Physicians and surgeons may work in a medical specialty, such as pediatrics, cardiology, dermatology, pathology, or radiology.
Physicians and surgeons typically need a bachelor’s degree as well as a degree from a medical school, which takes an additional 4 years to complete. Depending on their specialty, they also need 3 to 9 years in internship and residency programs. Subspecialization includes additional training in a fellowship of 1 to 3 years.
In addition to requiring a bachelor’s degree, physicians and surgeons typically need either a Medical Doctor (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. No specific undergraduate degree is required to enter an M.D. or D.O. program, but applicants to medical school usually have studied subjects such as biology, physical science, or healthcare and related fields.
Medical schools are highly competitive. Applicants usually must submit transcripts, scores from the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and letters of recommendation. Medical schools also consider an applicant’s personality, leadership qualities, and participation in extracurricular activities. Most schools require applicants to interview with members of the admissions committee.
Some medical schools offer combined undergraduate and medical school programs that last 6 to 8 years. Schools may also offer combined graduate degrees, such as M.D.-Ph.D., M.D.-MBA, and M.D.-MPH.
Students spend the first phase of medical school in classrooms, small groups, and laboratories, taking courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, pharmacology, psychology, medical ethics, and in the laws governing medicine. They also gain practical skills: learning to take medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illnesses.
During their second phase of medical school, students work with patients under the supervision of experienced physicians in hospitals and clinics. They gain experience in diagnosing and treating illnesses through clerkships, or rotations, in a variety of areas, including internal medicine, pediatrics, and surgery.
After medical school, almost all graduates enter a residency program in their specialty of interest. A residency usually takes place in a hospital or clinic and varies in duration, typically lasting from 3 to 9 years, depending on the specialty. Subspecialization, such as infectious diseases or hand surgery, includes additional training in a fellowship of 1 to 3 years.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
All states require physicians and surgeons to be licensed; requirements vary by state. To qualify for a license, candidates must graduate from an accredited medical school and complete residency training in their specialty.
Licensure requirements include passing standardized national exams. M.D.s take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). D.O.s take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). For specific state information about licensing, contact your state’s medical board.
Board certification in a specialty is not required for physicians and surgeons; however, it may increase their employment opportunities. M.D.s and D.O.s seeking board certification in a specialty may spend up to 9 years in residency training; the length of time varies with the specialty. To become board certified, candidates must complete a residency program and pass a specialty certification exam from a medical certifying board. Examples of certifying boards include the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS), the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), and the American Board of Physician Specialties (ABPS).
Communication skills. Physicians and surgeons need to convey information effectively to their patients and to other healthcare workers. They also must be able to dictate or write reports that clearly describe a patient’s medical condition or procedure outcome.
Compassion. Patients who are sick or injured may be in extreme pain or distress. Physicians and surgeons must treat patients and their families with understanding.
Detail oriented. To ensure that patients receive appropriate treatment, including medication, physicians and surgeons must be precise in monitoring them and recording information related to their care.
Dexterity. Physicians and surgeons must be agile and sure handed, especially when working with extremely sharp medical instruments.
Leadership skills. Physicians and surgeons must coordinate with a team of other healthcare workers to manage patient care or direct medical procedures.
Organizational skills. Good recordkeeping and other administrative skills are critical for physicians and surgeons in both medical and business settings.
Patience. Physicians and surgeons must remain calm and tolerant when working with patients who need special attention, such as those who fear or ignore medical treatment.
Physical stamina. Physicians and surgeons may spend many hours on their feet, including walking between patient visits or procedures. Surgeons may spend a great deal of time bending over patients during surgery.
Problem-solving skills. Physicians and surgeons need to evaluate patients’ symptoms to determine appropriate treatment. In some situations, such as emergencies, they may need to analyze and resolve crises quickly.