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Career Information



A doctor goes over test results with her patient.

Cathy Yeulet / 123RF

Job Description

After providing diagnoses, a doctor treats patients who are suffering from diseases and injuries. A doctor is also called a physician and may be either an MD (medical doctor) or a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine). MDs and DOs both use traditional treatment methods such as drugs and surgery, but DOs emphasize the body's musculoskeletal system, preventive medicine and holistic patient care. Doctors can be primary care physicians or they may specialize in a particular area of medicine such as internal medicine, emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, neurology, pediatrics, geriatrics, psychiatry, endocrinology, ophthalmology or anesthesiology.

Employment Facts

There were nearly 700,000 doctors employed in 2012. While most work in private offices or clinics, an increasing number work in large group practices or hospitals. Many own or co-own private medical practices.

Doctors work at least full time hours. Most spend more than 40 hours a week on the job, including when they are on call for emergencies. They sometimes work overnight.

Educational Requirements

To become a doctor one must attend an accredited medical school for four years and then complete a three to eight year internship or residency program depending on the specialty one chooses. Currently the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) accredits MD programs. DO programs receive accreditation from the American Osteopathic Association (AOA). In February 2014 these organizations along with the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) announced they had agreed to a single accreditation system for graduate medical education programs in the US (Unified GME System to Bring MDs and DOs Under One Roof. AMA Wire).

Why Do You Need to Know About Educational Requirements?

Other Requirements

Doctors in the United States are licensed by state medical or osteopathic boards. Those who want to learn about specific requirements should contact the board in the state in which they plan to practice. Visit the Federation of State Medical Boards for a list of those boards. While requirements vary, all MDs must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and DOs must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). 

Some doctors choose to become board certified in a medical specialty, although it is not required. Those who choose to do so have to spend up to seven years in residency training. Upon completion of that residency or after one to two years of practice, he or she will have to take a final examination in order to become certified by a member board of the American Board of Medical Specialists (ABMS) or the American Osteopathic Association (AOA). Certification in a subspecialty may require an additional one or two year residency.

In addition to graduation from medical school, licensure and voluntary certification, one needs certain soft skills, or personal qualities, to succeed in this occupation. A doctor needs excellent critical thinking and problem solving skills. He or she must have strong listening and speaking skills. Compassion and patience are extremely important. In addition, a doctor should be well organized and detail-oriented.

Advancement Opportunities

Gaining experience in a specialty or subspecialty and developing a good reputation among patients and peers can help a doctor advance in his or her career. Many start their own private practices or join already established ones. Other experienced doctors teach residents and new doctors while some take on managerial positions in hospitals or clinics.

Why Do You Need to Know About Advancement?

Job Outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of doctors is projected to grow much more quickly than the average for all occupations through 2022. The best opportunities will be in rural and low-income areas.

Why Do You Need to Know About Job Outlook?


In 2012, primary care doctors earned a median annual salary of $220,942, while specialists earned a median annual salary of $396,233 (US).

Use the Salary Wizard at Salary.com to find out how much a doctor currently earns in your city.

A Day in a Doctor's Life:

A doctor's tasks vary by specialty, but these are some typical job duties taken from online ads for positions found on Indeed.com:

  • Assess, diagnose, and treat a wide range of conditions, ranging from broken bones to more exotic illnesses.
  • Prescribe and administer treatment to injury victims.
  • Provide follow-up care of patients, referrals and laboratory results.
  • Provide supervision to physician assistants and nurse practitioners.
  • Sign prescriptions and documents that require a medical doctor's signature.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Physicians and Surgeons, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physicians-and-surgeons.htm (visited February 27, 2014).
Employment and Training Administration, US Department of Labor, O*NET Online, on the Internet at http://online.onetcenter.org/ (visited February 27, 2014).

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