How to Become a Doctor

Education and Licensing Requirements

Doctors, also called physicians, diagnose and treat people's illnesses and injuries. Based on differences in their training and philosophies, they are either MDs (Doctors of Medicine) or DOs (Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine). While both use traditional methods to treat their patients—for example drugs and surgery—osteopaths emphasize holistic medicine, preventative care and the body's musculoskeletal system. MDs may also be referred to as allopaths. Learn exactly what you need to do to become a doctor, including education and licensing requirements. First find out what characteristics will help make you successful in this career.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Doctor?

Young Doctors or Medical Students
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Because your training will primarily consist of scientific coursework, you must make sure you have a strong aptitude for this subject. In addition to this, you need other qualities, know as soft skills. You, of course, must be compassionate and sensitive to other people's feelings. You must have strong critical thinking and problem solving skills as well as very good listening and speaking skills. You should also be well organized and detail oriented.

Required Education

If you want to become a doctor you will have to first attend medical school where you will earn either a DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) or an MD (Doctor of Medicine) degree. You will do that after you graduate from college with a bachelor's degree. Prepare to commit at least seven years to your post-bachelor's education: you will spend four years in medical school, followed by three to eight years of graduate medical education (GME) in the form of an internship or residency program.

You must attend an accredited medical school. The Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) accredits programs that confer an MD degree. You can find a directory of accredited MD programs on that organization's website. A list of accredited DO programs can be found on the website of the American Osteopathic Association ​Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation. COCA, as this organization is known, is responsible for accrediting medical schools that grant a DO degree.

What can you expect to study in med school? Your coursework will probably include the following, but may differ depending on whether you attend an allopathic or osteopathic program:

  • Biomedical Building Blocks
  • Integrated Pathophysiology
  • Human Gross and Developmental Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Medical Genetics
  • Pharmacology
  • Histology and Embryology
  • Human Nutrition
  • Immunology
  • infectious Diseases
  • Ophthalmology
  • Principals of Medicine
  • Principals of Surgery

In addition to your coursework, you will also receive extensive clinical training during your time in medical school. These clinical rotations, as they are called, give students hands-on experience working with patients. You can expect to work in a variety of clinical specialties including pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, family medicine, surgery, emergency medicine and internal medicine.

Getting Admitted to Medical School

Admission into medical school is very competitive. According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) an applicant with the best chance of being admitted to a school of osteopathic medicine "is well-rounded, has a broad background ... and has demonstrated academic excellence." In addition, he or she has demonstrated the following qualities: wants to get involved in his or her community and spend time getting know his or her patients, is compassionate, and has solid communication skills and a healing touch (Qualities of a Successful Osteopathic Medical Student). This article also states that many applicants to osteopathic medical programs are non-traditional students who are older (25% of admitted students are age 26 or older) and come from a variety of career backgrounds. 

Allopathic programs are also extremely competitive and selective. Like DO programs, they also look for students who have performed well academically. They prefer applicants with good communication skills and who have demonstrated leadership qualities. 

Applicants typically must have fulfilled prerequisite college coursework in the sciences, including biology and general and organic chemistry, math, English and statistics. Although specific requirements vary by school, the American Medical Association (AMA) states that a grade point average of 3.5 and 4 on a 4 point scale is required for admission (Preparing for Medical School). In addition, you must perform well on the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test).

What You Must Do After Graduation

After completing your medical education, you will have to become licensed to practice medicine in the state in which you want to work. All 50 states in the United States, as well as the District of Columbia, have state medical licensing boards that are responsible for licensing doctors.

While each board has its own requirements, all of them require completion of medical school and graduate medical education. MDs must pass all three parts of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and DOs must pass all three levels of the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). You can learn about the individual requirements in your state by contacting the state medical board. The Federation of State Medical Boards publishes the State-Specific Requirements for Initial Medical Licensure.

In addition to getting a state license, many doctors choose to become board certified in a medical specialty. Certification is granted by each of the member boards of the American Board of Medical Specialties and must be renewed every several years. Initial certification requires completion of medical school and graduate medical education and passing a written or oral exam in that area of specialization.

How to Get Your First Job as a Doctor

You will have gone through a lot while preparing to become a doctor: four years of college, graduate medical education and an exam. Getting a license can be a long process as the licensing board must verify that you have met all your qualifications, not to mention that it can be quite expensive with fees ranging from a few to several hundred dollars. Obviously, by the time you are ready to look for a job, you are well prepared to work. Here are some of the qualities employers want in job candidates. They come directly from job announcements found in various sources:

  • "Adheres to the highest standards of medical practice, ethics, and professionalism at all times."
  • "Accurate and timely documentation of medical records."
  • "Shows respect and sensitivity for cultural differences."
  • "Ability to motivate and work effectively with others."
  • "Problem solves with creativity and ingenuity."
  • "Must be a team player and have a passion for what you do."