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How to Become a Physician

By Ibrahim Okunade

Published:

You’ve always had a dream of becoming a doctor, but you don’t even know how to go about it?

You’re not alone. Many people dream of becoming a doctor, but they don’t know where to start. The path to becoming a doctor is long and challenging, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. If you’re serious about becoming a doctor, this comprehensive guide is all you need. It breaks it all down into simple steps.

Career Summary

Physician Salary

Physician Salary

Will a physician salary get you your dream car and dream house? Well, let’s find out.

According to Glassdoor, the salary breakdown for physicians is as follows:

  • Entry Salary (US$218k)
  • Median Salary (US$291k)
  • Executive Salary (US$401k)

The salary of physicians is significantly higher than the national average salary for all occupations in the United States.

What does a Physician do?

Physicians are trained medical professionals who diagnose, treat, and care for patients’ health conditions. They conduct physical examinations, order and interpret diagnostic tests, prescribe medications, develop treatment plans, and provide preventive care.

The physician job description also includes educating patients about their medical conditions and working collaboratively with other healthcare professionals to ensure comprehensive and compassionate patient care. Their roles may vary depending on their medical specialty and the healthcare setting in which they practice.

Physician Career Progression

  • Medical Student: Physicians begin their journey as medical students, attending medical school and learning foundational medical knowledge and skills. Medical students follow cases of various hospitalized patients.
  • Internship/Residency: After medical school, physicians enter an internship or residency program to gain hands-on training in a specific medical specialty. This is where they start administering direct patient care under supervision.
  • Junior Resident: As they progress through their residency, physicians take on more responsibilities and gain increasing autonomy in patient care.
  • Senior Resident: Senior residents have advanced clinical skills and are more involved in managing patient cases and teaching junior residents and medical students.
  • Attending Physician: Upon completing residency, physicians become attending physicians. They are fully licensed and have the authority to make medical decisions independently. They take the lead in patient care, manage complex cases, and may supervise residents and medical students.
  • Subspecialty Fellow: Some physicians choose to pursue further training in a subspecialty through fellowship programs. During fellowships, they gain expertise in a specific area of medicine.
  • Subspecialty Attending: After completing a fellowship, physicians become subspecialty attendings, providing expert care in their chosen subspecialty.
  • Medical Director/Chief Physician: With experience and leadership skills, physicians may take on administrative roles, such as medical director or chief physician, overseeing medical departments or healthcare facilities.
Physician Career Progression

Pros:

  • A sense of fulfilment from helping others and saving lives.
  • Continuous learning and staying at the forefront of medical advancements.
  • Offers the opportunity to specialize in a specific area of interest.
  • Financially rewarding career with potential for high earnings.
  • Respect and recognition in the community.
  • Flexibility to work in various healthcare settings.

Cons:

  • High levels of stress and burnout.
  • Dealing with life-and-death situations.
  • Coping with challenging and emotionally draining cases.
  • Managing patient expectations and communication.
  • Potential exposure to infectious diseases.

Useful Skills to Have as a Physician

  • Strong medical knowledge and diagnostic skills.
  • Effective communication.
  • Empathy and compassion to provide patient-centered care.
  • Attention to detail and thoroughness in medical assessments.
  • Decision-making and critical thinking in complex situations.
  • Ability to work well under pressure and handle emergencies.
  • Teamwork and collaboration with other healthcare professionals.
  • Adaptability to evolving healthcare practices and technologies.

Popular Physician Specialties

  • Internal Medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • Surgery
  • Psychiatry
  • Anesthesiology
  • Radiology
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Family Medicine
  • Neurology
  • Cardiology
  • Orthopedic Surgery
  • Gastroenterology
  • Dermatology
  • Oncology

How to Become a Physician

Physician 7 Steps to Career

Step 1: Complete Your Undergraduate Education

Physician education requirements are indeed quite extensive. Aspiring physicians are expected to be well-trained to be able to provide competent and compassionate medical care to patients. Aspiring physicians begin by completing a bachelor’s degree, typically in a science-related field such as biology or chemistry. During this time, they are encouraged to take courses that meet the pre-medical requirements, including biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Maintaining a strong academic record during undergraduate studies is essential for admission to medical school.

