The medical field is one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. If earning a medical degree has always been a lifelong dream but the fear of spending decades in medical school is holding you back, rest easy. For students who are capable of handling a significant amount of coursework, a career in the medical industry can be accomplished with as few as two years and up to 10 or 12 years of higher education, depending on the occupation you wish to attain, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Fortunately, the healthcare field provides many employment options ranging from technical to administrative for highly-trained medical professionals. Medical degrees, regardless of position, start at the associate and bachelor’s levels and typically include master’s and doctoral degrees. Below, we examine several different types of medical degrees and also explore what prospective students can expect during the years they will spend in medical school.
How Long is Medical School?
Below, we dig a little deeper to examine how long it takes to finish medical school for individuals looking to earn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree. Generally speaking, a typical medical school program can be completed within approximately four years. However, the timing will depend on the specific institution, if a student takes a leave of absence or elects to take additional courses, or if he or she pursues additional training.
While students can earn an M.D. after only four years in medical school, physicians must also complete additional training in a residency program. Depending on the specialty, residency programs can last up to seven additional years beyond medical school. After completing a residency, many physicians choose to enter into a subspecialty fellowship training program, which may take one or two additional years to complete. With ongoing skill training and required continuing medical education requirements, a doctor’s educational journey is never truly over. The following information summarizes the degree timeline for an M.D. and takes a deeper look into what students can expect during each year of medical school.
Years 1 and 2: Complete Pre-Clinical Coursework
Students spend the first two years of medical school in science training. They may split their time between hands-on learning in the lab and listening to lectures in the classroom. During this time, in-depth coursework explores the basic sciences, including pharmacology, chemistry, microbiology, and anatomy. Lectures review the interplay of different systems, how functions manifest through physiology, and detailed knowledge of body structures. This foundation paves the way for advanced knowledge of medical treatments, diagnoses, and concepts for a broad spectrum of medical conditions. Students will apply much of what they have learned from their lab and science courses in practice patient interactions such as conducting physical examinations or obtaining medical histories.
Depending on the specifics of the program, the structure of the curriculum in medical school might look different. In some medical schools, students may take four or five different courses at once over an extended period of time. In other schools, the curriculum focuses on a single topic for four to six weeks, ensuring students master the concepts provided before moving on to the next area of study. It is important to keep the curriculum’s structure as well as personal preferences and learning styles in mind when selecting the right medical school.
Preparation for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 begins during the second year of medical school. The USMLE is one of three exams that students must take to demonstrate basic competence in the clinical practice and scientific disciplines of medicine. Students should be prepared for questions regarding the mechanisms and concepts behind therapies, disease, and health. The USMLE is typically taken near the end of the second year before students begin their clerkship rotations.
In addition to completing a rigorous curriculum, students spend the first two years developing study groups and friendships, becoming acclimated to the pace of medical school, and expanding their understanding of medicine as a whole.
Between the first and second years of medical school, students will experience their last official summer break. Many choose to relax and have fun during this time. Some have children, get married, or take vacations. Some students choose to pursue volunteer work or research opportunities. Others use this break to preview future clinical rotations. Students may choose to connect with a faculty member with experience in a specialty area in which they are interested, engage in extracurriculars such as foreign language classes, or they may pursue externships offered by the school they are attending
Year 3: Begin Clinical Rotations
Formerly called clerkships or clinical rotations, the hands-on training in medical school happens in the third year. Instead of spending the majority of their days in labs, classrooms, or lecture halls, medical students spend their time in the clinic or hospital. During these rotations, students are exposed to both general patient care and many different specialties across a variety of patient populations. In most medical school programs, students are required to follow a core set of standard rotations. Some common core or basic rotations students can expect include:
- Internal Medicine
- Family Medicine
- Gynecology and Obstetrics
Depending on the surrounding resources and hospitals, the school’s location, and the school itself, students may find themselves with unique opportunities and experiences. For instance, those attending medical school in an urban city might also have rotations in trauma or emergency medicine.
Students can select a specialty area by the end of the third year. This niche will be the one in which students receive ongoing training during their fourth-year rotations. Clinical rotations are an ideal time for students to think about their values and interests as they narrow down the types of residency programs they would like to pursue.
During their third year, students also prepare to take the USMLE Step 2 examination, which usually happens at the end of the third year or at the beginning of the fourth year. The USMLE Step 2 exam assesses students’ understanding of clinical science, what they have learned during their general internal medicine rotations, interpersonal skills like conducting physical examinations or communicating with patients, and basic clinical knowledge. The USMLE Step 2 is split into two categories: Step 2 CK (Clinical Knowledge) and Step 2 CS (Clinical Sciences).
