Physicians examine patients; obtain medical histories; order, perform and interpret diagnostic tests; and prescribe and administer treatment for people suffering from injury or disease. 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, "Doctors' Diaries." You can also watch a video that profiles of a number of physicians (in the Health Sciences section). The AAMC's AspiringDocs website offers a user-friendly, interactive resource on pursuing a career in allopathic medicine.
The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) accredits training programs in 133 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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While the minimum educational requirement to apply for medical school is three years of college, most applicants have at least a bachelor's degree and many have advanced degrees. The Preparation Timeline below lists the courses college students should take if they are thinking about med school.
The Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) provides a list of accredited medical education programs. The Association of American Medical Colleges also has very useful advice about getting into medical school.
Students who have a degree but did not study science in college should not give up on medical school. There are numerous post-baccalaureate programs that help students catch up and give them the courses they need in order to apply to med school.
To apply to medical school, a student will have to submit a copy of college and/or graduate school transcript(s), letters of recommendation and scores from the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Students who aren't satisfied with their MCAT scores can retake the exam. The American Medical College Application Service lets students submit one application to multiple medical schools.
Med school students spend 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 use a "case-based" approach -- 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, students are awarded a medical degree, known as an MD. More and more schools are offering combined degree programs (e.g., MD/MPH, MD/PHD or MD/JD). To find out more about this option, see the AAMC's Medical School Admission Requirements publication.
After med school, 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 three to eight years, depending upon the specialty.
For more information on residency programs, check out the American Medical Association (AMA)'s online FREIDA service -- an interactive database with over 9,400 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 the Medical School Admissions Requirements, known as "the Bible of med school guides." Also see:
The cost of earning a degree in medicine is high, but sources of funding are available. More funding infomration is available on the Association of American Medical Colleges' FIRST for Students 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.
NOTE: A new Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®) will be introduced in the spring of 2015. Read more about this test which will impact the type of courses you choose to take in college.
Take the following courses:
Also, don't forget extracurricular activities, 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: December 4, 2013
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