Doctors in the United States spend many years acquiring the necessary education and skills to practice medicine. The preparation for medical school usually begins in high school. Beyond high school, medical training last through four typical periods: undergraduate education, medical school, residency and fellowship. If a physician chooses to complete a lengthy fellowship, her education may take 15 year or longer from the time she first enters college.
To become a doctor, a student must first complete high school, then go on to college. During the typical four-year undergraduate period, the aspiring doctor will study topics such as anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry and other college courses necessary for a degree, such as English or math. Other common courses are physics and related science classes. Students must pass the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, and submit an application to medical school along with college transcripts, MCAT scores and letters of recommendation.
Most medical schools are four-year programs, although a few offer combined undergraduate and medical school curriculums that last six or seven years. For the first two years of medical school, students spend their time in laboratories and classrooms, studying topics such as biochemistry, advanced anatomy and physiology, psychology, medical ethics and medico-legal topics. They also learn how to examine patients, take medical histories and diagnose illness. In the second two years of medical school, the student begins to work with patients in a hospital or clinic under the supervision of an experienced physician.
The next step in a physician’s education is residency. Most residency programs are located in hospitals, although outpatient training in a clinic is included in many programs. During the residency, the graduate physician gains expertise in the diagnosis, treatment and overall management of patients, with a focus on the specialty she plans to practice. A residency program may last from three to eight years, depending on the specialty. Pediatrics and family practice, for example, require three-year residencies, while general surgery takes five years, according to the American Medical Association.
In addition to the basic requirements of college, medical school and residency, some physicians choose to go on to programs called fellowships. A fellowship program offers one to three years of additional training for specialty fields. Gastroenterology and child and adolescent psychiatry are two areas that are highly specialized and often require fellowships.