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Brief Overview of Education & Training

General Info

Becoming a physician is a long road, including, for most people, going to college for 4 years after high school to earn a Bachelor's Degree, then attending medical school for 4 years and finally completing a residency program for specialized training. Often, residency training is followed with more specialized training called a fellowship program. Residency and fellowship training combined can last about 3 - 7 years, depending on the specialization.

Read why some current med students have chosen medicine.

So, the grand total of time spent for most people is about:

4    years undergraduate education
4    years medical school
3-7 years residency (& fellowship)

11-15 years of your life

Most European and other international schools only have 6-year (some variation on the length) medical school programs offered to students straight out of high school instead of after college. Overall, medical education is organized very differently in Europe - and often is free (you pay no tuition). Note that there are issues with practicing medicine in the United States if you go to medical school abroad. You can read about some of these in our section about international schools.

In the United States, medical students pay for tuition (and other expenses) during their undergraduate education (4 years) and medical school (4 years). However, during residency, residents are paid a salary of around $40,000 or so per year, depending on location, years in residency, specialty and other factors. As an example, according to FREIDA in 2006, Internal Medicine compensation at Medical College of Wisconsin for first year residents was $43,250.

Most medical students accumulate well over $100,000 in student loans while attending medical school. Some students even accumulate up to $250,000 in debt to go through medical school. A piece of good news is that most physicians have no problems paying back their loans, sometimes in just a few years after completing residency training, if they handle their finances wisely. Nearly all medical students can qualify for loans easily to cover school related expenses.

Read more about financial considerations and loans in the Money & Finance section.

Joint degree programs

Completion of a joint degree program such as an MD/PhD or MD/JD, or whatever it may be, adds more years to the time spent in training during medical school. For most MD/PhD combined programs, medical school takes approximately 7 years instead of 4 years, to allow enough time for completion of additional requirements and the dissertation as part of the PhD degree.

It is worth pointing out that some MD/PhD programs are funded through the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). These funded positions include free tuition, fees and books to the medical student (medical school is essentially free) and a yearly stipend of around $24,000 is also paid to the student. As you might imagine, these are very coveted and competitive spots.

You can contact each medical school about the combined programs they offer. To enter a combined program, students have to be successfully admitted to both programs independently. So, you have to meet all requirements for the medical program and separately meet all the requirements for the PhD program. Usually, to be considered for the MSTP, you have to show significant research interest and/or involvement and an interest in academia.

MD/PhD programs are primarily designed to turn out academically oriented physicians, working as faculty and involved in research. So, if that's an interest of yours, find out more about it.

Other combined degree programs are available at most of the medical schools in the United States. Besides the MD/PhD, some other examples include the MD/JD (law), MD/MBA (business), MD/MPH (public health). More joint degrees are available, but these are some of the most common ones.

Medical school right after high school

Some US medical schools offer programs to individuals straight out of high school, without going to college first, allowing completion of an MD degree in 6 years to 8 years total, depending on the program. Typically, these programs mostly take in-state applicants. But if you already know in high school that you are destined for medicine, this may be an option for you.

Also note that for most of these programs you have to be in the top 5 to 10 percent of your class and have competitive ACT/SAT scores and GPA. So, admission through these programs is very competitive.

Here is a list of these schools:

Albany Medical College
Baylor College of Medicine
Boston University School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University School of Med
Drexel University College of Medicine
Eastern Virginia Medical School
George Washington University School of Medici
Howard University College of Medicine
Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson
Keck School of Medicine of the University of
Laval University Faculty of Medicine
Meharry Medical College School of Medicine
Michigan State University College of Human Me
Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Med
Northwestern University Feinberg School of Me
Ohio State University College of Medicine
Ponce School of Medicine
Saint Louis University School of Medicine
State University of New York Downstate Medica
State University of New York Upstate Medical
Stony Brook University School of Medicine
Temple University School of Medicine
UMDNJ--New Jersey Medical School
UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
University of Alabama School of Medicine
University of California, San Diego, School o
University of Cincinnati College of Medicine
University of Connecticut School of Medicine
University of Florida College of Medicine
University of Illinois at Chicago College of
University of Louisville School of Medicine
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine
University of Minnesota Medical School - Twin
University of Missouri-Kansas City School of
University of New Mexico School of Medicine
University of Rochester School of Medicine an
University of South Alabama College of Medici
University of South Florida College of Medici
University of Texas School of Medicine at San
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine an
Virginia Commonwealth University School of Me
Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown Univers
Washington University School of Medicine
Wayne State University School of Medicine
West Virginia University School of Medicine


Most students complete a 4-year college degree before entering medical school. Typically medical schools require a Bachelor's Degree in any discipline of your choice. However, by far, most students have a science background, often in Biology or something closely related. But, technically, any degree will work, as long as some basic course requirements are met that are required by all medical schools.
Read more about pre-med requirements and course requirements.