Year 4: Finish Final Year and Apply for Residency
During the fourth and final year of medical school, clinical rotations continue. Students typically pursue electives that strengthen their applications to residency programs and match their long-term career interests. The fourth year can also be spent completing audition rotations, or sub-internships. During this time, students’ performance in their specialty is evaluated and scrutinized. While it can be a difficult component, undergoing an audition rotation can help students to secure a position of employment in the program after they graduate. It can also add validity to and strengthen future letters of recommendation.
As students continue with their clinical rotations, they are also preparing their residency applications. These applications are submitted through the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS), typically beginning around September 15. Students are required to choose different residency programs they would like to pursue and rank them according to interest. In-person interviews are typically completed between October and February, after which the residency programs submit their own ranking list of applicants they would like to have enrolled.
A computer algorithm is then used to determine the best match between an open residency position and a candidate. During the Match Day ceremony, which is usually held in March, medical students are notified of their residency match and where they will complete the remaining portion of their required medical training.
What Happens After Medical School?
In most cases, residency programs hold an orientation in late June with the programs beginning in early July. Brand new medical doctors may have a few weeks off to recuperate before transitioning into their new residencies. Some choose to take a vacation during this time before beginning the next phase of their training and education.
The first year of residency includes time dedicated to preparing for the final USMLE exam, Step 3. Students must pass this exam to obtain their official medical licenses. Earning a medical license allows students to legally practice medicine without supervision and allows them to be recognized by their state’s medical board. The last component of the three-step testing includes assessing students’ clinical medical knowledge and how to appropriately apply this knowledge in an outpatient setting. The Step 3 exam is generally the least difficult of all three tests and is usually taken at the end of the first year or early in the second year of the residency program.
After completing a specialty training program or residency, a physician, veterinarian, or dentist may undergo a fellowship. During this time, typically at least one year, the physician is referred to as a “fellow.” Fellows are capable of acting as a consultant physician or attending physician in the field in which they were trained such as pediatrics or internal medicine. After completing a fellowship in a sub-specialty, the physician is able to practice without direct supervision by other physicians.
How Long Will it Take to Earn a Medical Degree?
Whether one pursues a two-year associate degree or a six-year doctorate, it goes without saying that a medical degree requires a significant amount of personal time and commitment. There are many medical degrees available in the healthcare industry. Before choosing one, students should consider the type of career they wish to pursue, what they hope to accomplish within that career, and how they plan to get there.
In most cases, general practitioners, family practitioners, and pediatricians complete three-year residencies, while most surgical specialties, urology, and radiology require five years. Below we look at 10 different medical occupations as well as the time one can expect to spend in medical school pursuing them.
Primary Care Physician
Primary care is not a medical specialty. Rather, it includes doctors who practice pediatrics, internal medicine, or family medicine. A primary care physician may be a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) or a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.), but in both cases, he or she focuses on the day-to-day medical needs of patients. They can be found providing infants with immunizations, conducting physicals for adolescents to attend soccer camp, or diagnosing influenza for senior citizens. Aspiring primary care physicians (PCPs) must complete a four-year bachelor’s degree, spend four years in medical school, and complete a three-year residency geared toward primary care of all age groups. Some PCPs may choose to complete further training in a one- to three-year fellowship in a particular aspect of medical care like preventative medicine or obstetrics.
A pediatrician is a physician trained to address the medical and health needs of patients under the age of 21. Not only are they responsible for diagnosing and treating the maladies that affect young adults, adolescents, children, babies, and infants, but they must also help their young patients to maintain good overall health. An aspiring pediatrician can expect to spend an average of 13 years of education and training to become a healthcare provider for kids. This includes a four-year bachelor’s degree, four years in medical school, and a three-year residency in an approved program. During this residency, students further learn about treating children under the supervision of an experienced pediatrician. Those who wish to specialize in a pediatric subfield like medical genetics, neonatology, or critical care will pursue a two- to three-year fellowship.
Surgeons are responsible for operating in the event of injury, illness, or disease when other non-invasive treatments fail to correct the issue. They are responsible for providing the diagnosis, preoperative, operative, and postoperative care to patients. Surgeons may receive broad training to become a general surgeon, or they may receive highly-specialized training in an area like cardiothoracic surgery. Overall, of all the medical specialties, surgeons require the most intensive training. They must complete a four-year undergraduate degree in a major related to medicine, four intense years in medical school, and a three-year residency in which they may begin a specialization. Surgeons are then required to begin a multi-year internship in a surgical department at an accredited facility, the duration of which depends on that surgical specialty chosen.
