What It Takes to Become a Doctor?

by Tera Tuten on November 15, 2011

The desire to heal the body is not enough to become a doctor. An aspiring physician must put forth exceptional effort to achieve this lofty goal. In fact, a doctor never stops improving her craft. Think you have what it takes to become a doctor? The following details reveal what is required to accomplish this feat.

Preparation Should Start in High School

Monetary Investment: Free if you attend public schools.
Time Investment: 4 years



To get into the right pre-med program after high school, do your best in every math and science class, especially biology and chemistry. Many public high schools offer magnet programs, including one for prospective medical professionals. Volunteering at a local hospital during this time can clear up any romantic images of the profession with a healthy dose of reality.

And Continue Through College

Monetary Investment: $36,000 at a public, in-state college; $140,000 at a private university
Time Investment: 4 years

The first four years of higher education has one goal in mind: to prepare you for medical school. Plan on keeping your GPA at 3.5 or above and taking the following courses:

  • Biology
  • Organic Chemistry
  • General Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Physics
  • Microbiology
  • Calculus

Getting Into a Medical School

Monetary Investment: $235 for the MCAT, plus application fees for each school
Time Investment: 2-3 months during junior year

Just graduating from a pre-med program isn’t enough to earn a spot in a prestigious, or not-so-prestigious, medical school. Start the following process near the end of your junior year:

  • Pass the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) near the end of your college program.
  • Apply to a medical school – With only 125 medical schools in the US and about 41,000 applicants for the 16,000 available positions, this can be a little tricky. Most hopeful doctors apply to an average of 13 schools.
  • Attend the interview – Interested schools will call you in for an interview. Be prepared, be honest, and always follow up with a thank-you note.
  • Accept an offer – if you receive more than one offer, carefully select the school that best meets your needs as a student.

Attending Medical School

Monetary Investment: $115,000 at a public school, $188,000 or more at a private school
Time Investment: 4 years

Although the medical school will do everything in its power to help you succeed, you have to do your part, as well. Plan on dedicating every-waking-hour to lectures, labs, and group projects for the next four years, and then the real work starts.

Your four years of medical school will cover:

  • First Year – Intense classroom and lab-based courses
  • Second Year – Classroom material begins to give way to patient contact, including gathering medical histories and conducting routine exams. At this time, students take the USMLE-1 – the first part in a series of US Medical Licensing Exams.
  • Third & Fourth Years – These two years include a complete rotation through the medical specialty areas. At the end of the fourth year, the USMLE-2 is taken.

Hands-On Training

Monetary Payback: $38,000-$42,000 salary
Time Investment: 3-12 years

Your training doesn’t end once you have a fresh diploma in hand – in fact, it’s just beginning. But, at least you’ll start to see a little income to offset those massive student loans. The next step is to work as a doctor-in-training under the supervision of experienced physicians. This stage of medical training includes:

  • Internship – This is the first year of a residency where the prospective doctor is expected to do most of the grunt work at the hospital.
  • Residency – This covers year two through nine, depending on the specialty, but most doctors spend three years in this program. As the doctor progresses, they take on additional responsibilities until they are instructing the lower level residents.
  • Fellowship – A highly specialized field may require another two to three years of time in a fellowship program.
  • Certification – Before finishing this process, the USMLE-3 must be completed to become a board-certified doctor.

Joining or Establishing a Practice

Monetary Payback: $210,000-$533,000 depending on the specialty and location.
Monetary Investment: Expenses include staff, malpractice insurance, and ongoing training.
Time Investment: 60 hours per week on average

Once a new doctor is fully certified, it’s time to choose a type of practice. Most choose one of three ways to practice their profession, including:

  • Working at a Hospital – Although the days of round-the-clock duty are probably over, hospital doctors can expect to take their turn working nights and weekends in addition to being on-call throughout their careers.
  • Joining an Established Practice – Many doctors choose to join an established practice with a group of senior doctors. On-call duties are shared and patients are easily found.
  • Starting a New Practice – This involves starting an entirely new office with a new staff and attracting new patients. Most doctors forego this choice until they’re more experienced.

CONCLUSION

By the time you’ve become a board-certified doctor, you’ve spent between 11 and 20 years learning the ropes and between $150,000 and $328,000 in tuition alone – add in room, board, books, fees, and whatever else you can come up with, and it’s no wonder that the typical doctor starts their practice well over $100,000 in debt.

Although doctors-in-training are paid once they start their residencies, it’s barely enough to live on and cover the student loan interest. While the salary definitely looks good once residency is over, it’s still not easy. Medical malpractice insurance can cost more than $100,000 each year and office expenses are always going up.

For example, one estimate states that a surgeon must make between $400,000 and $500,000 to cover their expenses in private practice before they can even draw a salary. How’s that for a return on that college investment? If you’re up to this challenge, then you probably have what it takes to become a great doctor. But you might want to think twice if just reading this article has left you feeling drained and a little bit poorer.

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