Careers in medicine
Why study medicine?
A career in medicine is exciting, challenging, and rewarding. Careers in medicine offer flexibility and an array of options for physicians and other clinicians. For example, physicians practicing family medicine can work in primary care and hospitals. They can also relocate to almost anywhere in the world, performing policy work, research, and advocacy. Medical professionals work with the latest breakthrough technologies, procedures, and medications.
Medicine also offers the opportunity to work as part of a multidisciplinary team, which includes people with a wide variety of skills, education, and experience. Doctors work closely with radiologists, nurse practitioners, specialists, and other clinicians.
Medical careers provide a high level of financial security. These jobs are always in demand, especially as healthcare needs continue to increase and evolve. Currently, medicine is the most rapidly expanding field in the United States, with healthcare and social assistance representing 5 of the 20 fastest-growing industries.
Is becoming a doctor hard?
A career in medicine requires dedication and hard work, but the payoff tends to be worth it. Some of the reasons medicine is considered difficult include:
- Getting accepted into medical school can be tough. According to the Princeton Review, medical schools had an overall acceptance rate of 41% in 2018-2019.
- Medical school tends to be expensive. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) indicates that 90% of medical students take on student loans to finance their education.
- Working in medicine can be a physical challenge. About two-thirds of physicians work between 40 and 60 hours per week, and the nature of such positions requires them to be at their best at all times.
» Read: Guide to student loans
While the medical field can be challenging, most physicians are content with their jobs and lives. A recent survey of more than 5,000 physicians found that 71% of practicing doctors are happy, while 61% would still become physicians if they had to do it all over again.
How many years does it take to become a doctor?
Medical school usually takes 4 years, followed by at least 3 years for a residency. Medical students who wish to specialize then enter a fellowship, which can vary in length according to the chosen specialty.
Where do medical school graduates work?
Typically, medical school graduates work in 2 types of environment.
- Clinical – This is mainly hospitals and physician’s offices.
- Non-clinical – This includes pharmaceutical drug development and consulting, health insurance management, medical technology, and informatics.
Most medical school graduates work in hospitals. A 2021 report found that nearly 70% of doctors work in hospitals or corporations, such as private equity firms and health insurers.
Graduates can also work in public health, regulatory agencies, colleges and universities, non-profit organizations, or take on hospital leadership roles.
Some doctors pick up “side gigs” in expert witness work, medical writing, biotechnology, and the rapidly-growing healthcare technology and business startup sectors.
What types of doctors are there?
Most med school graduates become doctors, though there is a vast range of jobs in medicine, with varying responsibilities and salaries. Below are some common examples.
Obstetrician and gynecologist
Often referred to as OB/GYN, obstetricians and gynecologists provide medical care during pregnancy or childbirth, and diagnose and treat diseases of the female reproductive organs. In addition to collecting, recording, and maintaining medical histories and reports, they perform cesarean sections (C-sections), and other surgical procedures to preserve patient health and deliver babies safely.
The average salary for an obstetrician and gynecologist is $239,120.
Surgeons are responsible for diagnosing patients, performing operations, and providing post-surgical care and treatment.
The American College of Surgeons (ACS) recognizes 14 separate surgical specialties:
- Gynecology and obstetrics
- Colon and rectal
- Oral and maxillofacial
- Plastic and maxillofacial
The average salary of a surgeon is $251,650, although salaries for subspecialties can vary.
An anesthesiologist administers anesthesia or sedation using local, intravenous, spinal, or caudal methods during medical or surgical procedures. Anesthesiologists record the type and amount of anesthesia administered, monitors the patients’ condition throughout the procedure, and counteracts any adverse reactions or anesthesia-related complications the patient may have.
An anesthesiologist also provides and maintains life support and airway management during procedures, and helps prepare patients for emergency surgery.
The average salary for an anesthesiologist is $271,440.
Also known as a cancer specialist, an oncologist provides care for patients with cancer. There are 3 main types of oncologist:
Oncologists recommend tests to determine if a patient has cancer, monitor the cancer to determine how far it has progressed, discuss treatment options, and help patients to manage side effects of cancer and its treatment.
The average salary for an oncologist is $293,099.
A psychiatrist prescribes psychotherapeutic drugs to treat mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders. After gathering pertinent patient information and records, such as social and medical history, psychiatrists provide a diagnosis. They then develop individualized care plans that includes medication and therapy.
Depending on the patient’s diagnosis and treatment plan, psychiatrists may collaborate with other physicians, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and social workers, to discuss and develop treatment plans and monitor the patient’s progress.
