In most countries, becoming a doctor is a lengthy, rigorous process that requires a high degree of dedication and skill. While international education models vary, most systems require a period of study lasting between five and eight years before a medical degree is conferred. Following graduation, medical students are typically not permitted to practice medicine independently before completing specific residency requirements that lead to licensure by a governing body. Further specialization can entail two to three additional years of residency, adding up to a total training period lasting anywhere from seven to 14 years.
Preparation for medical school usually begins in high school. Most medical schools require students to have strong backgrounds in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. In the European medical education model, students are typically admitted to a five- or six-year undergraduate medical degree program after high school. The American model, by contrast, treats medical school as a graduate program. Under this standard, students are expected to complete a three- or four-year undergraduate program before admittance to medical school.
Some medical education authorities, such as those in India and Japan, exclusively use a qualifying exam to determine eligibility, regardless of academic history. Others, such as those in Europe and North America, generally use a combination of prior academic achievement, qualifying exam results, essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation to determine if a student is a good candidate for medical school. In either case, the application process is lengthy, detailed, and challenging.
Once admitted to medical school, students usually undergo four to six years of theoretical and clinical training. Normally, the first two years of school are devoted to theoretical studies of gross anatomy, physiology, and pathology. Later years are spent in clinical settings that allow students to observe experienced doctors at work, and have some hands-on training in a controlled environment.
Upon graduation, students are awarded a medical degree and are given the title of doctor, but they must be licensed before legally practicing medicine. For general practitioners and family physicians, this typically involves an internship followed by a two- or three-year residency period. A more specialized doctor may require a longer residency, on average four years for pediatricians and general surgeons or as many as six years for neurosurgeons or cardiac surgeons.
In addition to the time commitment and academic effort, many students must finance their education by accumulating personal debt. While some countries offer free post-secondary education to any citizen, a large number of industrialized nations do not. For this reason, it is not uncommon for a new doctor to begin practice while still paying for a medical education. All things considered, it is a long and difficult process to become a doctor, but for many people, the personal and financial sacrifice is well justified by a rewarding career.