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What It Takes to Be a Doctor

People often know at a young age that they want to become doctors. Perhaps they are naturally good at math and science. Maybe they have a desire to help people and to make a difference in people’s lives. Or, they may just want a job that is full of challenges. These are all very good reasons to consider a medical career. However, anyone who wants to become a doctor must understand how much work it takes to achieve that goal.

The road to becoming a doctor is a long and difficult one. In fact, doctors go through more education and training than almost any other type of professional. At the very minimum, it takes eleven years to become a doctor, and longer for highly specialized medical fields. Still, most doctors love their work and believe it was well worth the years of effort.

The First Four Years

Aspiring doctors spend the first four years of college earning their bachelor’s degrees. Many students major in what is known as “premed,” which has a curriculum that is heavy in science and math. Premed students study such things as physics, chemistry, and biology, and take other advanced mathematics and science courses. During this time students often volunteer or work part-time in hospitals, clinics, or doctor’s offices, so they can gain knowledge and experience.

When premed students are in their third or fourth year of college, they apply to medical school. There are nearly 150 medical schools in the United States, and acceptance to these schools is highly competitive. Students must achieve a high score on an examination called the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). They must complete an essay to explain why they want to be a doctor. Many schools require letters of recommendation. Also, the grades the students have earned in college are an extremely important consideration. Medical students almost always have grade point averages of 3.5 or higher.

Intensive Study

Once students are admitted into medical school, they spend the first two years on what is often called “heavy book learning.” They attend classes in anatomy, biochemistry, and physiology. They study pathology, medical ethics, and laws that govern medicine. They learn about the human body and how it works. They learn about disease and how the human immune system fights disease. They also study pharmacology, which is the science of medications.

During the second year, students begin to learn about basic medical tasks. This includes learning how to examine patients, how to take medical histories, and how to diagnosis certain illnesses.

Learning on the Job

The third year of medical school is when students do their clinical rotations, which means they work with doctors and other health care professionals. They observe and assist internists, surgeons, and pediatricians, as well as radiologists, neurologists, family practice doctors, and ER doctors. This gives students an opportunity to experience a wide variety of medical specialties. It also allows them to work with many different patients. As they gain knowledge about the different areas of medicine, most students make decisions about which field they like best.

Pediatrician Heather Burrows says that the clinical rotations are a wonderful chance for students to find out what being a doctor is really like. One of her most memorable experiences happened during her third year of medical school, when she was doing a rotation in OB/GYN. It was the middle of the night, and a woman was about to have a baby. Dr. Burrows describes the situation: “I was going to assist with the birth, and I was exhausted from working so many hours. All I wanted was for her to hurry up and get it over with so I could go to sleep. But then the baby was born… and it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. All of a sudden, I was wide awake. I was so excited to be a part of this experience, helping to make this miracle happen.”2

Choosing a Specialty

Students continue their rotations during their fourth year of medical school, but they begin to take on more responsibility. Also, this is when they decide on their specialty. By their fourth year, they have had a chance to explore many different areas of medicine. They have seen real-life doctors in action, and they have worked alongside them. So the next step is to choose the medical field they want to pursue and graduate from medical school. Finally, they are officially doctors.


By the time students graduate, they have completed eight years of formal schooling. However, their education is far from finished. Their next step is the residency, which is usually performed in a hospital under the direction of experienced physicians. A residency is an intense, hands-on medical training period that lasts for a minimum of three years. Some take much longer. For instance, residencies in anesthesiology and obstetrics take four years. An orthopedic surgery residency takes five years, and a plastic surgery residency takes six years. During this training period, residents are paid a salary for their work.

New doctors who are interested in a highly specialized field, such as neurosurgery, must perform residencies that last for six years or more. One example of this type of residency program is at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Dr. Richard Winn is the chief of neurosurgery, and he supervises the program. Each year, more than three hundred doctors apply—and only two are accepted. Plus, not only is the program hard to get into, it takes eight years to complete. A sign on Dr. Winn’s office wall explains why his program is so difficult and why it takes such a long time. It reads, “If the training is tough, the war will be easy.” Harborview’s neurosurgical residency program has been called the best in the country.

Once doctors have completed their residencies, their formal medical training is finally complete. However, before they can practice medicine, they must get a license from the state in which they plan to work. When they are licensed, doctors may set up their own private practice or join a practice with other physicians. Or, they may go to work for hospitals, health departments, laboratories, or other medical organizations.

What Makes a Good Doctor

Doctors work hard—very hard. Anyone who has put in the time and effort it takes to earn a medical degree is well aware of that. However, there are also other qualities that doctors need. First, they need to care about people. This applies to all doctors, even those who specialize in research or radiology. They may not work directly with patients, but their work still revolves around helping people. Doctors also need to be excellent thinkers. They must be able to examine a sick patient and figure out what is wrong. Then, they must be able to decide the best way to treat the patient’s illness or injury.

A Special Kind of Person

Dr. Dana Gossett is an OB/GYN who became a doctor for several reasons. She wanted to help people and to have a positive impact on their lives. But she also loves the science that is involved in medicine. She enjoys knowing how the body works and why disease happens. Dr. Gossett shares her thoughts about some qualities that doctors need: “Attention to detail is critical—little things can mean life or death in medicine. The physician MUST be able to listen—the patient frequently can tell you exactly what’s wrong, if you can listen. And the physician must be [understanding]. If you can’t place yourself in your patient’s shoes and understand how scared/happy/painful/etc. their situation is, you will not be able to help them as much, and they will not trust you as much.”3

It takes a special kind of person to be a doctor, and it is not the right career for everyone. However, for people with the right personal qualities—as well as the willingness to complete years of medical education and training—becoming a doctor is the best possible choice they could make.

2 Dr. Heather Burrows, interview with author, Sep­tember 26, 2002.

3 Quoted in Students Science Enrichment Program (SSEP), “Dr. Dana Gossett.” http://ssep.bwfund.org.

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