Allopathic Physician (M.D.)
Along with nurses, physicians are on the front line of medicine. As practitioners, they work in solo or group practices examining patients and obtaining medical histories; ordering, performing and interpreting diagnostic tests; and prescribing and administering treatment for patients suffering from injury or disease. They also counsel patients about illness, injuries, health conditions and preventive healthcare (diet/fitness, smoking cessation, etc.).
In hospitals, they provide emergency care, perform surgery and care for patients with injuries or life-threatening illnesses like cancer or serious conditions like asthma. In laboratories across the country, physician researchers look for the cause of illnesses and for new and better ways to treat all kinds of diseases and injuries. They run medical centers and teach future generations of physicians and other health care practitioners.
It’s an exciting and rewarding career and it’s also a broad one, which is why physicians choose a specialty during their training. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education 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). These are a few examples of the types of specialties:
If you are interested in becoming a physician, you can choose from two paths—getting your doctor of medicine (M.D.) degree or getting a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) degree. While the end result is the same—a career as a physician—the training and education are different.
Physicians work in a variety of health care settings. Many work in private practice, either alone or as part of a medical practice. Others work in hospitals, medical centers, universities or government agencies.
Physicians may work long hours, including in the evening, overnight and on weekends.
The duties, training, salaries and workforce information vary according to the specialty field you decide to pursue.
About a Career as an Allopathic Physician
About Health Care Careers
The Association of American Medical Colleges reviewed this career profile.
Dr. Marilyn Coruzzi talks about what inspired her to become a doctor and her experiences working as a family physician in rural Alaska.
Emergency Medicine Physician, County Hospital, Oakland, California
“I was told I would not get into medical school when I was an undergraduate. I was ‘encouraged to seek another career’ by my advisor.” Today, Dr. Garrick is an emergency department physician, an assistant professor and an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) base director.
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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 you should take in college if you are thinking about medical school.
Students who have a bachelor’s degree but did not study science in college should not give up on medical school. Post-baccalaureate programs can help students catch up and give them the courses they need in order to apply to medical school.
As you prepare to apply to medical school, it’s a good idea to do some research into the medical schools you think are a good fit and to find out as much about medical school as you can.
To apply to medical school, you 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). The new MCAT (introduced in 2015) is organized around testing students on their ability to problem solve, based on 10 foundational competencies and core content from the natural, behavioral and social sciences, and apply critical analysis and reasoning skills. In order to solve those problems, you need to learn and understand content from biology, chemistry and physics courses as well as courses in biochemistry, psychology and sociology. If you aren't satisfied with your MCAT scores, you can retake the exam. The American Medical College Application Service lets you submit one application to multiple medical schools.
As a medical school student, you will spend four years studying basic science and doing clinical "rotations" -- hands-on learning in real health care settings. Traditionally, the first two years of medical 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 medical 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 medical schools employ a combination of approaches.
After four years of medical school, you will receive your medical degree, or M.D. More and more schools are offering combined degree programs that offer an M.D. degree along with degrees in public health, law or business, for example, or the option to continue your education to obtain a Ph.D.
After medical 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 going to medical school, see:
Earning a degree in medicine is expensive, but funding is available. Check ExploreHealthCareers.org's Funding Opportunities tool and the Association of American Medical Colleges' FIRST program.
The Association of American Medical Colleges prepared this timeline for students to use as a planning tool. While your exact path to medical school may not follow this exactly, the timeline provides information on what you will need to do and think about as you plan.
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Last updated: July 18, 2016
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