Step 2: Pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) Exam

The next step in becoming a physician is to pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) exam administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges. The MCAT is a standardized test designed to assess the knowledge, critical thinking abilities, and problem-solving skills necessary for success in medical school.

It is important to note that you don’t have to wait till you finish your bachelor’s degree before taking the test. Medical schools generally accept scores dating back two or three years.

The Medical College Admission Test consists of four main sections:
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

Each section assesses specific skills and knowledge relevant to medical practice.

The MCAT is a computer-based exam with multiple-choice questions and passages that require analysis and interpretation. The exam is lengthy, lasting approximately 7 hours and 30 minutes, including optional breaks. After taking the MCAT, test-takers receive their scores approximately 30-35 days later. MCAT scores range from 472 to 528, with each section scored individually and then combined to provide a total score.

Once a candidate receives their MCAT score, they can include it in their medical school applications. Different medical schools have different score requirements and expectations, so it’s essential to research individual school admissions criteria.

Step 3: Apply to Medical School

Before applying to medical school, it is important to note that there are two types of medical schools: allopathic (M.D.) and osteopathic (D.O.) medical schools. Both types lead to becoming a physician, but they differ in their approach to medical education and training.

Allopathic medical schools award the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree, while osteopathic medical schools award the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. M.D. and D.O. graduates can pursue similar medical specialties and practice medicine in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, and private practices. It is essential for aspiring physicians to carefully research and choose the type of medical school that aligns with their goals and values in their journey to becoming a doctor. Below are the steps required to apply to medical schools:

Apply Through an Application Service

Medical schools either use the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) or the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS) for application processing. The former is for students pursuing a Doctor of Medicine degree, and the latter is for students pursuing a Doctorate of Osteopathic Medicine degree. These centralized services allow applicants to submit one application to multiple medical schools.

As part of the application, you’ll need to write a compelling personal statement. This is an opportunity to share your motivations for pursuing a career in medicine, your relevant experiences, and what makes you a unique and qualified candidate. Medical school applications typically require letters of recommendation from professors, healthcare professionals, or supervisors who can attest to your academic abilities, character, and potential as a future physician.

Complete the Secondary Application

Secondary application refers to the additional application that some medical schools send to select candidates after they have submitted the primary application through centralized application services like AMCAS or AACOMAS. The secondary application is a school-specific set of questions and essays that aim to gather more information about the applicant and assess their fit with the specific medical school’s values and mission.

Interview and Selection

Medical schools may invite you for an interview if your application is competitive. The interview allows the admissions committee to get to know you better, assess your communication skills, and gauge your fit for their program. After interviews, medical schools will make admission decisions. They may offer acceptance, waitlist you, or provide rejection notices. It’s essential to be patient during this process, as decisions may come at different times for different schools.

Depending on the number of medical schools you apply to and the quality of your application, you may receive multiple acceptance offers. You will need to choose a medical school to attend. Consider factors like program reputation, location, curriculum, and financial considerations when making your decision.

Step 4: Complete Medical School

Medical school typically lasts four years and is divided into two main phases. The preclinical phase (usually the first two years) focuses on classroom-based learning, covering essential medical sciences such as anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, and pathology. The clinical phase (last two years) involves rotations in various medical specialties, allowing students to gain practical experience and exposure to different areas of medicine.

During the clinical phase, students participate in clinical clerkships and rotations in areas like internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics-gynecology, psychiatry, and more. These rotations provide hands-on experience in patient care and medical decision-making under the guidance of experienced physicians.

USMLE Steps 1 and 2 and COMLEX-USA Levels 1 and 2

During medical school, aspiring physicians complete the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Steps 1 and 2, or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) Levels 1 and 2, depending on whether they pursue an allopathic (M.D.) or osteopathic (D.O.) medical degree. Successfully completing these licensure exams is crucial for medical licensure and advancement in medical training.

