For people with a desire to become a doctor and help others improve or maintain their health, attending medical school is a logical step in obtaining the training necessary to pursue this career. Although the path toward becoming a doctor is a long and often arduous one, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) notes that more than 96 percent of new medical students are successful at reaching this goal. Medical schools and the professional staff who work there strive very hard to help their students earn their degrees.
In the United States, becoming a physician generally takes at least eleven years. Students must complete four years each of college and medical school, and then work at least three years in a hospital for their residency training. For some specialties, the time commitment is even longer. After doctors finish their medical school training, they must also become licensed in the state in which they wish to practice medicine. This process requires that they pass a series of exams and finish a minimum number of years of graduate medical education. Many physicians opt to become board certified as well, a voluntary testing process that helps verify that the doctor’s skills, knowledge, and experience qualify him or her to perform patient care within a particular specialty.
A doctor’s education actually continues much longer than his or her formal years in medical school and residency training; some even say the learning is a lifelong process. Doctors can earn continuing medical education credits, and some states require a minimum number of credits per year to help verify that the individual’s knowledge and abilities meet current standards. These requirements vary not only by state but also by professional organizations and hospital medical staff organizations.
Because the advances in medicine and technology are continual, the number of jobs available for physicians throughout the 2008–2018 decade is expected to grow at a faster-than-average rate, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported. Additionally, the population is continuing to age, spurring further need for the services physicians can provide. Those willing to serve in low-income and rural areas should find particularly good opportunities for work.
After medical school, a physician’s career naturally provides ample opportunity to work with and serve the public, participate as a member of a health-care team, and nurture a continual interest in learning. In terms of monetary benefits, doctors are also among the best-paid professionals in the United States. Fewer doctors are working for themselves these days, choosing instead to become salaried professionals in a health-care system. However, self-employed physicians who own all or part of their medical practice generally fare better than their salaried counterparts. Earnings vary based on experience, skill level, professional reputation, and other factors.
As you consider whether this field is right for you, the AAMC recommends that prospective medical school students ask themselves several questions, such as whether they care about others and their problems and pain, whether they enjoy using their knowledge and talents to help others, and whether they possess a keen interest in the human body and the ways medicine can help people. For those who feel health care is a good career choice, medical school can be a tremendous start toward a wide variety of opportunities
Choosing the Right Medical School
If you are interested in a career as challenging as medicine, then finding the right medical school is of the utmost importance when embarking on this journey. There are several factors — of both a practical and personal nature — that prospective medical students should consider when applying to medical schools and narrowing down options once any acceptance letters start arriving.Students will make some early choices about finding the right medical school during the application process. When selecting schools to which you would like to apply, weigh your options against your personal strengths as an applicant. Kaplan Test Prep advises applicants to place their medical school selections into three categories: dream schools, good possibilities, and safeties. “Dream schools” are those places you would be quite pleased to attend, but where your chances of being admitted are questionable or maybe even unlikely. The “good possibilities” are those programs where your grades and MCAT scores are close to average among the other applicants the school may be considering. “Safety” schools are places where you will very likely be admitted.
Applying to medical school can be a time-intensive process. When deciding how many medical schools to apply to, carefully measure the strength of your application and how difficult it is to gain admission to the schools that interest you. For help gaining perspective, it may be helpful to create a sheet with projected or actual MCAT scores, your overall GPA, your GPA in your major, and information on any volunteer work, internships, or relevant experience that will benefit you as a medical school applicant. This can give you a sense of how you may appear to a medical school and to help determine how many applications you may need to complete to get admitted to a program.
Even if a school has a prestigious reputation and you stand a chance of gaining admission, it still might not be the best fit for you as an individual, the Princeton Review cautions. As you evaluate institutions, consider a program’s academic focus. Does the school emphasize research or medical specialties? Does it focus largely on primary care? The program’s core emphasis should match your interests. When you know a program’s focus, also check the student-to-teacher ratio.
Evaluate student life at your medical schools of interest, as well. Find out whether other students seem happy at that school, and consider the atmosphere the school fosters among its pupils: Some programs are notoriously competitive, while others promote a spirit of collaboration. Remember to evaluate not only the school, but also the area where you will be living. Do you like the city and its climate and culture? Are you farther from friends and family than you would like to be? Are the school and its clinical facilities a convenient distance from housing?
Finances will likely play a large role in your final decision. Remember to inquire about the ultimate costs of the programs that appeal to you and what financial aid opportunities are available. If one school is offering you more aid than another institution, this fact could affect your ultimate decision. Don’t forget that the cost-of-living differences between cities will play a part in your ultimate financial situation, too.
Length of Medical School
The ultimate length of time you spend in medical school depends on several factors, including the specialty you choose, the time necessary to complete a residency in that field, or whether you are interested in pursuing combined degrees.Once you have completed your undergraduate training, you will enter medical school, which typically lasts four years. Some students, however, choose to participate in a combined degree program. Adding this additional degree may require taking a break of sorts from medical school to complete the requirements for this extra portion of training. Thus, making it through medical school with the additional degree can take a combined five or six years of study.
Most commonly, students earning an MD may also pursue a Master of Science (MS), Master of Public Health (MPH), Master of Business Administration (MBA), or Juris Doctor (JD). MD/PhD and medical scientist training programs are also available. If you are considering a combined degree program but have yet to choose a school, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) maintains a listing of medical schools offering this option.
Once you have finished requisite training for medical school, you will enter your residency period. This portion of your education will likely last between three and seven years, depending on the specialty you have chosen. For example, someone who desires to become a primary care physician will spend three years in residency, while certain surgical specialties take up to five years of residency experience. Still other specialties have fellowships that students must complete, which can take another one to two years of experience and learning. In a field such as neurology, becoming certified in a subspecialty requires doctors to finish one to three more years of training.
If you are interested in becoming a doctor of osteopathy rather than an MD, the time you spend in medical school will be fairly similar. Although there are differences between osteopathic and allopathic medicine, osteopathic doctors are also trained in traditional medical practices. Typically, the program will last four years, with two years of science course work and another two years spent in clinical rotations.
Generally, osteopathic programs focus on patient care, but there are also research opportunities. Some osteopathic schools have begun offering combined degree programs in public health, biomedical science, law, and administration. There are also programs offering a combined DO/PhD degree.
Your medical schooling experiences can also differ if you obtained your medical training outside the United States but wish to practice as a physician within the U.S. Most medical facilities require that physicians complete a residency in the United States before they will be authorized to practice here.
Regardless of your individual circumstances, the learning process and need for continued education as a doctor does not stop once you complete formal educational training. Many specialties also require doctors to become recertified after a certain period of time to demonstrate continued competency in their field. Remember that no matter the educational options you choose, many consider a physician’s career to be a lifetime of learning.
Last Updated: 08/20/2013
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