellowship. To be board certified in a specialty, a final test is taken to determine eligibility for certification and is the final determination that a physician has the skills required to practice.

A Word From Verywell

A physician, regardless of their area of practice, has completed many years of higher education inside and outside of a classroom. It is incredibly important that you see a physician who has been trained in the type of care that you require. For example, if you need surgery, the person doing your surgery should have trained in and completed a surgery residency. If you are having plastic surgery, someone trained in plastic surgery, not family medicine or rectal surgery or neurology, should be performing your procedure. 

Patients suffer when physicians who are not trained to provide the type of care provide that care anyway, and alarm bells should be going if there isn't proof of training somewhere in the office. That said, experience is often more important than where one went to school. Seeing the surgeon who performs the surgery you need once a day rather than the surgeon who performs it once a month can make a huge difference in the long-term success of the surgery.

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