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How Much Does Medical School Cost?

Completing medical school comes at a significant financial cost, with tuition fees, living expenses, and additional educational expenditures being major factors to consider. Tuition for in-state students at public medical schools tends to be lower compared to out-of-state students and private medical schools.

According to College Tuition Compare, the average medical school tuition and fees for state residents is $46,917 per year. The average cost per year for out-of-state students is $61,378. In addition to tuition, medical students need to consider other costs such as books and supplies, housing, food, transportation, and personal expenses. These additional costs can vary based on the location and lifestyle of the student.

Can I Become a Physician Through Online Education?

No, you can’t. Becoming a physician through online education alone is not possible. Physicians require a combination of theoretical and practical education under highly skilled supervision. This is not possible in an online setting.

Medical education and training are intensive and involve clinical rotations, practical skills training, and direct patient interactions, which cannot be fully replicated through online-only programs. Medical schools and residency programs are designed to provide students with the necessary clinical exposure and supervised practice to become competent and compassionate physicians.

What are Some Web Resources to Help Me Become a Better Physician?

Online education and resources won’t make you a physician. However, you can still take advantage of web resources to augment your knowledge. Numerous web resources are available to help individuals learn skills and gain knowledge related to becoming a physician.

These resources offer various materials, from interactive courses to informative articles and videos. Here are some of them:

  • Medscape: Provides medical news, expert perspectives, and clinical references. It’s a valuable resource for staying updated with medical advancements and current practices.
  • American Medical Association (AMA): The AMA offers resources, publications, and educational tools for medical students and physicians, covering various medical topics.
  • MedlinePlus: A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, it offers reliable and easy-to-understand medical information for patients and medical students alike.
  • WebMD: Offers a wealth of health-related information, articles, and tools for medical students and professionals.
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH): The website provides access to research publications and health-related resources.
  • PubMed: PubMed is a vast database of medical literature and research articles that can be valuable for deeper studies of specific medical topics.

Remember to cross-reference the information you find online with reputable sources to ensure accuracy and credibility. Additionally, while online resources can supplement your learning, pursuing formal medical education through accredited institutions remains essential for becoming a qualified physician.

Step 5: Undertake the Residency Program

Towards the end of medical school, students apply for residency programs in their chosen medical specialty. The application is typically done through the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS). ERAS is a service provided by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) that allows medical students to apply to residency programs electronically.

ERAS provides a standard application for most residency programs and many fellowship programs that also participate in the Match. The Match is the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) which is used to match students with residency positions at various institutions.

A residency program is a postgraduate training program that allows you to gain specialized training in a particular area of medicine. Residency programs typically last three to seven years, depending on the specialty you choose.

The residency program is a critical part of a physician’s training, as it allows them to gain the skills and experience they need to practice medicine independently. Residents are responsible for providing patient care, but they are always under the supervision of attending physicians. This allows residents to learn from experienced physicians and to get feedback on their work.

The residency program is a demanding but rewarding experience. Residents work long hours and are exposed to a variety of medical cases. However, they also have the opportunity to learn from some of the best physicians in the world and to make a real difference in the lives of their patients.

What Skills Will I Learn as a Physician?

Apart from the array of physician education requirements discussed so far, there are also certain core skills required. These skills are essential for providing excellent patient care, effective communication, and collaboration with other healthcare professionals.

Here are some key skills you will learn as a physician:

