Physicians examine patients, obtain medical histories, and order, perform and interpret diagnostic tests. They counsel patients about illness, injuries, health conditions, and preventive healthcare (diet/fitness, smoking cessation, etc.). They can also conduct medical research, teach, and run medical centers. People with medical education are in demand in many areas. Physicians work in one or more specialties, including, among others:
For more information about medical specialties, visit the Careers in Medicine page on the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Website. For a fascinating glimpse into the real-life experiences of seven doctors, see NOVA Online's special feature, "Survivor M.D."
NOTE: For a user-friendly, interactive resource on pursuing a career in allopathic medicine, see the Association of American Medical Colleges' AspiringDocs website.
To learn more, watch the video profile of "Physician M.D."
You can download, save and print a PDF of this career profile:
Physician M.D. October 5, 2010 [PDF 71KB]
The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) accredits training programs in 130 specialties and subspecialties, and the American Board of Medical Specialties represents 24 board-certified specialties (with many sub-specialties within each of these major specialties. The duties, training, salaries, and workforce information are significantly different among these specialty fields.
Physicians work in a variety of healthcare settings. Many work in private practice, either alone or as part of a medical practice. Others work in hospitals, medical centers, universities, and other public agencies.
Many medical schools are increasing enrollments in anticipation of an expected shortage of doctors in all professional and geographic areas. Physicians in the future may be likely to work fewer hours, retire earlier, and have lower earnings. Employment opportunities should be especially good in rural and low-income areas.
There is a strong network in place to help physicians find the right job in the right environment. Among other sources is the interactive job networking website operated by the American Medical Association's highly respected professional journal, JAMA.
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The minimum educational requirement for entry into a medical school is 3 years of college, although most applicants have at least a bachelor's degree and many have advanced degrees. To be sure you're taking the right courses while in college, see the Preparation Timeline for medicine on this page. Search for schools that provide training for this career.
The AAMC also has very useful advice about getting into medical school. Also, some universities (e.g., Yale and Penn State) offer general advice about how to prepare for med school.
NOTE: If you already have a degree but did not study science in college, don't give up! There are numerous post-baccalaureate programs that will help you catch up and give you the courses you'll need in order to apply to med school.
To apply to medical school, you will have to submit a copy of your college and/or grad school transcript(s), letters of recommendation, and your scores from the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). NOTE: If you don't do as well on the MCAT as you'd like, you can always retake the exam. This website has helpful study tips. The American Medical College Application Service lets you submit one application to multiple medical schools.
Once in med school, you can expect to spend the next four years studying basic science and doing clinical "rotations" -- hands-on learning in real health care settings. Traditionally, the first two years of med school are spent in the classroom before students are allowed to do rotations. However, an increasing number of medical schools are giving students clinical experience early on and throughout the four-year program.
In terms of the curriculum itself, some med schools take a "systems-based" approach, focusing on one physiological system at a time (the respiratory system, reproductive system, etc.), while others are "case-based" -- teaching about the human body and disease by having students follow individual patient cases from start to finish. A number of med schools employ a combination of approaches.
After four years of med school, you are awarded an MD or medical degree. NOTE: More and more schools are offering combined degree programs (e.g., MD/MPH, MD/PHD or MD/JD). If you are interested in this option, see the AAMC's Medical School Admission Requirements publication.
After earning your MD, it's time to choose a specialty and do your residency. Residency programs, which are offered in conjunction with intensive clinical training programs, may last anywhere from 3 years to 8 years, depending upon the specialty you choose.
For more information on residency programs, check out the American Medical Association (AMA)'s online FREIDA service -- an interactive database with over 7,800 graduate medical education programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, plus more than 200 combined specialty programs.
For more information on going to medical school, consider buying a copy of Medical School Admissions Requirements, which is said to be "the Bible of med school guides." Also see:
Note: The cost of earning a degree in medicine is high, but different avenues are available for funding your education. For more information, see the Find Funding section of this Website, and/or check out the Association of American Medical Colleges' article on "Financing Your Medical Education." This is one of many informative resources available through the AAMC Website.
The following timeline gives the basics for a traditional medical student. Remember, different medical schools may have different deadlines; the following is intended to serve as a general guide only.
Take the following courses:
Explore pre-health advisory program in your school; get involved outside of academics; join clubs and organizations. Find a doctor to shadow for a day to get a real feel for what it's like.
Start researching medical schools; get to know your professors; and participate in medically related clinical or research activities.
Investigate financial aid options
Search for funding opportunities related to this career
Search for enrichment programs related to this career
Search for academic degree and certificate programs related to this career
Last updated: May 7, 2013
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