A dermatologist is basically just a beautician, right? Make people’s faces pretty, maybe cut off a weird-looking mole sometimes, and give them some beauty tips? Do dermatologists do facials?

Nope. Many dermatologists do offer treatments that are done primarily for aesthetic purposes, but those services are just a tiny part of the field of dermatology. Dermatologists aren’t just glorified beauticians or skincare specialists. They’re fully licensed physicians and surgeons who have a doctoral education in the clinical practice of medicine. Like many other doctors who specialize in a type of medicine, system of the body or kind of medical condition, dermatologists are experts in their area of specialty. Their specialization just happens to be the skin.

Dermatologists save lives by diagnosing and removing skin cancers. They improve people’s quality of life by relieving painful skin conditions. They help people with disfiguring conditions feel more confident and accepted. And it’s a big commitment.

If you’re interested in being a dermatologist, you need to learn about the full process of preparing for this career. It’s a lot more than a short stint at a trade school or a cosmetology program.

dermatologist degree

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

Is There a Bachelor’s in Dermatology Degree?

There’s no such thing as a bachelor’s degree in dermatology in the United States medical education system. For that matter, you can’t even earn a medical degree – a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) – in dermatology specifically. Instead, you earn a bachelor’s degree in any subject that allows you to complete your medical prerequisites, then go to medical school for coursework that takes place in the classroom and the lab and for clinical rotations that provide hands-on experience. Take as many clinical rotations that are relevant to the practice of dermatology as you can, along with clinical rotations in all major areas of medicine. When it’s time to apply for residency, you’re going to want to get into one of the 150 accredited dermatology residency programs that, the American Board of Dermatology reported, are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education.

The reason you can’t earn a bachelor’s degree in dermatology is that dermatologist schooling progresses from the most general coursework to the most specific clinical training. You start with undergraduate study in the basic science coursework that forms the prerequisites for medical school, and then you learn the advanced science of medicine and techniques for clinical practice. Finally, you gain on-the-job training in the medical specialty of dermatology.

Your training might not end with your final year of residency. If you want to pursue a subspecialty like pediatric dermatology, dermatopathology or micrographic surgery and dermatologic oncology, you might spend an additional year doing a fellowship in your chosen area of focus. 

How to Become a Dermatologist

Let’s back up. If you can’t be a dermatologist with just a bachelor’s degree, what do you have to do to attain this career?

Make no mistake – if you want to be a dermatologist, you’re going to be in this for the long haul. Yes, dermatologists make a substantial income, but you need to be prepared for the amount of work you will need to do in order to get to that point and the amount of time it will take.

Dermatologist schooling takes eight years – culminating in two degrees – and an additional three to four years of training after medical school, depending on how specialized you want to get. All in all, it will take you 12 years to begin practicing dermatology as a full-fledged, fully qualified doctor and to start earning a doctor’s salary.

Studying to Be a Dermatologist

Your preparation for a dermatologist career begins at the undergraduate level. You do need a bachelor’s degree, but it won’t be in dermatology. Many prospective doctors, whether they are planning careers in dermatology or in other specialties, pursue majors in science and related areas of study because they think these majors will get them into medical school. In reality, any major is fine for medical school, as long as the student meets the prerequisites for medical school entrance and has a compelling application overall.

Like other prospective physicians, hopeful dermatologists-t0-be need to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) exam in the course of their preparation for medical school. You don’t have to have an extensive knowledge of medicine to score well on this standardized test. The content of the exam is intended to measure students’ knowledge of science concepts and their skills in problem-solving and critical thinking, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Whether you go to an allopathic (MD) or osteopathic (DO) school, it’s going to take you four years of hard work to graduate with your medical degree. Your doctoral-level courses will include studies in biochemistry, physiology, histology (the studies of tissues and their structure) and the principles of doctoring. Students will also study pharmacology, the doctor-patient connection and medical ethics and laws. The two years of coursework in the classroom and the laboratory lead up to two years of clinical rotations, at the end of which you will graduate.

After medical school graduation, aspiring dermatologists complete one year of broad clinical internship, followed by three years of dermatologic residency experience.

All doctors must be licensed in order to practice legally here in the United States. Besides graduating from an accredited medical school, you need to pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States (COMLEX-USA). Dermatologists become certified by the American Board of Medical Specialists (ABMS) or by the American Osteopathic Association (AOA).

Working in Dermatology

Day-to-day duties for dermatologists vary depending on the patients you see. Sometimes you’ll be diagnosing skin infections, but other times, you will be performing blacklight exams. Some dermatologists perform surgical treatments, while others solely do cosmetic work. The work of a dermatologist includes the following:

  • Examining patients
  • Taking medical histories
  • Prescribing medications
  • Ordering further testing when needed
  • Educating patients on preventive skincare
  • Treating skin cancer

Dermatologists work in a variety of places, from outpatient clinics to private offices, hospitals and even research and academic settings.

We all know doctors make bank, but just how much does a dermatologist work? The National Society of High School Scholars reported in 2020 that the annual salary for dermatologists was $411,000. That salary figure puts dermatology among the top 10 highest-paying medical specialties.

