How long does it take to become a doctor? What's the easiest way 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. It’s 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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Article Contents
10 min read

How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?: The Quickest Path How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?: The Non-Traditional Paths Is it Too Late to Become a Doctor? Can You Become a Doctor Before 30? FAQs

How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?: The Quickest Path

It takes between 9 to 15 years to become a licensed doctor. If you want to become a doctor in the US or Canada, you must first complete a four-year undergraduate program, then attend medical school for four years. After graduating, you match to a residency, or postgraduate medical training program, where you spend somewhere between three to seven years as a resident, depending on your medical specialty. After all this, you need to take a licensing exam for the state or province where you want to practice medicine. Once you’ve completed all these steps, you’ll become a fully licensed, practicing physician!

It's a long journey to become a doctor, but the results are worth it. Just ask some of our MD and DO admissions experts, who went through the journey themselves! Such as Dr. Justin Stacer, DO, who specialized in internal medicine.

“From high school to practicing as an attending [took] 11 years … Absolutely [I would go through it again]. Medicine is certainly a calling and I’ve never stopped feeling that call.” – Dr. Justin Stacer, DO, ATSU-KCOM.

Dr. Neel Mistry, another of our admissions experts, chose to specialize in diagnostic radiology and has a few more years of residency training to complete.

“I am currently a resident physician in my first year of training. It took me a total of 7 years after high school to get here (3 years of undergrad + 4years of medical school). I have a total of 5 years of residency until I become an independently licensed physician (i.e., 12 years after completing grade 12) … I think [it’s worth it]. I do not know any other career that I would find myself liking. The satisfaction you get from making a significant contribution in people’s lives, day in and day out, is unparalleled. It makes the journey worth it.” – Dr. Neel Mistry, MD, University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine.

 

Check out how long it takes to become a doctor in the US and Canada:

Undergraduate Education: 3-4 years

Your preparation to become a doctor really begins while you obtain your bachelor's degree. Your undergraduate years are important for gaining experience in clinical health settings, participating in research opportunities, 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.

Medical schools require applicants to complete an undergraduate degree before applying, so this step is necessary. Although most medical schools don't require applicants to major in science or other common medical majors, they do require you to complete university-level science coursework. The most common medical school prerequisites are biology, chemistry, physics, math and English.

During your premed years, you’ll also work on the extracurriculars for medical school, which are the activities and experiences that will help your medical school application stand out.

Before you graduate, you’ll launch your medical school application timeline, which includes taking the MCAT, preparing your application materials and preparing for medical school interviews. Once accepted, you will enter the next four years of your journey towards becoming a doctor.

Medical School: 3-4 Years

How many years is medical school? Typical medical school curriculum is 4 years. 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 first required licensing examinations intended to assess your understanding of the principles and mechanisms related to health, disease, and therapy. For MD students, this is the USMLE Step 1. For DO students, it’s the COMLEX Level 1.

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 or COMLEX Level 2 exam. In Canada, you must take and pass the Medical Council of Canada Qualifying Examination (MCCQE) Part I.

Residency: 3-7 Years

After finishing medical school, you must complete a residency program. How long residency is will depend on the medical specialty you choose.

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 can take the USMLE Step 3 or COMLEX Level 3 after finishing the first year of residency. These licensing exams evaluate if you can practice medicine without supervision. When you pass one of these tests, you can obtain a medical license in your state.

In Canada, you no longer need to pass the MCCQE Part 2 exam, but make sure that you complete all the steps required to become a licensed physician via the Medical Council of Canada.

After you finish your residency, you can apply for a job as a doctor or you can go into a medical fellowship.

Fellowship: 1-2 Years

Medical fellowships are optional, but if you decide to get more training in a subspecialty area of clinical practice, education, or research, you might consider one.

To apply to an ERAS 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.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?: The Non-Traditional Paths

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. But that is not always the case. Many medical students follow the non-traditional applicant path to becoming a doctor.

Often students do not even realize what career path they want to follow when they graduate high school or enter college, so if you started asking yourself how long it takes to become a doctor a little later in your educational journey - that's ok! There are many non traditional medical school applicants who take a different pathway to becoming doctors.

Here are some of the paths that can add to your timeline:

Gap Year Before Medical School (+1 or more years)

Many premeds decide to take a break of one or more years before applying for med school. 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, participate in a virtual research opportunities, or you may choose to get a premed gap year job to bolster your application.

