Becoming a medical doctor can be a rewarding career choice. In some roles in the medical profession, you help people manage health conditions, maintain wellness and live their best lives. Other types of doctors literally save patients’ lives on a routine basis.

Whether you work in a hospital, medical center or private practice, your main focus as a doctor will be to treat patients’ medical conditions by recording patient histories and information, ordering diagnostic tests, diagnosing ailments and prescribing medications treatments. To become a doctor, you need an advanced education. Earning a degree in the medical field requires you to first complete undergraduate coursework and then get accepted into an accredited medical college.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Doctor?

Doctors need a specific degree at the doctoral level of study, which is an advanced level of education. They also need an undergraduate degree, which doesn’t have to be in a specific major.

Generally, medical school encompasses four years of study and training. The first two years of school required to be a doctor revolve around classroom and laboratory study, which will prepare you to successfully diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries. The later years of the program take the form of clinical rotations in hospitals, clinics, physicians’ offices and other healthcare settings. Upon completing their studies and clinical rotations, students graduate with their medical degrees and begin the internships and residencies that prepare them for their careers as fully qualified physicians.

Degrees for Doctors

Two types of doctoral-level degrees can suffice to prepare students for a career as a physician: an allopathic Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree and a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.

Doctor of Medicine

The traditional medical doctor degree is the MD. Around three-quarters of students in medical schools are pursuing Doctor of Medicine degrees, according to the American Medical Association. Allopathic medical school programs are simply educational systems that are based on the use of pharmaceutical medications, surgery and other forms of conventional medical treatments to treat diseases and their symptoms.

To acquire their licenses to practice medicine, students graduating from an MD program will need to pass the USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Examination) tests offered through the National Board of Medical Examiners.

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine

Around one-quarter of medical school students are seeking an osteopathic degree instead of the traditional allopathic degree. The number of students enrolled in a program to earn a DO degree has been rising, along with the number of osteopathic schools in the United States, according to the American Medical Association. An education that culminates in a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree tends to emphasize holistic methods of medical treatment. An example is the more than 200 hours of musculoskeletal system training that DO students receive in the hands-on techniques used in osteopathic manipulative treatment.

Instead of taking the USMLE for licensing, students in Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree programs must pass the COMLEX-USA (Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States).

Allopathic and osteopathic medical school degree programs follow similar structures and generally have similar admissions requirements, the American Medical Association reported. 

degrees for doctors

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

What Major Do You Need to Be a Doctor?

Of course, before you can pursue either a Doctor of Medicine or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, you’re going to need to earn an undergraduate degree. Some sort of bachelor’s or baccalaureate degree is required for applicants to medical school. The major in which the degree is earned is up to the student.

Any undergraduate major could lead to medical school, provided that the student has completed all prerequisite coursework—regardless of whether or not their declared major required those courses. Often, colleges and universities offer a pre-medical academic track that allows students in any major to plan for medical school admissions by completing courses that align with typical medical school prerequisites.

The Best Doctor Bachelor Degree Options

Naturally, just because you could apply to medical school from any undergraduate background doesn’t mean that you should choose a college major with no consideration for your career goals. Some undergraduate majors are more closely related to the field of medicine than others or provide prospective medical school students with some other benefit, such as building the skills needed to perform well on admissions testing or to succeed in clinical practice. No matter which major you choose as an aspiring doctor, you will need to take a significant number of classes in science disciplines.

Some of the most popular programs of undergraduate study among enrolled medical school students in 2020 included biology, physical sciences, social sciences, the humanities, specialized health sciences and mathematics and statistics, according to the American Medical Association.

If you’re wondering how common it is for students outside of these fields of major study to make it into medical school, here’s a fact to consider. Of the 22,239 students whose undergraduate majors were reviewed, 3,391—just over 15 percent—didn’t fit into any of these categories. Statistically, the “other” category of majors was the second largest, below only biological science in popularity, the American Medical Association noted.

Biology

If one undergraduate major is more closely linked with medical school admissions than any other, it has to be biology. More than 57 percent of the 22,239 students who were matriculated into medical school in 2020 had a degree in biological science.

The principles of biology, the scientific study of life and living organisms, are key concepts in the practice of medicine. Doctors rely on their knowledge of biology to understand not only the structure and systems of the human body and how it operates but also the mechanisms by which medications and other medical interventions work.

Some of the subjects you may study as an undergraduate student majoring in biology include:

  • Cell biology
  • Molecular biology
  • Experimental biology
  • Human genetics
  • Ecology
  • Evolution
  • Human physiology
  • Epidemiology

You should also expect to take classes in other relevant areas of science, including chemistry, biochemistry and physics.

Even though the discipline of biology is overrepresented among students who successfully enrolled in medical school, that doesn’t necessarily mean that biology is the “best” major for aspiring doctors. In terms of both admissions test scores and acceptance rate, biology majors’ performance is on par with that of applicants with backgrounds in several other majors, according to the American Medical Association. Majoring in biological sciences doesn’t make you a shoo-in for admission to medical school, and not choosing this major won’t necessarily make your path to acceptance harder.

