Requirements for Becoming a Physician
Note: We are not able to respond to individual letters from students seeking information on health care careers for school projects or similar activities. Please refer instead to the following resources.
Check out the Health Professions Network Facebook page for news and updates on allied health and related fields.
The National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions also offers information to assist students interested in medical and other health care careers.
In addition, you may wish to refer to the following fact sheets from the Association of American Medical Colleges' Aspiring Docs program:
- How Do I... Decide if a Career in Medicine is Right for Me?
- How Do I... Partner with my Advisor?
- How Do I... Apply to Medical School?
- How Do I... Pay for Medical School?
- How Do I... Prepare for the MCAT® Exam?
- What's it Like to... Take the MCAT® Exam?
- How Do I... Get Lab Experience?
- How Do I... Shadow a Doctor?
- What's it Like to... Do a M.D./Ph.D. Program?
- What's It Like to... Be an Undergrad in a B.S./M.D. Program?
- What's it Like to... See a Patient for the First Time?
The education of physicians in the United States is lengthy and involves undergraduate education, medical school and graduate medical education. (The term "graduate medical education" [GME.page includes residency and fellowship training; the American Medical Association does not use the term "postgraduate education.")
- Undergraduate education: Four years at a college or university to earn a BS or BA degree, usually with a strong emphasis on basic sciences, such as biology, chemistry, and physics (some students may enter medical school with other areas of emphasis).
- Medical school (undergraduate medical education): Four years of education at one of the U.S. medical schools accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). Four years at one of the LCME-accredited U.S. medical schools, consisting of preclinical and clinical parts. After completing medical school, students earn their doctor of medicine degrees (MDs), although they must complete additional training before practicing on their own as a physician. (Note: Some physicians receive a doctor of osteopathic medicine [DO.page degree from a college of osteopathic medicine.)
- Residency program (graduate medical education): Through a national matching program, newly graduated MDs enter into a residency program that is three to seven years or more of professional training under the supervision of senior physician educators. The length of residency training varies depending on the medical specialty chosen: family practice, internal medicine, and pediatrics, for example, require 3 years of training; general surgery requires 5 years. (Some refer to the first year of residency as an "internship"; the AMA no longer uses this term.)
- Fellowship: One to three years of additional training in a subspecialty is an option for some doctors who want to become highly specialized in a particular field, such as gastroenterology, a subspecialty of internal medicine and of pediatrics, or child and adolescent psychiatry, a subspecialty of psychiatry.
After completing undergraduate, medical school and graduate medical education (GME), a physician still must obtain a license to practice medicine from a state or jurisdiction of the United States in which they are planning to practice. They apply for the permanent license after completing a series of exams and completing a minimum number of years of graduate medical education.
The majority of physicians also choose to become board certified, which is an optional, voluntary process. Certification ensures that the doctor has been tested to assess his or her knowledge, skills, and experience in a specialty and is deemed qualified to provide quality patient care in that specialty. There are two levels of certification through 24 specialty medical boards — doctors can be certified in 36 general medical specialties and in an additional 88 subspecialty fields. Most certifications must be renewed after six to 10 years, depending on the specialty.
Learning does not end when physicians complete their residency or fellowship training. Doctors continue to receive credits for continuing medical education, and some states require a certain number of CME credits per year to ensure the doctor's knowledge and skills remain current. Continuing medical education requirements vary by state, by professional organizations, and by hospital medical staff organizations.
—Some of the above information was adapted from "Your Doctor's Education" in JAMA, Sept. 6, 2000.
Note: The AMA does not have information or pamphlets to distribute regarding the various fields of medicine. For more information on a specific medical field of interest, please contact the relevant professional association for that field.