How Can I Become a Physician?

Research what it takes to become a physician. Learn about education requirements, licensure, job duties and salary to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Health Science degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Physician?

Physicians work in private practices, clinics and hospitals. They take care of, diagnose and observe sick and injured patients, as well as performing routine check-ups. Physicians are responsible for maintaining medical records and thoroughly reviewing a patient's medical history prior to treatment. They may order various diagnostic tests and develop treatment plans based off of the results. Physicians must communicate with their patients to explain their treatment options, as well as answer any questions or concerns the patient may have. These professionals typically specialize in a particular area of medicine, such as gynecology, pediatrics, anesthesiology and more. Look over the chart below for an overview of this profession.

Degree Required Doctoral degree
Training Required Residency
Key Responsibilities Examine patients, order diagnostic tests, prescribe treatments, diagnose patients
Licensure Required Licensure is required; varies by state
Job Growth (2014-2024) 14% (for physicians and surgeons)*
Average Salary (2015) $197,700 (for physicians and surgeons)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Education Do I Need to Become a Physician?

While no specific undergraduate major is usually required for medical school, taking courses in organic and physical chemistry, physics and biology can help you meet many medical school prerequisites. Though you could earn a bachelor's degree, many schools offer 3-year pre-med programs that cover the necessary education required for medical school admission. Getting into medical school can be competitive, and your undergraduate grades, extracurricular activities and any health care experience you have are often considered. Most schools require you to submit scores from the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) along with your undergraduate transcripts and letters of recommendation.

Following your undergraduate study, a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree program takes four years of full-time study. Coursework in medical school spans a vast range of subjects in the sciences, including anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology and pathology. You'll also spend significant time working in laboratory settings and completing clinical rotations in various medical specialties.

Alternatively, several schools offer Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) programs. The D.O. is also a 4-year professional degree that can lead to a career as a physician. Curricula in D.O. programs differ somewhat from that of M.D. programs by placing more emphasis on preventative medicine and the musculoskeletal system.

Do I Need To Be Licensed?

Once you earn your degree, all states and U.S. territories require you to become licensed in order to practice medicine. You'll take the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) if you earned an M.D. or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medicine Licensing Examination (COMLEX) if you completed a D.O. program. Both exams consist of three comprehensive stages. During your licensing process, you might need to participate in a 1-year, supervised internship through a public, private or university hospital. During an internship, you can begin to focus your practice in the specific area that interests you, such as family medicine, pediatrics or cardiology.

Can I Practice Medicine Once I'm Licensed?

Although it's possible to practice medicine after you graduate from medical school and earn your license, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that the vast majority of licensed doctors opt to participate in residencies (www.bls.gov). These programs consist of advanced training that afford you the opportunity to further specialize in a unique area of medicine. Medical residency programs generally last 2-7 years, depending on your specialty, and entail a combination of practical training and didactic learning. During a residency, you could work under the supervision of one doctor or a team of specialists.

After completing your residency, you can also opt to apply for a 1- to 2-year fellowship in a medical subspecialty. As a licensed physician, you could earn board certification in your chosen specialty through several credentialing organizations, such as the American Board of Medical Specialists, the American Board of Family Medicine or the American Osteopathic Association. To maintain your license and board certification, you'll usually need to complete professional development activities, such as continuing education courses, medical seminars or professional research projects.

What Might My Work Be Like?

As a physician, you could frequently work long hours, often with little consistency, and participate in on-call rotations. Depending on your particular specialty, you might spend lengthy periods of time in surgery or on standby. Private practice could offer a more regular schedule, though you might still need to be available during off hours for medical emergencies. Your day-to-day work duties can vary greatly and include examining patients, making diagnoses, prescribing and administering treatments, ordering diagnostic tests, providing follow-up care and counseling patients on health concerns.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

There are several other related careers in the medical field that require a doctoral or professional degree, including chiropractors, optometrists and veterinarians. Chiropractors focus on treating and managing pain that a patient is experiencing in their neck or back. They may use spinal adjustments and other treatments to adjust the bones, muscles and nerves in these areas. Optometrists specialize in treating conditions of the eye. They prescribe glasses or contacts, perform minor surgeries and treat various eye injuries. Veterinarians perform many of the same tasks as physicians, but with animal patients. They will diagnose and treat various conditions in small, large and/or exotic animals.

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