Physical Sciences

If a biological sciences major isn’t up your alley, consider pursuing a degree in one of the physical sciences instead. That’s what 2,240 of the medical school students who matriculated in 2020, or upwards of 10 percent of new medical students that year, did as undergraduates. The physical sciences are the disciplines of science that are concerned with the study of natural but non-living objects. Some of the more popular undergraduate majors in the physical sciences include:

  • Chemistry, the study of the identification and properties of matter and of the substances that make up matter
  • Physics, the study of matter, energy and force
  • Geology, the study of the Earth and its history, the processes through which it changes and the composition, physical structure and properties it holds

Physical science may not seem to relate to the work of a doctor as much as biological science does, but students of these majors are still learning scientific methods and processes of thinking. Additionally, the principles and techniques of chemistry and physics are often used in the development of medical interventions, such as pharmaceutical drugs, medical devices and diagnostic testing procedures. Even if you don’t plan to develop new methods of medical treatment on your own, having a thorough knowledge of these areas can help you understand how and why these medical interventions work.

Social Sciences

In addition to your laboratory science prerequisites, most accredited medical school programs will require you to successfully complete undergraduate coursework in English, mathematics, and social sciences. Doctors should be knowledgeable on an array of subjects, not strictly medicine and the hard sciences. Some prospective medical students decide to major in one of the social sciences, either because the subject is what most interests them or because studying these areas can help them develop non-technical skills that will help them in their careers.

For example, majoring in psychology is a particularly good idea if you’re interested in practicing the medical specialty of psychiatry, but having this background can also be helpful in learning how to build a rapport with patients, how to convince them to make healthy decisions and how to communicate with them in general to alleviate anxieties and put them at ease. Alternatively, you might decide to study sociology because of an interest in the dynamics in social groups and particularly in the oppression of certain groups, and this background might help you address healthcare disparities and motivate you to work in clinics treating the uninsured, underserved and vulnerable populations.

Humanities

The humanities are the subjects that revolve around the study of human culture and society. These non-scientific disciplines include history, English literature, philosophy, religion and all types of the arts. Only 832 of the 22,239 of the medical school students who matriculated in 2020—fewer than 4 percent—chose to major in the humanities.

Still, your studies in the humanities can help you develop the non-technical knowledge and skills that are helpful for life as a doctor as well as an educated person in any field. Additionally, studying the humanities can help you prepare for some of the foundational concepts that appear on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), such as how cultural and social differences influence well-being, how social stratification affects access to resources that influence well-being and how sociocultural factors affect perceptions of the world, perceptions of self, interactions with others and individuals’ behavior and behavior change.

Specialized Health Sciences

You might expect that health sciences bachelor’s degrees would be popular among aspiring physicians, but only 784 of the 22,239 medical school students who matriculated in 2020 chose this category of majors. That’s because health sciences majors typically go on to become health technologists in various specialties, according to U.S. News & World Report.

However, majoring in health sciences means that your curriculum will cover a lot of the science prerequisites for medical school, as well as exposure to clinical work in the healthcare industry. A health sciences curriculum is likely to include studies of healthcare delivery systems, healthcare economics, healthcare finance, healthcare reimbursement, healthcare quality management and the ethical and legal considerations of healthcare.

Students who are planning to go to medical school may wonder if it matters whether they earn a Bachelor of Science (BS) or a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree. While the science-based curriculum of a BS degree certainly won’t make it more difficult for you to get into medical school, opting for a BA degree that is based on liberal arts studies also won’t prevent you from becoming a doctor—again, as long as you meet all medical school prerequisites. 

Beyond the Degrees to Become a Doctor

Since most doctors will spend at least eight years in school after finishing high school, there is a lot of focus on the degrees required to become a doctor. However, there are other important aspects of an aspiring physician’s education and training to pursue. A few of these points that you should be aware of, if you’re considering a career in medicine, include the Medical College Admission Test, medical residency training and physician licensing requirements.

Medical College Admission Test

Before you can enroll in medical school, you will need to pass the MCAT, which is a multiple-choice test that covers biology, physical science, verbal skills, writing abilities, and critical thinking skills. Most medical universities utilize your scoring to determine your acceptance for admission.

Medical Residency

Taking between three to seven years, medical residency focuses on completing your practical training and experience in the medical environment. You can choose to undergo a post-residency fellowship if you have sub-specialized in a specific sector, such as geriatric, vascular, or internal medicine.

Licensing Requirements

Each state holds its own licensing requirements, but most require you to complete a minimum of one year in a residency program and the completion of your board certification. Once you have met your state’s licensing requirements, you can obtain your medical licensure and can legally practice as a medical doctor.

Becoming a doctor isn’t easy, and even after you graduate from medical school, an intense workload lies ahead of you in your internship and residency years. Residents are known to work up to 80 hours per week on average, between the time they spend on direct patient care and the time they have to commit to completing paperwork and other ancillary tasks. 

Additional Resources 

What Is a Gastroenterologist?

What Is a Radiologist?

What Does a Urologist Do?

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

What College Degree Is Needed to Be a Pediatrician?