“I was originally planning on applying this summer after my senior year, so taking one gap year and I kind of took a practice MCAT, wasn't super happy with my score and decided instead of cramming for 15 days and taking it for real I should give myself the proper amount of time to study. So I decided to take another gap year. I had already had my job in place so I knew I'd be getting experience and still working to kind of bolster my resume.” – Moriah, former BeMo student and current student at University of Massachusetts School of Medicine.

 

Another option is to use that time to save money and pay off your undergraduate debts. That way you will be in better financial shape when planning how to pay for medical school.

Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Programs and Special Master’s Programs (+1-2 years)

Post-bacc programs are becoming very popular in the US. If you had a low science GPA or were not enrolled in a premed program in college, you can improve your science GPA and take any prerequisites you missed. These programs are also great in helping students boost their MCAT score and, generally, closing any other gaps in their medical school resume. Our student, Allison, was able to complete all her medical school prerequisites through a post-bacc program:

“I figured out exactly what classes I needed or that I was missing and put to put into my DIY post-bacc … for me personally that was my premed classes and because I had done a lot of the research myself I knew exactly what classes I needed for the main schools that I was applying to … I kind of got to pick like a la carte and put together my own package.” – Allison, BeMo student and current student at Dell Medical School.

 

Special master’s programs (SMPs) are the graduate category of post-bacc programs. Moreover, there are Special Master's Programs with linkages to medical schools! In some cases, the SMP can really ease your admission into the associated medical school. You certainly are not guaranteed admission but learning about the medical school by training in the same environment, from the same faculty can really boost your chances!

Graduate School (+1-5 years)

Other research-inclined students can even go for a Master's or a PhD in a scientific discipline before applying to medical school. However, keep in mind that very few schools give preferential treatment to those who have a PhD. So if you are wondering whether graduate school can help you get into medical school, the answer is no. If you want to become a physician-scientist, you can cut a year or two by enrolling into an MD-PhD program.

Gap Year Before Residency (+1 or more years)

Gap years before residency are not common, but they happen. Medical students who do not match to a residency program should start brainstorming how to improve their residency application after going unmatched. Where there major red flags in your residency personal statement? Did you not demonstrate your passion for your chosen specialty? Were your USMLE scores not competitive? Once you’ve assessed, you can move on and improve your chances for next year. Take the year to close any gaps you might have had in your application.

Looking to fast-track your medical career? Check out this video:

Is it Too Late to Become a Doctor?

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. The most common changes occur from other professions within the medical field such as switching from PA to an MD or going from nurse to doctor.

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+). Medical school classrooms have students of all ages.

“My medical school cohort ranged from people who came right out of 3rd year (like me) to those who had done Masters, PhD, or worked in an alternate career for several years. One of my good friends [was in his 40s] served as a physiotherapist in the military for 10 years prior to starting medical school.” – Dr. Neel Mistry, MD.

However, if you’re starting medical school later in life, there are considerations you should think about. Student debt, for instance, and the fact you’re facing another 7 to 10 years of training before you’ll be officially licensed to practice medicine. 

“One must realize the economics of medical school cost get worse as age at start goes up. If one is financially independent at that point, then that point doesn’t matter as much. Racking up 300k of medical school debt at 40 then training 7 years and just starting as an attending at 47 could be a very difficult hole to get out of.” – Justin Stacer, DO.


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. Instead of looking at your age, the medical school admission committees will see all of your skills and knowledge.

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.



Can You Become a Doctor Before 30?

Statistics show that most people are in their mid-30s when they become doctors. Non-traditional applicants such as returning students, students who took a gap year, or those who switched careers in their 20s, take longer to receive their license.

Based on the timelines we sketched above, the average time to become a physician is 12 years, assuming that you graduate from a traditional premed program of 4 years, go to a 4-year medical school, and choose a residency that is 4 years long and take no breaks between all the steps you have to take to become a doctor, you’ll be about 30 when you begin professional, independent practice. Realistically, the only way to shorten this timeline is to follow the shortcuts we outlined above.

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. So if you're asking how long does it take to become a doctor to try and take shortcuts, then reconsider your career choice. 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. 

FAQs

1. How long does it take to become a doctor?

It will usually take around 12 years to become a doctor, but it could take less or more, depending on the choices you make in undergrad and residency.

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.

3. 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. A medical doctor is one of the best paying traditional jobs, but the intangible rewards are even better when you think about the people you can help.

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

Osteopathic medical programs take four years to complete, just like allopathic programs. There are some 3-year medical schools, but they are rare.

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 they range from 5-8 years.

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. The only exception to this rule is if you want to become a military doctor. Most military services have lower and upper age restrictions.

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. 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.

To your success,

Your friends at

BeMoBeMo Academic Consulting


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