If you are thinking about pursuing a career in medicine, you may be wondering, how long does it take to become a doctor? You may have already answered the question , but now you need to understand the necessary time investment. It’s definitely a long journey and we’re here to tell you all about it. In this blog, you will learn about the path you must take to become a physician, both before attending med school and after graduating.
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In summary, if you want to become a doctor in the US, you must first complete a four-year undergraduate program, then attend medical school for four years. After graduating, you match to a residency via (in the US) or (in Canada), where you spend somewhere between three to seven years as a resident, depending on your specialty. After all this, you need to take a licensing exam for the state or province where you want to practice medicine.
That is between 10 and 14 years to become a licensed doctor. Now, let’s see if it’s possible to shorten this timeline.
Based on the brief timeline we sketched above, the average time to become a physician is 12 years, assuming that your chosen residency is 4 years. If we assume that the average premed student is around 18 years old when they start their undergrad degree, and assuming a 12-year timeline, they’ll be just 30 when they begin professional, independent practice. This is the average age – but can you actually shorten this timeline and become a doctor BEFORE the age of 30?
It’s possible, but extremely challenging. Let’s examine what you can do to become a doctor before the age of 30.
- Plan early: You’ll have to know your medical ambitions and start preparing for them in high school, so you can get ahead on coursework and extracurricular requirements.
- Choose the right undergrad programs: You’ll also have to make all the right choices in terms of undergrad studies, medical school programs, and residencies. Once you choose a Bachelor’s program, you will have to stick to it – any delay in graduation or change in your undergrad career could set you back. If you are completely certain about your ambitions, you may want to consider , which sometimes offer an accelerated timeline, allowing students to complete their undergrad in 3 years instead of 4. A few rare programs even offer a 6-year timeline for their combined undergrad degree and medical school. Such programs are typically extremely competitive and hard to get admission to.
- Choose a medical school that is less than 4 years long. It’s true! There are medical programs that take 3 years to complete, such as the at the University of Calgary or the . While it takes shorter amount of time to complete these MD programs, you should also be prepared for a more rigorous and fast-paced curriculum.
- Consider length of residency: Choice of residency is a big factor in how long it takes to become a doctor. or pediatrics require only 3 years of residency while neurological surgery requires 6 to 7 years. So, consider before you choose a medical specialty. If you want to become an independent doctor faster, you may want to choose , internal medicine residency, or one of the other shorter residencies.
BONUS: Academic background – An additional factor could be your age at the time of starting your undergrad – for example, you could be 16 or 17 in your freshman year of college if you skipped a grade in school (likely to happen amongst the kind of academically proficient students who seek out a medical career), which could enable you to receive your medical license before the age of 30. And obviously, there’s not much room for gap years if you’re aiming to become a doctor before 30.
So now you know why it’s not easy becoming a doctor before 30. Next, I’ll explain what steps you need to take for the most direct path to practicing medicine.
The path to becoming a doctor includes some key steps that everyone has to complete. To follow the fastest route to becoming a doctor, you need to make some specific choices from an early age.
The following table shows the key steps involved in becoming a doctor and what you can do at each stage to speed up the process.
While it can be motivating to have a clear goal with specific deadlines, remember that becoming a doctor “quickly” should never be your primary motivation throughout this process. There’s a reason why medical education and training takes so long – it’s to adequately prepare you to practice medicine independently. There’s no point taking on an excessively burdensome accelerated undergrad timeline if you’re going to burn out before you even start med school.
The fact is, statistics show that most people are in their mid-30s when they become doctors. such as returning students, students who took a gap year, or those who switched careers in their 20s, take longer to receive their license. Even if you follow the traditional path to medical school, you’ll receive your license to practice medicine at the age of 30 or in your early 30s.
Now, let me break down each of the steps to becoming a doctor.
Just like other professional schools in North America (like Dentistry, Law and Pharmacy), medical schools require applicants to complete an undergraduate degree before applying. Typically, undergrad programs last four years and prospective medical students are already preparing themselves during this time.
Although most medical schools don't require applicants to major in science, they do have some prerequisites that include science coursework.
- 1 year of biology, with lab experience.
- 1 year of chemistry, with lab experience. Some schools require only organic chemistry, or allow you to substitute a biochemistry course for 1 chemistry course, while some require both inorganic and organic chemistry courses. Check the website of the schools you want to attend.
- 1 year of physics, with lab experience.
- At least 1 semester of math (statistics, calculus or algebra courses).
- 1 year of English.
During your premed years, you should also work on the , which are the activities and experiences that will help you stand out from the pack and catch the attention of admissions committees when they look at your .
Your preparation to become a doctor begins way before you obtain a bachelor's degree. Your undergraduate years are important for gaining experience in clinical settings, shadowing a doctor, participating in research groups, and serving your community. These experiences can help you build some of the skills future physicians must have and that must be honed outside the classroom.
Before you go to the next step, you must apply for medical school, prepare for interviews, and take tests such as the MCAT and the CASPer. Once accepted, you will enter the next four years of your journey towards becoming a doctor.
