Advice on How to Become a Doctor in the USA
Created | Updated Jan 28, 2002
This is a short guide for anyone wondering exactly how you become a doctor in the United States. While there are many possible variations, this blueprint will give some idea of what to expect.
Before Medical School
Get really good grades in high school (9th to 12th grade or III to VI form). This is not terribly important in the long run, but very important for you to move on to medical school.
Get into college. It really does not matter which one. You just have to be in one and again, get really good grades. This is especially important in the core subjects of mathematics, biology, physics and chemistry. Many colleges offer a 'Pre-medicine' curriculum. This is useful but not essential.
Volunteer somewhere in the medical community. Work at the local hospital, the nursing home or rescue squad. These days, medical schools are more often looking for someone who they know will not freak out at the sight of injured, sick and dying people. This is a good opportunity for you to find out if you can deal with the 'hard' aspects of medicine such as these.
Take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). This is a standardised test you should take one or two years before you would enter medical school. It covers reading comprehension, biology, physics and a writing sample. It is primarily a ranking tool for schools to use. It helps if you do really well, but as long as you are at or above the National Average, you're fine.
Apply to Medical Schools. Apply to more than one, though anything over ten is excessive (and expensive).
The first two years are spent in the classroom. You will learn anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pathology, microbiology, genetics and pharmacology. You will learn them in excruciating detail and have to remember insane amounts of facts for the exams. This is where a doctor builds his or her primary knowledge base of medicine. It is nice if you get really good grades, but not essential. There is an adage, 'All P = MD'. This is a play on words meaning that you just have to pass all your classes to earn the Doctor of Medicine degree.
Take Part I of the National Medical Licencing Exam. This is a one-day, 350 question test given on a computer covering all the material you learned in the first two years of medical school. It is a painful experience, but a necessary check to make sure you have the knowledge base to move on. You must pass in order to continue to the next stage.
The third year of medical school is the clinical year. You will do rotations from four weeks to three months long in each of the primary medical fields. These include internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, neurology, psychology, family practice, obstetrics and gynaecology. You work with eight to ten of your fellow students and are overseen by a resident. You see all the patients in that area, interview them, give them physical exams, practice diagnostic skills, learn various signs and symptoms, learn hospital procedures and get 'pimped'.
'Pimping' is the practice of more experienced doctors asking the students they oversee impossibly obscure and difficult questions and then publicly ridiculing them for not knowing the answer. Though some schools have cracked down on the practice by disciplining the worst offenders, it is necessary to some extent to stop students becoming overly arrogant and to keep them on their toes.
Take Part II of the National Medical Licencing Exam. This is a more clinical, scenario-based test used to assess your basic diagnostic skills. It is used as a ranking tool by hospital residency programmes. It is harder than Part I, and again you must pass.
The fourth year of medical school is a bit of a free-for-all. You can do very specialised rotations and generally decide what kind of doctor you want to be. You also spend a great deal of time applying to residency programmes.
Once you graduate from medical school, you are a doctor, but you are not fully licensed to practice medicine. First you must enter a residency programme at a hospital in the field you intend to practice. You are then a 'resident' at that hospital in your chosen field. You now oversee patients and are responsible for their care and in turn are overseen yourself by an attending physician, who has finished his or her residency. Residency programmes last from as little as three years (family practice or pediatrics) to as long as seven years (opthamology, neurosurgery). At some time during your residency, you will take Part III of the National Medical Licencing Exam. It is a longer and harder version of Part II. As always, you must pass this test to continue practising.
Being a Doctor
Pass the National Medical Licencing Exam in your respective field. You must do this every five years to prove you are competent in and have current knowledge of your chosen field.
Heal people. This is, after all, what a doctor does.