Physician Career Profile and Overview

Female doctor looking at laptop screen while preparing report at desk in clinic
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A physician, or medical doctor, leads the medical care team, treating patients as the primary healthcare provider. A doctor diagnoses and treats diseases and conditions, as well as provides treatment in many forms including medication, procedures, surgery, or therapy. The physician shoulders the highest degree of responsibility of coordinating the patient’s medical treatment from beginning to end, analyzing the patient’s symptoms and conditions, and managing their care for the best results and recovery.

Some physicians provide general, ongoing preventative care, or management of basic chronic issues such as hypertension or diabetes. Other doctors are more specialized, and treat only certain populations of patients, (such as pediatricians or geriatricians), or certain systems of the body, on a more in-depth basis.

Education Required

Requirements to become a physician are extensive and time consuming compared to most other careers. The specific education and training path may vary based on the type of medicine a doctor would like to practice. However, all doctors must at least complete an undergraduate degree from a four-year college or university, plus four additional years of graduate school at an accredited medical school. Graduating from medical school is required for obtaining a Medical Doctor degree (M.D.), or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree (D.O.) based on the type of medical program you complete. Every medical school in the United States offers one of two approaches to medicine—Allopathic (M.D.) or Osteopathic (D.O.). As of 2016, about one in five U.S. medical students is studying to become a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.).

Medical Training

After Medical School, a physician attends a residency training program in his or her desired medical specialty. Physicians are matched to a residency through a process of interviews with multiple residency programs, after which each physician ranks his or her favorite programs, and the programs rate their top candidates. The rankings are then run through a computer system which matches the physician candidates to the program that is the best mutual match, via an algorithm and the rankings filled out by each program and candidate.

Most residency programs last anywhere from 3 to 5 years, and sometimes the first year of residency is referred to as an Internship year. During residency training, a physician obtains hands-on experience treating patients, while under close supervision of experienced physicians. Residents earn a small salary to cover basic living expenses. (Usually about $40,000 to $50,000 annually.) After residency, some specialists may attend an additional 1 to 3 years of Fellowship training.

Schedule and Typical Workday

Schedules vary according to the type of medicine a physician practices. Most doctors work 50-60+ hours per week at least. A typical day in the life of a doctor usually includes 6 to 8 hours seeing patients in an office-based setting, plus 1 to 2 hours rounding on patients in the hospital. Depending upon the type of surgery they practice, surgeons will typically work at least 2 to 3 full days in the hospital Operating Room performing surgeries, and spend the remaining days in a medical office conducting follow-up or pre-surgical office visits and consultations. Additionally, a physician will also invest time completing administrative duties such as updating patient records, returning phone calls, or handling miscellaneous office issues.


Contrary to popular belief, most physicians are not actually employees of hospitals or clinics. Many doctors are in private practice, either owning their own solo practice or in a partnership business arrangement with other physicians. Therefore, how much a physician actually earns depends on many factors such as patient volume, insurance carriers of the patients seen, and other issues we will explore more in-depth later.

Taking all of those factors into consideration, physicians can earn an annual income of anywhere from about $150,000 to $250,000 for a family medicine physician or internal medicine physician, up to more than $500,000 annually for specialists or sub-specialists.

Skills Needed

A physician is part investigator, part counselor, and part scientist. Doctors must have a very strong grasp of math and science, chemistry and biology, and be able to analyze information and solve problems. Additionally, most physicians should exhibit excellent interpersonal skills in order to communicate effectively with patients and their families.

Physicians must be able to think quickly on their feet and make critical decisions accurately and efficiently. If a physician aims to go into private practice and own his or her own healthcare business, it would be helpful to have a basic understanding of business and accounting principles as well.

Licenses and Certifications

Physicians must complete a three-step test called the USMLE in order to practice medicine in the United States. In addition, a state license must also be obtained in the state where the physicians plans to practice. Each state's licensing requirements vary but most require an application and a fee at least, while some require an exam.

In addition to obtaining the proper licenses, physicians must also obtain Board Certification in the appropriate medical specialty. This entails completing and passing a test, most of which are two parts, depending on the specialty.

Physicians who come from other countries to practice in the U.S. must complete the ECFMG process - (Educational Commission on Foreign Medical Graduates). The process entails completing paperwork to verify completion of medical school and degree, as well as an exam to confirm language and medical knowledge.

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