The average salary for a psychiatrist is $218,863.
General Practitioner (GP)
A general practitioner diagnoses, treats, and offers preventive care to patients of all ages. GPs prescribe or administer treatments, medications, vaccinations, therapies, to treat a variety of illnesses, injuries, or diseases.
The average salary for a general practitioner is $111,390
A urologist diagnoses and treats conditions affecting the genitalia or urinary tract, such as erectile dysfunction (ED), infertility, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, incontinence, urethral stones, or premature ejaculation.
Urologists order and interpret diagnostic tests, such as the PSA test that detects prostate cancer. They also perform abdominal, pelvic, or retroperitoneal surgeries.
The average salary for a urologist is $337,894.
Pathologists examine blood, tissue, body fluids, or other microscopic samples to identify diseases and abnormalities. These doctors tend to work in laboratories, where they perform a range of laboratory tests.
The average salary for a pathologist is $215,756.
Cardiologists care for patients who have heart problems, such as cardiac arrest and heart attacks. They prescribe or administer cardiac medications, and advise patients on diet, activities, and lifestyle choices that affect heart health.
The average salary for a cardiologist as $300,589.
Radiologists perform and interpret diagnostic imaging procedures, such as x-rays, computer tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), ultrasound, mammography, and nuclear cardiology treadmill studies. They also prepare comprehensive reports of their findings, and transmit images using picture archiving or electronic communications systems.
The average salary for a radiologist is $310,099.
A neurologist diagnoses and treats disorders of the nervous system that affect the functional status of the patient’s vision, physical strength, sensations, coordination and reflexes, cognitive abilities, language skills, and mental status.
They may perform diagnostic tests, such as electroencephalography (EEG), lumbar punctures, electromyography, and nerve conduction velocity tests, and interpret tests on the patient’s blood or cerebrospinal fluid.
Neurologists assess and treat a variety of conditions, such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis (MS), stroke, and Parkinson’s disease.
The average salary for a neurologist is $234,119
An ophthalmologist diagnoses and treats conditions affecting the eyes. They may perform surgery to treat vision problems, such as cataracts and glaucoma, or refractive surgery to correct near-sightedness, far-sightedness, astigmatism, and presbyopia, along with other advanced eye surgeries to improve vision and reduce pain.
The average salary for an ophthalmologist is $227,187
Pediatricians provide care for infants and children aged 18 and younger. They monitor the health of children to ensure proper growth and development, and advise parents or guardians on diet, activity, hygiene, and disease prevention in children.
The average salary for a pediatrician is $184,570.
A dermatologist diagnoses, treats, and provides preventive care for more than 3,000 skin, hair, and nail problems. These conditions include skin cancer, infections, psoriasis, acne, and eczema. Dermatologists conduct skin examinations, conduct biopsies to collect samples for laboratory testing, and perform surgery to improve the appearance of skin or treat a disease. They also counsel patients on skin cancer awareness, sun protection, and self-examinations.
The average salary for a dermatologist is $245,059.
5 steps to a career in medicine
Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field
Most medical schools have pre-med requirements in the sciences, so majoring in biology or other health-related fields may seem to be the obvious choice for an aspiring doctor. However, you can still get into medical school with a non-health related undergraduate degree.
According to a 2021 survey, nearly half of all medical school graduates earned an undergraduate degree in biology, 7% studied engineering, 13% studied arts, and 13% chose other majors.
Still, an undergraduate degree in science can make an applicant more attractive to medical schools. And an understanding of chemistry, physics, and biology, can help students prepare for medical courses.
Note that pre-med is not a major – it is a program that ensures students take all the science and laboratory classes required to get into medical school. Pre-med exists because most medical schools require applicants to have taken specific courses, such as:
- 1 year of biology with lab
- 1 year of general chemistry with lab
- 1 year of organic chemistry with lab
- 1 year of physics with lab
- At least 1 semester of biochemistry
- A math requirement (calculus, statistics, or both)
- 1 year of English
Applicants need to check the exact requirements with each medical school they hope to enter, as undergraduate course requirements can change.
Choose an accredited program
Choosing an accredited undergraduate program is essential for acceptance into medical school. As a condition for receiving a license to practice, state medical licensing boards require students to have graduated from a program accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME).
Step 2: Pass the MCAT and get accepted into medical school
The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a standardized, multiple-choice examination that measures a student’s problem solving, critical thinking, and overall knowledge of behavioral, natural, and social science concepts necessary to study medicine.
