How to Become a Doctor
Students interested in becoming a physician should be aware that it is a long and challenging—but rewarding—path. The long path—at least 11 years—requires extraordinary dedication and patience, as well as excellent grades and test scores. Many ask themselves the question: why become a doctor? Why do you want to be a doctor? It stems from a desire to learn and the compassion to help people, but it’s also helpful to do research as far as why be a doctor before deciding if this is the path for you.
Students who decide on a medical career should explore all the options available, get real world experience in the field, and have meaningful and informative conversations with physicians and other medical professionals. The steps to becoming a doctor—undergraduate study, medical school, and residency—are detailed below.
Consider everything well—it is a big decision to start down the medical path. If you think you might want to be a physician, ask yourself some questions:
- Are you fascinated by human anatomy and the biological sciences?
- Do you want a challenging and rewarding career?
- Do you value the choice of a wide variety of career paths and opportunities?
- Are you dedicated to helping people lead healthier, happier lives?
- Are you an excellent student who wants to continue learning?
- Do you want the authority and prestige that comes with being a physician?
If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, then a career as a physician may be for you.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO BECOME A DOCTOR?
You might be curious to know how long does it take to become a doctor and how to become a doctor? Ideally, you should start preparing while still in high school. Excellent high school students should look for a university with a good premed program and do their best to gain admission. Typically “premed'' is not a major, but rather a set of prerequisite courses needed for medical school. A premed program typically includes:
- Biochemistry (one semester)
- Biology (two semesters with a lab)
- English (two semesters)
- General chemistry (two semesters with a lab)
- Math (two semesters)
- Organic chemistry (two semesters with lab)
- Physics (two semesters with a lab)
- Psychology and Statistics are sometimes required
Premed students must achieve strong grades in these courses. During the process of how to become a doctor, it is important to keep in mind the importance of getting good grades. Grade point average (GPA) is one of the critical factors of acceptance to medical school. Students can major in whatever they like if they take the necessary premed courses. Most premed students, however, major in such hard sciences as biology, biochemistry, biomedical sciences, or chemistry. While in university, premed students should also participate in such related extracurricular activities as:
- Assisting in faculty research projects
- Participating in summer health education programs
- Shadowing a physician
- Working in emergency medical services (EMS)
- Volunteering in health programs
Your premed classes and medical experiences help you prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), a standardized, multiple-choice exam administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). The test is required for students wanting to enter a four-year medical school—such as American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine (AUC). Students should take time to study MCAT preparation guides, take MCAT practice tests, and consider an MCAT prep course in order to position themselves to earn a strong score. The test has four 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
With a high GPA, medical experience, and excellent MCAT scores, students must decide which type of medical school they want to attend—schools that offer a traditional Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree, or schools that offer a Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) degree. DOs and MDs complete much of the same training, but DOs also learn osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) of the musculoskeletal system as a diagnostic and treatment tool. Most medical schools, including AUC, offer MD degree programs.
Another part of the process of how to become a doctor is preparing applications to multiple medical schools. This can be a costly and time consuming process. The American Medical Association (AMA) reports that students apply to an average of 16 medical schools. Applications are done in stages, with primary applications, secondary applications, and interviews all coming before acceptance.
Some universities offer combined baccalaureate-MD programs, which are partnerships between an undergraduate institution and the medical school at the same university or a nearby university. These highly competitive programs can bypass the difficult application process. For university graduates who want to pause a while or add to their undergraduate education before applying to medical schools, a “gap year” may include working in a medical field or attending a health care master’s program or postbaccalaureate premedical program. A gap year can take place over more than one calendar year.
WHAT IS MEDICAL SCHOOL?
Each medical school curriculum is unique, but most schools divide training into two parts: pre-clinical and clinical. In a traditional four-year curriculum, the pre-clinical or diagnostic phase takes place during the first two years. This phase consists of science classes that teach basic medical concepts, diseases, diagnosis and treatment concepts, the structure and functions of the body, and the taking of medical histories. Basic science classes include:
- Cell biology
- Evidence Based Medicine
- Introduction to Clinical Medicine
At the end of the first two years, students take final exams or the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) Comprehensive Basic Science exam to demonstrate their knowledge and progress. The exams serve as preparation for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1, also known as “The Boards”—the first official test of the medical licensure process.
