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How Many Years to Become a Doctor?

Growth Trends for Related Jobs

When you consider medicine as a career, your concerns may include the length of time it takes to become a doctor and how you can come up with the funds to pay for the high cost of medical school. You should know, however, that medical residents – doctors in training – are paid for their services, and that the extra time spent in school pays off later in salaries that are many times higher than the national average.


Depending on the medical specialty you choose, it typically takes between 11 and 15 years to become a doctor.

Job Description

Doctors treat patients' illnesses and injuries by asking questions, examining them, ordering tests, analyzing results, making diagnoses, prescribing medications and other treatments, and sometimes by performing surgery.

Depending on the specialty you choose, you might concentrate on examining and treating heart patients (cardiology) or those diagnosed with cancer (oncology). You may decide to treat only children (pediatrics) or people who have arthritis (rheumatology).

You can be a doctor who doesn't treat any patients at all. These physicians lead research studies to try to cure diseases such as cancer and arthritis or to determine what causes different diseases and how to prevent them. They often publish the results of their research studies in medical journals.

Not all of an office, clinic or hospital doctor's time is spent seeing patients, either. Doctors can't escape paperwork and keeping records any more than those in other jobs – 38 percent of doctors report spending between 10 and 19 hours per week on administrative tasks and paperwork, while 32 percent say they spend 20+ hours per week on such details.

Education Requirements and Cost of Medical School

Although the total number of years it takes to become a doctor depends on the branch of medicine you pursue, all students follow the same steps to become a doctor after high school:

  • Four years of college to earn a bachelor's degree
  • Four years of medical school
  • Internship and residency programs lasting three to seven years

Admission to medical school is competitive, and not everyone who applies is admitted. Therefore, enhance your undergraduate schedule with extra science and math classes where you can. Also, take (and ace) an English composition class to show you'll be an excellent communicator with your colleagues and patients.

The first two years of medical school are mostly classroom learning reinforced with lab work. Along with courses in biochemistry, anatomy and other sciences, you learn the basics of working with patients and diagnosing illnesses.

In the third and fourth years, you begin to work directly with patients under the supervision of licensed physicians. You also rotate through different specialties to see the differences in diagnosing illness and disease in each field. Toward the end of medical school, you decide which specialty you want to pursue and begin looking for hospital residencies in that specialty.

As a resident, you are still supervised by experienced physicians. That's why residents are paid minimal salaries; they can't contribute on their own. The average resident salary across all specialties in 2017 was $57,200. Hematology residents were paid an average of $69,000. Cardiology residents received $62,000, and family medicine residents were paid an average of $54,000.

Doctors in every state must be licensed before they can practice without supervision. Medical doctors (M.D.s) must pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), while Doctors of Osteopathy (D.O.s) take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). Check with your state to see if there are additional requirements for licensing.

The median physician salary as of May 2017 was $208,000. A median salary is the midpoint in a list of salaries for one occupation, where half of doctors earned more and half earned less.

Sometimes doctors' salaries are given with bonuses and profit sharing included, which results in higher reported compensation. In the case of owners, they're calculated after allowable deductions but before income taxes. In any case, licensed practicing doctors' salaries continue to vary according to their specialty. The lowest paid specialties in 2017 were public health ($199,000) and pediatrics ($212,000). Family medicine doctors earned a bit more ($219,000). Among the highest paid were plastic surgeons ($501,000), cardiologists ($423,000) and anesthesiologists ($386,000). These figures are averages, where all reported salaries for each specialty are added together and divided by the number of salaries.

These salaries help doctors pay off the debt they've accumulated from the high cost of medical school. In 2017, 63 percent of residents reported medical school debt between $100,000 and $300,000 or more.

Industry Information

Doctors work in clinics, hospitals and private practice as solo practitioners or in group practices. Most work full time and many work overtime, especially during emergencies or when they are on call. Since 2015, about 20 percent of female doctors and 12 percent of male doctors have worked part time, however.

Years of Experience

As with most jobs, doctors learn more about their work with every year they practice medicine. Therefore, their salaries often increase as they gain expertise. Even resident salaries increase with each year of residency. Average resident salaries as reported for 2017 are:

  • $53,100 (first year) 
  • $56,700 (third year) 
  • $63,800 (sixth through eighth years for those with longer residencies)

Licensed doctors who are not solo practitioners may have to ask their employers for raises, pointing out how their expertise has grown and their increased contributions.

Job Growth Trend

The aging of the baby boomer generation means more people will require medical services for the diseases that increase with age including arthritis and heart disease. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be a need for 13 percent more doctors between 2016 and 2026. This is much higher than the average growth rate for most jobs.