The test includes 4 sections:
- biological and biochemical foundations of living systems
- chemical and physical foundations of biological systems
- psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior
- critical analysis and reasoning skills
MCAT scores help admission committees to assess applicants’ skills and identify the students who are most likely to succeed. Nearly all medical schools in the United States require applicants to submit MCAT scores.
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) offers the MCAT numerous times throughout the year. There is no right time to take the exam, as everyone takes a slightly different journey when becoming a doctor, but students often sit the MCAT in the same school year they are applying to medical school.
How to pass the MCAT
Passing the MCAT starts with gaining a solid understanding of introductory level biology, general and organic chemistry, psychology, physics, and sociology, and first-semester biochemistry. It is helpful to review the required coursework with prospective medical schools, and focus on those classes.
The AAMC provides resources that help students find information about passing the MCAT. These include materials, video tutorials, and sample questions.
Volunteer at local hospitals or other healthcare settings
Volunteering in a healthcare setting can improve a student’s prospects when applying to medical school. For best results, students can volunteer to work in a variety of settings throughout their undergraduate degree.
Choose the right medical school
Choosing the right medical school is important for a successful career. Factors that can influence this choice include:
- academic reputation
- choice of programs
» Read: Decision fatigue: how to manage during the admissions process
Step 3: Attend medical school
When it comes to attending medical school, there are 2 main program options:
- Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
- Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.)
M.D.s attend allopathic medical schools that focus on treating specific diseases with medicine, while D.O.s attend osteopathic programs that take a more holistic approach to health.
According to the American Medical Association (AMA), nearly 57% of D.O.s practice in primary care specialties, while less than 30% of M.D.s are in primary care.
Medical schools last 4 years, followed by a 3- to 7-year residency, and sometimes a fellowship. The first 2 years focus on classroom lectures and lab time. Classes include anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, pathology, and pharmacology.
During the third and fourth year, students complete rotations at clinics and hospitals, assisting residents in specific specialties, such as pediatrics and surgery. The length of rotations can vary between programs.
Step 4: Complete a residency and get a medical license
A residency is a program for medical school graduates that takes place in a working hospital or clinic. The aim is to provide in-depth, hands-on training within a specialty. The first year of residency, known as an internship, involves rotating through different specialties or to other areas within a specialty.
Residency begins with a ‘match’, which pairs students with residency programs. The National Residency Match Program (NRMP) uses a mathematical algorithm to match applicants with residencies and fellowships. The match process takes 6 months. ‘Match day’ occurs on the third Friday in March and is a big occasion for medical school graduates.
The length of residency varies between specialties.
- Dermatology: 4 years
- Emergency Medicine: 3-4 years
- General Surgery: 5 years
- Neurology: 4 years
- Obstetrics and Gynecology: 4 years
- Pathology: 4 years
- Pediatrics: 3 years
- Psychiatry: 4 years
- Radiology: 4-5 years
First-year residents earn about $60,000. Salaries can vary according to specialty, with plastic surgery residents earning $69,500 and those in family medicine earning about $58,500.
Step 5: Pass your final boards
Medical school graduates need to pass parts 1 and 2 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) to get a degree from a medical school, and pass parts 1, 2, and 3 of the USMLE to practice medicine in the U.S.
Students are required to pass other examinations to practice in their specialty. For example, students specializing in surgery need to pass the General Surgery Qualifying Examination (QE).
Physicians need to pass an examination to become board certified in other specialties. These examinations are offered by organizations such as the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ABOG), American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), American Board of Pediatrics (ABP), American Board of Radiology (ABR), or the American Board of Surgery (ABS).
While federal standards govern training and testing, each state has its own licensing board. Doctors are required to secure a license for each state in which they practice. Some states participate in the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact Commission (IMLCC), a program that allows physicians to practice in multiple states.
Is getting a medical degree worth it?
Yes. Doctors are among the highest-paid professionals in the United States. They are also some of the most respected members of the community. What’s more, saving lives and improving health is highly satisfying.
Is studying medicine hard?
Studying medicine requires discipline, long hours, and attention to detail. The amount of knowledge required can be daunting, but medical programs usually offer counseling and assistance to ease the burden somewhat.
Why should I study medicine?
Studying medicine provides unbeatable satisfaction, plus the coursework is interesting and usually leads to a well-paid and rewarding job.
Which medicine jobs are paid the most?
The following jobs are among the highest paying in medicine: anesthesiologist, surgeon, obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine, pediatrician.
The AMA is a professional association and lobbying group of physicians and medical students.
American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS)
This non-profit organization represents 24 broad areas of specialty medicine.