Most people know that becoming a physician is a long process, but the details for can sometimes be mysterious or hard to find. For those thinking about medicine—even if you are in high school—this is for you. Here we will provide a brief overview of each step in becoming a physician.
The path to becoming a physician starts in undergraduate. In undergrad, there are many paths that an individual can take, but here are some important considerations in order to be a successful pre-med:
Any college is fine to go to. Sometimes it is assumed that you have to go to a top-tier college to subsequently go to medical school—this is not true. Any college where you can get a degree and satisfy your medical school prerequisite courses is fine.
Similarly, you don’t have to be a science major to go to medical school. Medical schools do have prerequisite courses such as biology, chemistry, and physics, so many students choose to major in a science to fulfill all of those requirements. However, this is not necessary. A student can pursue whatever major they are interested in, as long as they complete the necessary prerequisites as well.
It is really important to get good grades in college. Often a student does their best academically when they are at a college where they are comfortable, rather than a top-tiered university.
During your undergrad preparation, usually sometime in the spring of your junior year, you will take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). The MCAT is a key exam in your evaluation for admission into medical school. Preparation for this exam is a must, and a high score will help you gain an acceptance when you apply to medical school.
Another key aspect to preparing your application that occurs in college is participating in extracurricular activities, including medical volunteer work, research, leadership, and physician shadowing.
The American Medical College Application Service (commonly known as AMCAS) opens in May for students to begin working on their application online, though many students will begin writing their personal statement and asking for letters of recommendation earlier in the year. Students who want to matriculate straight from undergrad into medical school will submit their application at the end of their junior year. The application process takes over a year (from applying until matriculation into medical school) and they will begin medical school the fall after they graduate from undergrad.
Medical school lasts four years, and some students occasionally will take a year off for research or add a year to complete a master’s degree.
The first two years of medical school are considered ‘non-clinical’ years. This is where students spend their time primarily in the classroom learning biochemistry, physiology, anatomy and pathophysiology.
During the third year of medical school students transition into the clinical portion of their education. This is where medical students rotate through various medical specialties, including internal medicine, surgery, obstetrics, and pediatrics. Students get to learn alongside residents and medical staff about caring for patients and the role of a physician.
During fourth year of medical school, there are some requirements that students need to complete. However fourth year also allows a student to dedicate time to the specialty they are interested in pursuing. For instance, a student may choose to do an elective in cardiothoracic surgery if they are interested in a surgical specialty, or pediatric oncology if they are planning to pursue pediatrics.
Similarly to applying to medical school, you will submit your application to residency via the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS) during your fourth year of medical school. After interviewing at residency programs, students will rank programs in the order they like best and programs will similarly rank applicants. A process known as The Match uses a specialized algorithm to assign students to the program where they will complete their residency training.
Internship and Residency
Once accepted into a residency program, you will begin the first year of training which is also known as an internship. Most interns start their program the July following graduation from medical school.
Internship is one year, but residencies can last anywhere from three years to seven years total depending on the specialty of choice. For instance, pediatrics is three years, while neurosurgery is seven, and many other specialties fall somewhere in between. At the end of residency, you will take your ‘board’ exams where you become certified to practice in your chose specialty.
After residency, some physicians chose to do a fellowship in their field. A fellowship is a sort of further specialization and usually lasts one to two years. During this time, most physicians work as a practicing physician while completing this additional training.
There you have it, an overview of becoming a physician. It is a long, arduous path, but one that is also full of rewards and gratification. Wherever you may be on this road, good luck and keep trucking along!
Renee Marinelli, MD, is a primary care physician and serves as the Director of Advising with MedSchoolCoach. Renee has extensive experience mentoring pre-medical students and shares her knowledge of the admission process through individual advising, webinars, pre-health conferences, and blogs. She currently lives in Colorado with her husband and son, and enjoys traveling, hiking and running.