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How to become a doctor

Interested in wearing a stethoscope and shouting orders across a busy emergency room? Well, there’s a lot more to be a doctor than daytime TV would have us believe. But the job can be challenging, exciting, varied – and sometimes even dramatic.

Medical doctors make a real difference in people’s lives. They use their scientific know-how and problem-solving skills to ease patients’ pain.

The day-to-day job can be very varied and interesting, with the promise of a good salary. But being a medical doctor is very emotionally, physically and mentally tough. It takes loads of training and dedication to get there.

'Becoming a doctor takes lots of mental grit and years of training - but it's a fulfilling and well-paid career path. Here's our guide on how to become a doctor'

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In this guide we’ll look at how to become a doctor. Start with this video for a short overview of what a doctor does and the steps needed to get there:

What is a medical doctor?

Doctors are qualified professionals who use medicine to diagnose and treat people who are ill, in pain or have other conditions. They work in a number of different environments, including clinics, labs, prisons, and hospitals. Sometimes they’re referred to as ‘physicians’.

There are many, many different specialties doctors can have - 60 to be precise! For example, podiatrists focus on feet and ankles, while dermatologist are skin specialists.

In this article we’ll mainly be looking at GPs (general practitioners) and hospital doctors.

What does a doctor do?

If you’re sick, GPs are usually the first people you see. GPs see patients either in their clinic, or they make home visits. The everyday tasks of a doctor include:

Doctors often work in a team that could include nurses,
midwives, counsellors and administrative staff like receptionists.

  • Making diagnoses – this means using a patients’ symptoms to figure out what disease or condition they might have.
  • Giving general advice, for example on how to eat well.
  • Prescribing medicine and recommending treatment.
  • Doing minor surgeries.
  • If the problem is more complicated, referring patients to specialist doctors for more tests.
  • Writing reports and keeping patient records.
  • Arranging education sessions for different groups of patients, for example pregnant women or smokers.

Hospital doctors examine and treat patients who have been referred to them by GPs. They will usually specialise in a particular field, such as surgery, paediatrics (working with children and babies), pathology (investigating the cause of diseases), and psychiatry (helping patients who have mental health problems).

Doctors also get involved in management (leading a team or hospital department), teaching (supervising trainee doctors), and research (helping scientists investigate diseases).

What skills do I need to become a doctor? Is it right for me?

Doctors typically have a very wide range of skills. They have leadership abilities, practical skills for performing procedures, and excellent verbal communication skills. They are usually confident and decisive under pressure.

While science knowledge is of course important, most medical schools want you to have other qualities as well. The Medical Schools Council outlined the core values and attributes needed to study medicine:

  • A genuine interest in the medical profession.
  • Insight into your own weaknesses, and your own health.
  • Organisational skills.
  • Strong academic ability.
  • Able to deal with uncertainty.
  • Able to solve problems and deal with challenges.
  • Conscientious (wanting to do your job well), and able to reflect on your own work.
  • Teamwork abilities and communication skills.
  • Able to treat people with respect, and have empathy for others.
  • Resilience (this means being able to bounce back from tricky situations, sometimes physical but usually emotional).

Deciding to become a doctor is a big commitment. To help you out, read the Things to consider and Is medicine right for you? sections on this NHS page.

Watch this video to hear junior doctors talk openly and honestly about their jobs and how they tackled tricky situations.

How do I become a doctor?

As you might have guessed, it’s a long path to becoming a fully qualified doctor. It requires a whole lot of hard work and commitment. To become a doctor, you will need to complete:

  1. A-levels. The exact requirements vary depending on the university you’d like to apply to, but you will typically need three As in chemistry, biology and either maths or physics.
  2. Five-year degree in medicine that’s recognised by the General Medical Council.
  3. Two-year Foundation Programme of general training.
  4. At this stage you can either do three-year training as a GP, or training in a specialty (taking between five and eight years).

When you apply for a university course in medicine, you might have to take the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) or the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT). This tests your mental abilities and behavioural characteristics, rather than your academic background. You might be able to get NHS funding to pay for the course fees and help out with living expenses.

There are more details on the application process and training in this British Medical Association handbook.

Does becoming a doctor sound right for you? We know it’s a big decision – so the best way to help you make it is by doing some work experience. Explore placements with the NHS here.

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Image credits

Main image by jannoon028 via Freepik

 Doctor working in team by Russell Watkins/DFID via Flickr