Future dermatologists can definitely expect to make six figures! That’s a good thing, considering that the median amount of student loan debt for medical school was $200,000 as of 2019, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Dermatologist?

Other than deciding between the MD and the DO – and, of course, individual medical schools – you don’t make a ton of decisions about dermatologist schooling at the graduate level. At the undergraduate level, though, you do have to choose a college major in which to pursue your bachelor’s degree. The most popular majors for new medical school students in 2020 were biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, humanities, specialized health sciences and math and statistics, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

However, these are far from your only options for undergraduate majors. The American Medical Association reported that the second-largest portion of new students admitted to medical school, accounting for about 15 percent of all students, had chosen majors that were listed in the “other” category.

Biology

The most common dermatologist degree at the undergraduate level is a bachelor’s degree in biology. Biology is the study of life and living organisms, so it makes sense that the practice of medicine would draw from the principles of biology. Biology majors take coursework in many different aspects of biology, including general biology, cellular and molecular biology, organismal biology, cellular structure and function, genetics and ecology. Your curriculum will likely also include some study in chemistry and physics, anatomy and physiology, scientific writing and laboratory procedures.

Although biology is a discipline of the natural sciences, an undergraduate degree in this major may be offered as either a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS). This distinction differentiates degrees based in the liberal arts from degrees based in the hard sciences. Generally, BS degrees require additional coursework in science and biology, while BA degrees allow for more exploration of subjects in the arts, the liberal arts and the humanities.

You might be inclined to think that medical schools would necessarily prefer to see a Bachelor of Science in biology than a Bachelor of Arts, but that’s not necessarily the case. The BS curriculum might encompass more extensive coursework in biology, which can be helpful for developing a strong foundation in the basic sciences upon which your medical school studies will build. However, a BA is perfectly suitable for admission to medical school, as long as students took enough coursework in biology and other sciences to meet the school’s prerequisites. Further, your studies in the liberal arts can help you develop the non-technical skills that are important for a dermatologist, including your communication skills and your critical thinking abilities. If you devote a couple of courses to polishing your proficiency in a foreign language that is commonly spoken in the area in which you hope to practice medicine, knowledge of this language may be more beneficial to your medical school application and your future career in medicine than a couple of additional undergraduate biology courses.

Chemistry

Chemistry is a big part of the science of medicine. There are naturally occurring chemicals in the human body, as well as chemicals in the pharmaceutical products used to treat health conditions. It makes sense that aspiring dermatologists may opt to major in chemistry, the science of matter’s properties and reactions, during their undergraduate education.

There are many different areas of chemistry, such as general chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry and biochemistry. Majoring in chemistry typically introduces students to undergraduate-level study in all of these areas, as well as in physics, calculus, linear algebra and basic computer science foundations. Some chemistry degree programs include optional pre-medical concentrations, which are likely to include a greater emphasis on topics in biology, as well as studies in clinical chemistry, immunology, hematology, immunohematology and health care management.

Health Sciences

You know you want to work in the health care field, so why not major in health sciences? These interdisciplinary programs combine coursework in basic sciences, such as chemistry and biology, with more specialized coursework relating to work in the healthcare industry, including medical terminology. Introductory coursework in the health sciences, statistics for health professionals, research practices in the health sciences, anatomy and physiology and statistics and informatics for health applications are all among the classes you are likely to find in your health sciences curriculum, and students may be able to customize their education by choosing from many different health science elective course options.

Psychology

Although they sometimes emphasize qualitative over quantitative research and data analysis, the social sciences also use scientific methods of research and exploration. It makes sense that nearly 2,000 of the students accepted into medical school in 2020 were social science majors. A program of study that is of particular interest to prospective physicians is psychology. This social science revolves around the empirical study of the mind, thought and behavior, and it has significant potential for clinical and counseling practice. Majoring in psychology typically means taking classes in developmental psychology, social psychology, cognitive psychology,  psychopathology, behavioral psychology, neuropsychology, psychopharmacology and many more areas of this field. You will also likely encounter required courses in areas of science like biology, chemistry and physics, which can help you meet your medical school prerequisites.

English and Communications

If you want to be a truly excellent doctor, you need to be a great communicator. Additionally, if you want to do well in medical school, you can’t be intimidated by the prospect of doing a lot of reading, writing and studying. Majors in English and communications may not seem like a perfect fit for aspiring dermatologists because they are so far removed from science, but they can help you develop strong communication skills and become used to reading- and writing-intensive coursework. Generally, majors under the umbrella of English tend to emphasize the analysis of literature more, while communications majors may have more to do with learning rhetorical devices and developing the skills for writing in professional capacities, including business, marketing and media.

Pre-medical programs generally are not independent majors but rather programs that students in any major can follow to ensure that they are taking the coursework required for medical school admissions. Most pre-med programs will include coursework in biology, organic chemistry, calculus or statistics and the fundamentals of written communications. 

Additional Resources 

Do Dermatologists Have a Specialty of Certain Bodies Parts and Areas?

What Procedures Would I Typically Go to a Dermatologist For?

What Causes Acne?