  • Medical Knowledge: Physicians acquire an in-depth understanding of the human body, disease processes, medical conditions, and treatments. They continuously update their medical knowledge to stay abreast of the latest advancements in medicine.
  • Clinical Skills: Physicians learn how to conduct thorough patient examinations, interpret medical tests and diagnostic results, and make accurate diagnoses.
  • Communication: Effective communication is vital in building trust with patients, explaining medical information clearly, and collaborating with other healthcare professionals.
  • Empathy and Compassion: Physicians develop empathy and compassion, recognizing the emotional needs of patients and providing empathetic care.
  • Problem-Solving: Medical practice involves identifying and analyzing complex medical issues, developing treatment plans, and adapting to unexpected clinical situations.
  • Decision-Making: Physicians learn to make well-informed and timely decisions regarding patient care, taking into account the patient’s medical history, preferences, and the evidence available.
  • Multitasking: Medical practice often requires managing multiple patient cases, tasks, and responsibilities simultaneously.
  • Leadership: As physicians, you may lead medical teams or coordinate patient care, requiring strong leadership skills to ensure effective and efficient healthcare delivery.
  • Adaptability: The medical field is constantly evolving, and physicians must be adaptable to embrace new medical technologies and evidence-based practices.
  • Ethical and Legal Knowledge: Physicians learn medical ethics, confidentiality requirements, and legal responsibilities to ensure patient rights and safety.
  • Teamwork: Physicians collaborate with nurses, technicians, therapists, and other healthcare professionals to provide comprehensive patient care.
  • Crisis Management: Physicians develop skills to handle medical emergencies and critical situations with composure and quick decision-making.

These skills, along with a commitment to lifelong learning and professional development, contribute to a physician’s ability to provide high-quality healthcare and positively impact the lives of their patients and the community they serve.

Step 6: Obtain a License to Practice

To practice as a physician, you will need to obtain a license. At this point, you will need to pass the third and final stage of your USMLE and COMLEX-USA exams. Physicians apply for a medical license through the state medical board or licensing authority in the state or country where they intend to practice. The application process typically includes submitting the necessary documentation, such as medical school transcripts, residency training records, exam scores, and proof of identity.

Step 7: Get Board-certified (optional)

While a license grants you permission to practice medicine, board certification signifies your advanced expertise and proficiency in a specific medical specialty or subspecialty. It goes beyond the basic licensing requirements and demonstrates your commitment to continuous learning and staying up-to-date with advancements in your field. Board certification enhances your professional credibility, fosters patient trust, and opens doors to various career opportunities. It is a prestigious achievement that reflects your dedication to providing the highest standard of care to your patients.

What’s the Career Outlook for Physicians?

From 2021 to 2031, the overall employment of physicians and surgeons is projected to grow by 3 percent, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compared to the average growth rate for all occupations, this growth rate is quite low.

Despite limited employment growth, approximately 23,800 openings for physicians and surgeons are projected each year, on average, over the decade. The majority of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who switch occupations or retire.

Physician Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of a Physician?

Physicians have a wide range of job opportunities across various medical specialties and subspecialties.

Here are some examples of job opportunities for physicians based on specialization:

  • Internal Medicine: Internal Medicine physicians provide primary care to adults and may choose to specialize in cardiology, gastroenterology, or other medical subspecialties.
  • Pediatrics: Pediatricians focus on the medical care of infants, children, and adolescents, and they may pursue subspecialties like pediatric oncology or neonatology.
  • Surgery: Surgeons perform various surgical procedures and may specialize in areas such as orthopedics, neurosurgery, or cardiovascular surgery.
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology: Obstetrician-Gynecologists provide women’s healthcare, including pregnancy care and delivery, and they may specialize in gynecologic oncology or reproductive endocrinology.
  • Psychiatry: Psychiatrists diagnose and treat mental health disorders and may have specializations like child and adolescent psychiatry or geriatric psychiatry.
  • Anesthesiology: Anesthesiologists administer anesthesia during surgeries and may focus on pain management or critical care medicine.
  • Radiology: Radiologists interpret medical images and may specialize in areas like interventional radiology or neuroradiology.
  • Emergency Medicine: Emergency medicine physicians provide acute care in emergency settings, stabilizing and treating critically ill patients.
  • Family Medicine: Family physicians offer comprehensive care to patients of all ages, focusing on preventive medicine and chronic disease management.
  • Neurology: Neurologists diagnose and treat neurological conditions, and they may specialize in areas such as epilepsy, movement disorders, or stroke care.