Many schools evaluate students on an honors/ pass/ fail basis, while others issue traditional letter grades. Others may use a competency-based evaluation system that measures student progression. Grades matter in pre-clinical training—particularly in later residency applications and interviews—but they are only a part of the larger evaluation process. The most important thing is to learn the material.
Aside from classwork and clinical training, medical students learn to build relationships with mentors, explore medical career options, manage finances, and care for their personal physical and mental well-being. Along the journey of becoming a doctor, medical students will learn that medical school is expensive, and it is also stressful.
The last two years of medical school usually include the clerkships, or the clinical portion of the training. Clinical rotations in year three of medical school provide supervised experience working with patients, and help give students an idea of which medical specialty appeals to them most. During rotations, students are part of a medical team, led by an attending physician, that includes residents (doctors-in-training) and interns (first-year residents). To further explore specialties, students may also join specialty interest groups or student sections of medical specialty societies. By the end of year three, most students have decided what their specialty or patient population—kids, adults, or senior citizens—will be. Specialties covered during clinical training include:
- Internal medicine
- Family medicine
- Obstetrics and gynecology
Students may take the NBME Comprehensive Clinical Science exam as well as the USMLE Step 2CK (Clinical Knowledge), the second part of the licensure process, between the third and fourth year of medical school. The USMLE Step 2 CS (Clinical Skills) was permanently discontinued in January 2021 after being suspended in May 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the fourth and final year of medical school, students continue clinical training and dive deeper into specialties of interest. Students usually have the flexibility to train in various hospitals or other locations. Students begin applying to residencies in year four—a process similar to applying for entry to medical schools—and go to residency interviews. Students then create a “rank-order list” of preferred residency programs which is matched against a similar list created by the programs. In late March—on “Match Day”—the majority of students learn if they have been matched with a residency program to fill postgraduate training positions accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). Many medical students match with one of their top three preferred residency programs, but students applying to more competitive specialties may be matched with programs lower down their list or may not earn a position of their choice.
The process of becoming a doctor concludes when medical students graduate at the end of year four. By this time they have fulfilled all requirements, including any research or community service obligations. They receive their Doctor of Medicine (or Doctor of Osteopathy) degree and earn the title, Doctor. The newly minted physicians are not, however, ready to practice medicine on their own.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING RESIDENCY?
A medical residency takes place in a hospital or clinic and provides in-depth training within a specific medical specialty. First year residents are called interns because the first year of residency—also called PGY-1 (postgraduate year one)—is considered an internship. Interns are doctors, but they may only practice medicine with the guidance and supervision of attending physicians. Interns work long hours as they put their classroom and clinical experience into practice. They will see patients with a wide variety of conditions. Interns rotate through a variety of specialties or areas within a specialty. For example, rotations for internal medicine may include inpatient and outpatient experience in:
- CCU/Heart Failure
- Emergency Medicine
- Infectious Disease
- Medicine Consult
- Palliative Care
Doctors typically take the USMLE Step 3, the final exam for licensure, during or after PGY-1. (Doctors of Osteopathy may take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination, or COMLEX-USA, as well as the USMLE.) Doctors who pass the test can be licensed to practice medicine, but residency continues.
In the second and third years of residency—PGY-2 (postgraduate year two) and PGY-3 (postgraduate year three)—doctors-in-training are called residents as they concentrate more on their particular specialty. Residents also work long hours seeing patients and making rounds with their team, led by an attending physician, that normally includes interns and other residents. Lectures and conferences are routine, as are conducting physical exams, doing medical histories, and writing admitting orders.
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) lists more than 135 medical specialties and subspecialties. For doctors in internal or family medicine, residency is complete after three years and they may go into practice. For doctors in other specialties, residencies continue for an additional one to four years. Physicians may be certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine or by the board of their eventual specialty, and they may apply for membership in the American Medical Association (AMA) or other professional societies.
AUC School of Medicine has a strong history of placing graduating students in residencies across a variety of specialties in the U.S. and Canada. In 2020, graduates secured 340 residency positions, and our 2020–2021 graduates achieved a 91% first-time eligible residency attainment rate.
Take the next step on your path to becoming a doctor: apply for admission to AUC.