Pediatricians are physicians who specialize in the care of children from birth through adolescence. A career practicing pediatric medicine is rewarding but also challenging. If you want to be a pediatrician, you’re going to need the proper schooling, which includes earning both a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate.

pediatrician majors

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Education and Career Planning for Pediatrician Majors

Becoming a pediatrician is a long process that can take over a decade to complete. Unlike many other careers, there is a specific route that aspiring pediatricians need to follow in order to become licensed to work in their field. While there can be some variations, pediatricians have to go through each of these steps in order to get to their goal.

To start, an aspiring pediatrician must obtain a four-year degree. Besides meeting the graduation requirements for their bachelor’s degree program, aspiring pediatricians must take the courses required for medical school. Typically, medical school prerequisites encompass studies in biology, organic chemistry, anatomy, and other subjects.

After graduating, students will need to apply to medical school. This graduate program usually takes four years to complete, starting with two years of classroom and laboratory studies and culminating in two years of clinical rotations. Upon completing their clinical rotations and graduating from medical school, new doctors who want to practice pediatric medicine will complete an internship and residency in this specialty at a teaching hospital or large clinic. The postgraduate training for pediatricians takes three years, but new doctors pursuing more specialized branches of medicine like pediatric emergency medicine, child and adolescent psychiatry and adolescent medicine will spend another two to four years completing a fellowship.

Like other types of physicians, pediatricians must attain a license to practice medicine, which requires passing an exam such as the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). The American Board of Pediatrics awards voluntary – but valuable – board certification in this specialty.

The Degrees Needed to Be a Pediatrician

Pediatricians need a minimum of two degrees, one at the undergraduate level and one at the doctoral level.

The doctoral degree must be granted by an accredited medical school and be considered a medical degree, as opposed to other health-related degrees that may be awarded by the institution. Generally, aspiring pediatricians can choose to seek either an allopathic Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or an osteopathic (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. The MD and DO degrees are equally acceptable courses of career preparation for pediatricians, but they approach the practice of medicine from different perspectives and may encompass somewhat different coursework.

The bachelor’s degree that a prospective pediatrician must attain before going to medical school can be earned in any subject of study. More important than the precise major you choose is whether you take the courses needed to meet medical school prerequisites, as well as the strength of your overall combination of academic performance, extracurricular involvement, volunteerism and experience working in or observing the health care field. Both MD and DO programs are heavily science-based, so you might expect that having a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree would be preferable to a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree. However, liberal arts-based BA programs of study can also prepare you for medical school, as long as you take enough science courses to meet the prerequisites.

Some physicians also earn additional degrees, such as master’s degrees in public health or business administration. While a master’s degree isn’t required to work as a pediatrician, having this additional qualification may help you find work in leadership, research, advocacy or policy roles.

What to Major in to Be a Pediatrician

There’s no one pediatrician college major because aspiring physicians don’t definitively choose their medical specialty until later in their career preparation path. Still, it’s generally recommended that students choose a bachelor’s degree that they expect to help them in their future studies in some way. What this means is open to interpretation. While some prospective pediatricians may focus mainly on majors that will allow them to meet medical school prerequisites without taking extra science courses, others may prefer programs that help them develop the soft skills needed to be a good doctor, including communication and interpersonal skills.

Prospective pediatricians often choose some of the same college majors that other medical school applicants choose. The American Medical Association reported that the most common college majors for matriculated medical school students were biology, physical science, the social sciences, the humanities and specialized health science. Degrees in psychology, especially child psychology and child development, may be of particular interest when you want to be a pediatrician. Although liberal arts degrees like English are less popular among medical school students than they used to be, these majors that prioritize learning how to learn, communicate and think critically can also be valuable for making it through the challenges of medical school.

Whatever major you choose, you will need to take coursework that fulfills your medical school prerequisites, most of which are based in branches of science like biology and chemistry. It’s a good idea to look into pre-medical tracks. Generally, pre-medical studies is not a separate major but instead an academic track that you can pursue with any major and that consists of the classes that most commonly make up medical school prerequisites.

Biological Science Majors

Biological science, the scientific study of living things, is a perennially popular major among medical school students, and aspiring pediatricians are no exception. After all, the bodies of infants, children and adolescents (like those of all humans) are biological organisms filled with complex systems. Some health ailments are caused by living organisms, such as bacteria, parasites and fungi. Biology is involved in the development of the medical procedures, drugs and other treatments used to manage patients’ health conditions and symptoms. Although it may not pertain directly to the specific needs and challenges that accompany practicing pediatric medicine, biological science is a good choice of majors for preparing to practice medicine in general.

Biology students take laboratory courses in many different areas of biology, including molecular biology, organismal biology, cell biology, neurobiology, evolutionary biology, biochemistry, ecology, genetics and physiology. As you might expect, majoring in biology is a good way to cross off the prerequisites for medical school and make sure that you have a strong foundation in biological sciences to build upon with the basic science curriculum.