These are just a few examples of the many job opportunities available to physicians based on their specialization. Each specialty offers unique and rewarding roles, allowing physicians to focus on specific areas of medicine and provide specialized care to patients. As the field of medicine continues to evolve, new subspecialties and niche areas may also emerge, providing even more diverse career options for physicians.

Caring for Patients and Handling Personal Life as a Physician

Physicians are often faced with long hours and demanding schedules, which can make it difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance. A report shows that 50% of doctors in the United States experience substantial symptoms of burnout. This level of burnout can lead to increased stress, fatigue, and potential negative impacts on both personal and professional life.

However, recognizing the importance of work-life balance, many physicians are taking proactive steps to address these challenges. Some have started implementing self-care practices, seeking support from colleagues, or engaging in activities outside of medicine to recharge and prevent burnout.

Additionally, healthcare institutions are increasingly focusing on physician well-being, offering resources such as counseling, wellness programs, and flexible scheduling options to support their workforce. By promoting a culture of well-being and prioritizing work-life balance, the medical community aims to improve the overall health and satisfaction of physicians, which ultimately benefits patient care and the healthcare system as a whole.

What Type of Organizations Hire Physicians?

The services of physicians are typically needed in diverse settings. Their expertise and medical knowledge are vital for providing quality patient care, promoting public health, and advancing medical research and education.

  • Hospitals: Both private and public hospitals hire physicians to provide medical care to patients, manage medical departments, and conduct research.
  • Medical Clinics: Medical clinics, including primary care clinics, specialty clinics, and outpatient centers, employ physicians to offer medical services to patients on an outpatient basis.
  • Academic Institutions: Medical schools, universities, and teaching hospitals hire physicians to teach medical students, conduct research, and provide clinical education.
  • Government Agencies: Government health departments and agencies hire physicians to work on public health initiatives, disease prevention, and healthcare policy development.
  • Nonprofit Organizations: Nonprofit healthcare organizations and NGOs hire physicians to provide medical care in underserved areas or during humanitarian missions.
  • Telemedicine Companies: With the growth of telemedicine, various companies hire physicians to provide virtual medical consultations and telehealth services.
  • Military and Veterans Affairs: Military branches and the Department of Veterans Affairs employ physicians to provide medical care to service members and veterans.

In addition, physicians may establish their own private practices or join group practices where they provide medical services independently or collaboratively with other healthcare professionals.

Should I Become a Physician?

Beyond the scrubs and white coats, becoming a physician is a profound decision that demands dedication, extensive education, and commitment to lifelong learning. Physicians play a pivotal role in patient care, diagnosis, and treatment, working across diverse healthcare settings like hospitals, clinics, and private practices. Their expertise and medical knowledge are vital for providing quality patient care, promoting public health, and advancing medical research and education.

If you have a passion for science, a deep desire to help others, and are willing to invest years of hard work, a career as a physician can be incredibly rewarding. However, it is crucial to thoroughly consider the significant time and financial investments required, the potential challenges of long hours and demanding schedules, and the ongoing commitment to patient well-being and continuous professional development. Ultimately, a decision to become a physician should align with your personal values, goals, and aspirations for a fulfilling and impactful career in the field of medicine.


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Careers Related to Physician

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the fastest way to become a Physician in the United States?

The fastest way to become a doctor in the United States typically involves enrolling in three-year medical school programs or participating in accelerated residency programs.

These programs are designed to condense the traditional medical education timeline, allowing students to complete their medical training in a shorter period. However, it is crucial to recognize that the accelerated route can come with additional stress and intensity due to the condensed curriculum and demanding schedule.


Who accredits medical schools?

Medical schools in the United States are accredited by two main organizations: the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) and the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA). The LCME accredits medical education programs leading to the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree, while COCA accredits osteopathic medical education programs leading to the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree.


What are the challenges of becoming a Physician?

The challenges of becoming a physician include the long and demanding education and training requirements, the high cost of medical school, and the stress of the job. However, the rewards of being a physician can be great, including the opportunity to help people and make a difference in their lives.


Ibrahim Okunade

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