The anesthesiologist plays a critical role in the operating room. A highly trained physician, an anesthesiologist is responsible for the well-being and safety of patients before, during, and after surgery. They are trained on the proper administration of anesthesia, and they must monitor the effects of anesthesia on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the patient’s present and past medical histories. Aspiring anesthesiologists complete a four-year bachelor’s degree in any field and gain a four-year medical school education to earn a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) or Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree. Following medical school, anesthesiologists undergo four years of specialized training via a residency, which includes one year of an internship or general rotations related to general medicine, followed by a rigorous three-year, anesthesiology-focused education. They may also choose to complete an optional one- to two-year fellowship in which they concentrate on a specific anesthesiology area like dental, transplant, pediatric, or neurosurgical anesthesiology.
Clinical neurologists work to understand brain function, providing diagnostic and medical care for many neurological conditions. These may include memory or concentration loss, seizure and blackouts, tingling or numbness, sleep disorders, or spinal cord injuries. Clinical neurologists must complete a four-year bachelor’s degree and spend four years in medical school. Immediately after leaving medical school, aspiring neurologists participate in a one- to three-year internship focused on surgery or internal medicine, depending on their career goals. Following the internship, neurologists complete a four-year residency. Some may choose to pursue a fellowship program and receive an education in a neurological subspecialty. The length of time to complete the fellowship will depend on the subspecialty chosen. For instance, the neurodevelopmental disabilities subspecialty will take four years, while the clinical neurophysiology subspecialty will only require one year.
Oncologists are physicians that specialize in the treatment and diagnosis of cancers. They provide care from the time of diagnosis, throughout the course of the disease, and into remission. Oncologists oversee any issues related to the quality of life, including the management of pain medication and the treatment of common side effects of chemotherapy and radiation such as loss of appetite, insomnia, vomiting, and nausea. Oncologists must complete a four-year undergraduate program or pre-med program before applying to medical school. After spending four years in medical school, aspiring oncologists train as internists and complete a residency in internal medicine. Gynecological oncologists complete a three-year OB/GYN residency and an additional three- to four-year fellowship in oncology. Pediatric oncologists complete a three-year pediatric residency and a three-year pediatric-oncology fellowship. Surgical oncologists complete a five-year surgical residency and a three-year oncology fellowship.
Cardiologists are physicians who specialize in heart conditions, diseases, and treatments as well as counsel patients on how to prevent heart-related conditions. Cardiologists study the way the heart works, including diagnosis conditions and irregularities, as well as creating appropriate treatment plans and following their patients’ progress. Aspiring cardiologists earn a four-year bachelor’s and complete an additional four years in medical school. Following medical school, cardiologists take part in a residency, the length of which depends on the specialty chosen. However, in most cases, cardiologists attend three-year internal medicine residencies, after which they complete a three-year fellowship to gain advanced training in the field.
Obstetricians are physicians who have gained specialty training to care primarily for women before, during, and after pregnancy. They are also tasked with providing bi-annual wellness checks and screenings, treating females from pre-adolescence to post-menopause, and treating hormone-related conditions and many disorders and conditions of the reproductive system. Aspiring obstetricians should prepare to spend as many as 12 years learning the field. Their educational path begins with a four-year bachelor’s degree and four years in medical school. After medical school is completed, future obstetricians participate in a four-year residency in which they expand their knowledge and focus on gynecology and obstetrics. Those who do not wish to specialize may seek employment with a company or private practice at this time. However, some may choose to take part in a three- or four-year fellowship in a subspecialty such as reproductive endocrinology, gynecology, or maternal-fetal medicine. Other variable-length residencies are available in subspecialties like global health, family planning, urogynecology, and reproductive infectious diseases.
Ophthalmologists not only carry out tasks like testing a patient’s 20/20 vision and prescribing a new pair of glasses, but they are also qualified to manage hard-to-diagnose and more advanced eye conditions. Specializing in the surgical and medical care of the eyes and vision systems, ophthalmologists can also be found performing delicate eye surgery on patients. In terms of eye doctors, ophthalmologists are routinely confused with optometrists, who act as the primary health provider for annual checkups and standard vision issues. However, ophthalmologists undergo more training related to the medical aspect of eye care, allowing them to perform complex surgeries. Future ophthalmologists must first earn a bachelor’s degree and complete four years of medical school to obtain a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) or Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree. After completing medical school, these professionals complete a one-year internship and a three-year ophthalmology residency program. After completing their residency and obtaining licensure, some ophthalmologists choose to pursue a one- to three-year fellowship in a subspecialty to gain specialized training in an area like pediatric eye issues, diseases of the corneas, plastic surgery, or glaucoma.
When it comes to figuring out how long it will take to become a doctor, it is important to do research and map out the years ahead. When one is focused on the end goal of practicing medicine, setting appropriate expectations is crucial. Students will make sacrifices on this journey during some of the best years of their lives. However, having the skills, tools, and knowledge to care for patients in their specialty of choice can go a long way to living a rewarding and fulfilling career in medicine.
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