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 why you want to become a doctor, but now you need to understand the necessary time investment. In this blog, you will learn about the path you must take to become a physician, both before attending med school and after graduating.

So, How Long Does it Take to Become a Doctor?

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 and after graduating, spend somewhere between three to seven years as a resident, depending on the specialty of your choice. After all this, you need to take a licensing exam for the state where you want to practice medicine.

That is between 10 and 14 years to become a licensed doctor. Now, let me break it down for you.

Undergraduate Program: Four Years

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.

The most common medical school prerequisites are:

  • 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 extracurriculars for medical school, 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 medical school resume.

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.

Medical School: Four Years

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 USMLE Step 1, 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.

In Canada, you must take and pass the Medical Council of Canada Qualifying Examination (MCCQE) Part I. You are eligible to apply for MCCQE Part I up to 15 months prior to your expected date of graduation.

Residency: Three to Seven Years

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. Plastic Surgery residency 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 most competitive residencies 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 MCCQE Part II 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.

Fellowship: One or Two Years

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:

How Long Does it Take to Become a Doctor in Other Countries?

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:

Alternative (and Longer) Paths to Become a Doctor

The scenarios 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.

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.

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.

Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Programs

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

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 options 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:

FAQs

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. Is it worth the time investment needed to become a doctor?

You may be wondering, is medical school worth it? 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 physician get paid, make sure to check out our list of the highest paid doctors 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.

3. What is the length of DO vs MD programs?

Osteopathic medical programs take four years to complete, just like allopathic programs.

4. 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

5. 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.

6. 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 non traditional students are now in medical school after years in other professions or activities. The only exception to this rule is if you want to become a military doctor. Most military Services have lower and upper age restrictions, so please make sure to check the Service of your choice for more details.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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 online forum, “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.” 

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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