Check out a quick recap of what courses you need to take to get into medical school:
The four years you will spend in medical school are divided into phases. The first two years are known as pre-clinical or pre-clerkship and include mostly coursework. During these two years you will develop science and clinical skills in a classroom setting.
When you finish your second year of med school, you must take the , a one-day examination intended to assess your understanding of the principles and mechanisms related to health, disease, and therapy.
The next two years are more hands-on. The clerkship phase of medical school includes clinical rotations for several weeks at a time and learning from doctors in a hospital. Year three is comprised of core rotations at the school, which expose you to different fields of medicine. While you will continue to be exposed to core rotations in your fourth year, you will also be allowed to choose a particular field or specialty for your rotations.
By the end of year four you will have to pass USMLE Step 2, which includes both a one-day examination and interaction with patients.
After finishing medical school, you must complete a residency program. Your first year will be spent as an intern, with up to six years additionally, depending on the medical specialty you choose.
For instance, residencies in Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, and Pediatrics are three years long. Residencies in Obstetrics/Gynecology, Pathology, and Psychiatry are four years long. Five-year long residencies include those in General Surgery, Otolaryngology, Orthopedic Surgery, and Urology. is about six years and Neurosurgery is seven years.
You must apply for your residency program through ERAS for matching in the US or CaRMS if you are applying in Canada. You will be matched into a residency program using a computer algorithm that considers both your preferences and the preferences of the programs. You should be aware which are the and be realistic about your chances of getting in when you compile your list of preferences.
In the US, you should take the USMLE Step 3 after finishing the first year of residency. This licensing exam evaluates if you can practice medicine without supervision. When you pass this test, you can obtain a medical license in your state.
In Canada, you must pass the and have successfully completed (or be close to completing) 12 months of postgraduate clinical medical training (residency) to become a Licentiate of the Medical Council of Canada (LMCC).
After you finish your residency, you can apply for a job as a doctor or you can go into a fellowship.
Fellowships are optional (by this stage you've become a doctor already!). But if you decide to get more training on a subspecialty area of clinical practice, education, or research, you might consider a medical fellowship.
To apply to a fellowship of your choosing, you must have completed a residency in the specialty you want to focus on and demonstrate significant clinical skills and experience in that area.
Check out how long it takes to become a doctor in the US and Canada:
The steps outlined above assume that you go straight from high school to college to medical school to residency and into your job as a physician or medical scientist. But that is not always the case.
There are many non traditional medical school applicants who take a different pathway to becoming doctors. If you would like to hear about getting into medical school as non-traditional applicants, check out our blog.
So, let’s explore some of those ways.
Gap Year Before Medical School
Premed students tend to apply to medical school in the summer before their senior year of undergraduate studies and upon completion of their bachelor’s degree. However, many students decide to take a break of one or more years before applying for med school.
And although there are many reasons to do this, the best approach is to use the gap year to improve your application. For instance, you could use that year to work on your extracurriculars, such as volunteering at a hospital or participating in a research group, or to take some prerequisite courses you may be lacking. Or you may choose to get a to bolster your application.
Another option is to use that time to save money and pay off your debts. That way you will be in better financial shape to pay for medical school.
As long as you use this time productively and dedicate it towards improving your chances of getting into med school, a gap year should not hurt your chances of acceptance.
Also known as “Postbacs”, these programs are becoming very popular in the US. If you had a low science GPA or were not enrolled in a pre-med program in college, you can improve your science GPA and take the courses required for medical school admission in one to two years.
Some of these programs are offered by undergraduate institutions, and others are offered by medical schools themselves. There are many differences between each program, so be sure to do your due diligence and research these programs before enrolling in a Postbac.
Special master’s programs (SMPs) are the graduate category of postbac programs. They are a great way to improve your chances of getting admitted to med schools, exposing you to many of the required experiences.
How long do these programs take? One to two years. If you take a thesis master’s degree, you’ll spend one year doing coursework and another year doing research and writing your thesis. If you only take a coursework program, you’ll complete it in a year.
Other research-inclined students can even go for a PhD in a scientific discipline before applying to medical school, adding up to 5 years to their journey to becoming a medical doctor.
For medical students who do not match to a residency program, there are to pursue in the year when they reapply to ERAS or CaRMS. Perhaps they can increase their chances of getting a residency the following year by working in a clinical setting (even if they are not allowed to care for patients) and taking the USMLE Step 3 in the meantime.
Watch a video recap:
Not everyone discovers their ambition to become a doctor in high school. Many people pursue an education in another field, and work in that field for years, before changing career tracks to becoming a doctor. While people can and do successfully switch over from all kinds of careers, the most common changes occur from other professions within the medical field such as nursing or paramedics. Another popular career change is switching from a Physician Assistant, or .