Despite being able to choose any major leading to a Bachelor's Degree, talking with many medical students, most of them highly recommend having a strong Biological sciences background. Many concepts are considered pre-requisites in medical school, to be expanded upon, and are not explained in great detail again. Those who don't have a strong background seem to have a harder time during the first year and have to spend more time studying.
If you don't have a Biology background, don't panic. Even without a Biological science background, students seem to do well. It's just more work - but good grades are possible nonetheless.

The whole pre-med experience is not the easiest one in the world in and of itself. You are expected to do well in your coursework in order to be competitive for medical school admission, fulfill many extra-curricular activities to bolster your application and take some tough science courses. Ask most pre-meds or medical students about how much fun they had with Organic Chemistry or Physics, for example. Often, you wonder "Why do I have to take this course?" Any degree in the physical or biological sciences is hard and that's what most people do for their pre-med work to be competitive (and better prepared for medical school).

Medical school

Medical school is intense. Much more intense than undergrad. Each semester is packed with roughly 24 credits of upper-division science courses including labs (no more generals or intro type of courses as in undergrad). But it is do-able - just requires lots of hard work. Many people say it's like "taking a drink from a fire hydrant" since the volume of information covered is overwhelming. The first 2 years of medical school are classroom based to study the "Basic Sciences" ("basic" may be misleading - does not mean "easy") and the last 2 years are typically hospital, clinical, and office based rotations devoted to Clinical Medicine. Combined, this results in a total of 4 years of medical school.

You can read much more about medical school and what happens there in the Taste of Med School section.
Also check out the Med School Diaries section for first hand experiences of medical students.
Finally, you can check out our Med School Statistics section for info and statistics about specific medical schools.


Residency is usually the final step in the training process of becoming a physician, unless you decide to pursue Fellowship training (see below), which follows Residency training. Residency training is specialty specific, whereas medical school provides the basis in science knowledge as well as a foundation in clinical medicine in a more general sense. Rotations in medical school cover all major specialty areas for a short period of time. On the other hand, residency is spent on getting specific training in one particular specialty over a period of 3 to 7 years, depending on the specialty - to become an expert in the area of training.

Residency is paid, so it is more like a job, but it is still considered training (post-graduate training) and done under varying degrees of supervision. In fact, it is THE training that turns out capable physicians with experience, who have "seen it all" in their respective fields - before beginning to practice medicine on their own, unsupervised.

Note that this is usually a very intense experience, with residents routinely working up to 80 hours a week. Recent regulations, adapted just a few years ago, have imposed an 80-hour work week limit for residents, although, historically, residents have worked up to 120 hours a week. Not all residency programs have fully committed to the 80-hour week so far. Residents usually take call every fourth night, or so, and can be in the hospital for up to 36 hours at a time, as part of their 80-hour week.

Read more detailed info about residency in the Residency Thoughts section.

Select a medical specialty using SDN's Specialty Selector.


Fellowship training is like another small residency after residency. You may complete an Internal Medicine residency (3 years), followed by a Cardiology or Gastroenterology fellowship, for example.
Some specialties require completion of a residency before "subspecializing" with a fellowship. The specialties just mentioned fall in this category because they require completion of an internal medicine residency first.

Fellowships are very common and available for almost all specialties. Orthopedic surgeons may elect to do a fellowship in hand surgery, for example. This is "extra" specialized training that sort of makes them "hand experts" within orthopedic surgery, but they are still orthopedic surgeons, just with some additional specialized training. They usually maintain a normal orthopedic practice, not just focused on hand surgery, but they can limit their practice if they wish to.

Residency and Fellowships are covered in more detail in the Residency Thoughts section.

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