Although biology is the most popular major for getting into medical school, choosing this major purely because it’s what you think you should study to be a pediatrician may not give you the competitive edge you expect. The American Medical Association reported that the 40 percent matriculation rate for biology majors was actually lower than the matriculation rate of “several” other majors and that students of biology didn’t perform better on the MCAT, on average, on their peers from other academic backgrounds.

If you have a passion for biology, and you plan to make an effort to be involved in undergraduate research experiences, biology is a good major to prepare you for medical school. If not, though, you might be better off pursuing a major that you like – and will shine in – than performing less enthusiastically in a program of study that matches everyone else’s.

Studies in Chemistry and Physics

Outside of biological sciences, majors that fall under the umbrella of physical sciences are the most popular. Specifically, students eyeing a medical school education often choose to major in chemistry or physics. Not only do these science-based programs of study lend themselves to the science courses that make up medical school prerequisites, but they also are integral to the development of new and existing medical treatments.

Both chemistry and physics pertain to the study of matter, which makes up the universe. The field of chemistry focuses on the properties and behavior of matter and how different substances react to each other and to the forces exerted on them. Physics, instead, deals with energy, force and the motions and behaviors of matter through space and time.

Bachelor’s degree programs in chemistry typically cover general chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, systematic inorganic chemistry, instrumental methods of chemical analysis and laboratory safety in the chemical sciences. The curriculum of undergraduate programs in physics includes studies in the foundations of modern physics, mechanics and waves, electricity and magnetism, quantum physics, vibrations and optics and thermodynamics. Physics is a particularly math-heavy branch of science and may include coursework in mathematical methods for scientists, statistical mechanics and multivariate calculus.

Psychology and Other Social Science Majors

One major that may appeal particularly to prospective pediatricians is psychology. Psychology, which is the scientific study of the mind and behavior, routinely includes coursework in development across the lifespan, including during childhood and adolescence.

Students may think that aspiring psychiatrists are the ones who would most benefit from majoring in psychology as undergraduates, due to their focus on treating mental illnesses, but other types of doctors also benefit from what drives people’s (and patients’) thoughts and emotions. Doctors who understand psychology, psychological needs, and common psychological conditions like depression and anxiety are in a better position to provide caring and compassionate care to patients, no matter what specialty of medicine they practice. Empathy and compassion are particularly important traits for pediatricians, who need to reassure both anxious children, some of whom may be too young to communicate their concerns, and parents who may be equally anxious.

If psychology doesn’t seem like quite the right fit for you, consider majoring in another one of the social sciences, such as sociology or anthropology, both of which can help you develop a deeper understanding of people.

Studies in the Humanities and Liberal Arts

Less science-focused than social sciences are the humanities and the liberal arts. The coursework required for a liberal arts degree alone won’t prepare you to get into medical school. However, these broader areas of study that emphasize the development of skills in thinking, learning and communication also tend to give students plenty of electives that they can use to follow a pre-medical track. Majoring in English, the humanities or other liberal arts requires a great deal of reading and writing, which makes them useful when you’re gearing up for the academic challenges of medical school. In a liberal arts major, the focus is less on memorizing facts and more on learning how to think critically, express ideas and take in new information.

Specialized Health Science Majors

Another option that is starting to become more popular is to pick a degree in a field that makes the student immediately employable in the healthcare industry. For example, you might choose to major in medical administration, nursing or health sciences more generally. Not only does this path give you a unique insight into what it’s really like to work in the medical field, but if you decide to spend some time working before applying to medical school, it can also provide you with valuable experience that distinguishes you from other applicants.

Majoring in health administration will likely mean taking classes in diseases of the human body, anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, healthcare delivery systems, epidemiology and health services research, health policy and medical law and ethics. All of these courses can be valuable for future pediatricians. Other coursework in this major includes business studies and specialized classes pertaining to administration in the healthcare field, such as strategic health planning, healthcare financial management and medical group practice management.

A Bachelor of Nursing Science (BSN) degree program encompasses coursework in anatomy and physiology, human biology, professional nursing and healthcare, health concepts across the lifespan and science and technology in nursing practice. Nurses gain real-world work experience through clinical practicum courses.

General degree programs in the health sciences combine studies in basic science like biology, chemistry and anatomy and physiology with coursework in medical terminology, developmental and abnormal psychology and applied statistics for health sciences. Elective coursework within the major can help students tailor their undergraduate studies toward areas like health services management, biomedical research, public health and global health. For aspiring pediatricians, taking classes in children’s health, women’s health, nutrition and fitness and wellness may be particularly helpful.

Although these are the most popular majors for getting into medical school, the second-largest group of matriculated medical school students is the one that encompasses all other majors. If you choose not to major in one of these common medical school majors – such as biomedical engineering, for example – you will still be in good company.

Additional Resources

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