Such people already hold an undergrad degree along with the required higher education qualifications pertaining to their initial career. Their previous educational experience can vary depending on the career. For example, PAs complete a 4-year undergrad degree followed by an additional master’s program of 2 to 3 years, before they are allowed to take their licensing exam and begin working as a PA. On the other hand, paramedics typically have a much shorter educational timeline; they can receive their certification in 6 months to 4 years, depending on the degree.
Additionally, before applying to med school, those who are switching careers may have to take up a post-bac program to complete pending med school coursework requirements and/or may need to take a gap year to complete their medical school application and its components. Many people choose to complete these steps alongside their work experience for financial reasons and also to gain more experience that could help them in medical school.
Whatever the initial career and academic background, it’s practically a given that if you’re changing careers to become a doctor, you’ll be older than your average 22-year-old classmate in your first year of medical school. Depending on the amount of work experience you have, you could be anywhere between 25 and 40 (in fact, it’s not unheard of for people to switch careers at 50+). And you’re facing another 7 to 10 years of training before you’ll be officially licensed to practice medicine.
That doesn’t make you any less likely to find success. In fact, those who take this unconventional path bring their life skills and experiences from their previous career to their medical school training, which can prove to be a huge asset. Moreover, the typical motivation for a career switch is pure passion and an undeniable inner calling towards becoming a doctor, which means late-stage career changers are likely to be highly intrinsically motivated, dedicated, and determined, thus setting them up for success.
Becoming a doctor in other countries takes about the same time as in the US. In Canada, future physicians also need an undergraduate degree (3 to 4 years) before attending medical school (4 years), plus they tend to do 2 to 5 years of residency. So in total, it takes between 10 and 13 years to become a doctor in Canada.Here's what it takes to become a doctor in other English-speaking countries:
1. How many years do I have to study to become a doctor?
In the US, you must complete a four-year undergraduate program, attend medical school for four years and spend between three to seven years as a resident. That means you have to study and work between 10 to 14 years to become a doctor.
2. Can I become a doctor before 30?
While it is possible to become a doctor before the age of 30, it’s not an easy path and requires early, strategic planning and a strong record of academic and extracurricular brilliance on the part of the student. The type of undergrad program you pick, whether or not you take a gap year, the kind of residency you pick, all play a role in determining your timeline.
3. Is it worth the time investment needed to become a doctor?
You may be wondering, ? Although it takes more than a decade and hard work to become a doctor, there are many financial and intangible rewards. If you are wondering how much physicians get paid, make sure to check out our list of the in the US and Canada.
For instance, medical doctor is one of the best paying traditional jobs, with the average salary ranging about $200,000-300,000 per year in both the US and Canada (it's even higher for certain specialists).
But the intangible rewards are even better when you think about the people you can help, either by taking care of patients or through biomedical research.
4. What is the length of DO vs MD programs?
Osteopathic medical programs take four years to complete, just like allopathic programs.
5. Are combined programs such as the MD-PhD programs longer than regular MD programs?
Yes, they are longer. The length depends on the school and the particular program, but here's some data from AAMC:
MD-PhD: 7-8 years
MD-MPH: 5 years
MD-MBA: 5 years
MD-JD: 6 years
6. At what age should I expect to become a doctor?
The average starting age of a medical student is 24, which means they become licensed doctors in their mid to late 30s.
7. Is there an age limit for medical school?
No, there is no age limit in most medical schools. You can become a doctor at any age. Many after years in other professions or activities. The only exception to this rule is if you want to become a . Most military Services have lower and upper age restrictions, so please make sure to check the Service of your choice for more details.
8. Does having a gap year hurt my chances of getting into medical school?
As long as you’re not just taking time off but are preparing for your future career as a physician, taking a gap year should not hurt your chances of getting into medical school.
9. What should I do if I do not match to a residency program on my first try?
You should not get discouraged if you do not match to a residency program on your first try. Keep connected to your school, apply for a job in a clinical setting (even if you cannot care for patients) or research lab. That year of experience may actually help you with your residency match next time you apply.
10. How old can my coursework and prerequisites be when I apply to medical school?
Most medical schools don’t have strict policies regarding how recent your prerequisites must be, but some prefer to see coursework completed within 5 years before the application. If your coursework is older than 5 years, you should check with the school to see if you need to take some classes before applying.
11. Why does it take so long to become a doctor?
There are several reasons why it takes so many years to become a doctor:
- In the United States, professional schools, including medical schools, require an undergraduate degree before applying.
- The medical profession involves a great responsibility, as you have to take care of people and provide medical treatment. The residency years are designed to make sure you can eventually treat patients without supervision.
- Medical doctors must have a license to be able to practice medicine. Obtaining that licenses requires you to demonstrate that you have years of training and experience, as well as passing a certification exam.
As a neurosurgeon put in an , “Training in medicine takes so long because it is incremental, adding responsibility very gradually. You want to see as many permutations of a problem as possible so that you have a good chance of working it safely on your own when the time comes. Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement, so it’s important to see and do as much as you can before you go out into the world on your own without anyone looking over your shoulder.”
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