How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?

How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?

Now that you’ve chosen to pursue your dreams of becoming a physician, it’s useful to know when you can reap the benefits. While you’re thinking about getting into the best medical school possible and taking stock of medical school requirements, you’re probably also wondering how long it will take to complete medical school – and how long before you can start working as a doctor. According to the AAMC, becoming a doctor can take 11 to 16 years. This timeframe includes four years of undergraduate study, four years of medical school, and three to eight years of training in a specialty. In this guide, we break down the timeline to becoming a doctor so you know what to expect and when you can start working independently as a physician.

[ RELATED: What’s the Real Cost of Medical School? ]


How long is medical school?

Once you complete your four-year undergrad training, your next step is to graduate from medical school. On average, it takes four years to complete medical school, but some programs do offer three-year accelerated degrees. In addition to medical school, you’ll have to complete at least three years of residency training, plus a few more if you want to specialize with a fellowship. Combine that with an average starting age of 24 (or 26 for DO – Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine – applicants), and this means the vast majority of medical students don’t start working as fully licensed doctors until their early 30s.

[ KEEP READING: What Happens After Medical School? ]

How to Prepare for Pre-Med

For high school students who are considering a career in medicine, a great way to learn about the medical field and get a head start on the clinical skills required for medical careers is to participate in an immersive pre-med summer program. Many universities and other leading U.S. institutions offer summer opportunities for high school students to learn more about medical school and medical professions. Some universities offer in-person courses, and others provide courses online.

How long is medical residency?

The length of medical residency is typically between three to seven years, with surgical residencies at least five years in length. However, the timeframe ultimately depends on the program and specialty you are pursuing. 

Here are the average lengths of some of the more popular medical residencies:

Medical SpecialtyTime in Medical Residency
Dermatology4 years
Diagnostic radiology5 years
Emergency medicine3-4 years
Family medicine3-4 years
Neurology3-4 years
Neurological surgery7 years
Ophthalmology4 years
Pediatrics3 years
Plastic surgery6 years
Psychiatry4 years

Source: AMA

What is medical school like?

While very similar among medical schools, the structure of an allopathic or osteopathic program is quite different from their undergraduate counterparts. Generally, medical school is divided into two major components: preclinical and clinical (rotation) sections. Each of these is two years long, though there can be minor differences from school to school.

The preclinical block focuses heavily on science and clinical skills, and while most are done through didactic lectures, some schools employ problem-based learning (PBL) or organize courses based on organ systems rather than subject. This part of the medical school requirement is similar to taking upper-level courses in undergrad, albeit at an accelerated pace.

At the end of the second (M2) year, med students take and pass the USMLE Step 1, which is arguably the most important examination of your medical education (yes, even more than the MCAT!).

[ READ NEXT: First-Year Medical School Student (M1) Guide ]

Clinical Experience in Medical School

In your third (M3) and fourth (M4) year, you will be on clinical rotations, meaning you will spend several weeks in a hospital or other clinic setting, observing and learning from the physicians there. M3 often consists of core rotations near and at your school, giving you a solid foundation in the most common fields that people pursuing a career in medicine go into. M4 is very similar, though you will have more freedom in choosing the field in which you would like to do rotations. You will also have the option of going to other institutions to “audition” for their residency programs. However, you will still be responsible for studying for and passing the USMLE Step 2 CK before moving on to residency.

Timeline to Become a Doctor

Becoming a doctor is a multi-step process that takes years of education and training. The average timeline to become a doctor is three to seven years, but it depends on your program and specialty. The graph below showcases the average path of medical education so you can see what it takes to become a doctor.


What is the average age of medical students?

The average age of first-year medical students is 24, and most students are 28 years old upon graduating. However, there is a wide age range for medical students. For the 2023-2024 medical school class, matriculants ranged in age from 18 to 62.

Does the MCAT have an age requirement?

There is no age requirement to take the MCAT. Anyone of any age can sit for the MCAT. However, there are testing limits, so you shouldn’t take the MCAT until you feel comfortable with the content and skills tested. If you are determining when you should take the MCAT, consider test dates and med school application deadlines.

How long does it take to become a surgeon?

Becoming a surgeon is a challenging process that takes an average of 13 years. The timeline to becoming a surgeon includes four years of undergrad, four years in medical school, and five years in a surgical residency in your specialty. According to the American College of Surgeons (ACS), there are 14 recognized surgical specialties: 

  1. Cardiothoracic surgery
  2. Colon and rectal surgery
  3. General surgery
  4. Gynecology and obstetrics
  5. Gynecologic oncology
  6. Neurological surgery
  7. Ophthalmic surgery
  8. Oral and maxillofacial surgery
  9. Orthopedic surgery
  10. Otorhinolaryngology
  11. Pediatric surgery
  12. Plastic and maxillofacial surgery
  13. Urology
  14. Vascular surgery

What happens after medical school?

You’ve accomplished a lot at this point, now that your medical school requirements are over, but your journey to becoming a doctor is not yet done. Residency is where the bulk of your clinical skills will be learned and refined. A good residency can make a big difference in the quality of a physician – as much as getting into a good medical school.

After your first year of residency (PGY1 = postgraduate year 1), you face another examination: the USMLE Step 3. The good news is that this is the final exam in the USMLE series, which is designed to assess whether a medical school graduate can apply medical knowledge and understanding of biomedical and clinical science essential for the unsupervised practice of medicine.

The remainder of your residency requirements begin after you take USMLE. This stage can last anywhere from three to five years, and there is the opportunity to further specialize with a fellowship after you are finished. Finally, you move on to your board certifications and begin practicing medicine.

[ GOOD TO KNOW: Average Annual Doctor Salaries by Specialty ]

We commend you for researching the years ahead and figuring out how long it will take you to become a doctor. Setting appropriate expectations is important when you’re focused on the end goal of living the “good life” of a doctor. There are sacrifices to be made on this journey during some of the best years of your life, but in the end, being able to care for patients in the specialty of your choice can go a long way in finding a fulfilling and rewarding career in medicine.

If you’re interested in going to medical school, check out Kaplan’s MCAT prep options.

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