Becoming a Physician: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

About this article
A physician's mean annual salary is around $190,000, but is it worth the training requirements and debt? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to decide if becoming a physician is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Physician

Physicians treat and diagnose injuries, illnesses and diseases in patients of all ages. Consider the following pros and cons of becoming a physician before embarking on this career path.

Pros of Becoming a Physician
High pay (mean annual wage for physicians and surgeons is nearly $189,760)*
Good job prospects (anticipated job growth from 2012-2022 is 18%)*
Specializations available (such as family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, anesthesiology, surgery and psychiatry)*
Rewarding career helping patients recover from medical issues**

Cons of Becoming a Physician
Extensive preparation required (undergraduate degree and medical school, possibly residency and fellowship)*
May work long or irregular hours (in 2008, 43% of physicians worked 50 hours or more per week)***
Physically and mentally demanding position (standing for long periods of time and delivering bad news)**
Medical school acceptance is highly competitive*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **The Princeton Review, ***American Medical Association.

Essential Career Information

Job Description

Physicians are medical doctors who diagnosis medical problems by taking medical histories, examining patients, and ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests. They administer treatment and prescribe medication. Physicians also review tests, identify abnormal results, prepare treatment plans, and answer questions. Some physicians may also counsel patients in areas such as preventative health care, diet, and life style.

As a physician, you'll have the option of working in a private practice, either alone or with other doctors, getting a job with a health care organization, or establishing yourself in a university hospital. In the first scenario, you'd work for yourself, and in the second and third situations, you'd work for someone else. Nowadays, according to the American Medical Association (AMA), many physicians are shifting away from self-employment and choosing instead to take a salaried position. One reason for this trend may be recent changes in health care reimbursement policies as health systems attempt to contain costs. You can also presume that you'll work long, erratic hours, including weekends and holidays.


As a physician, you can specialize in a medical area, such as anesthesiology, family or internal medicine, pediatrics, surgery, psychiatry, or gynecology. You can choose to become one of two types of physicians, including a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). Although they both treat patients using medication and surgery, DOs place a greater priority than MDs on the musculoskeletal system, osteopathic manipulation, preventive medicine, and holistic health care. Less than 10% of all physicians are DOs, according to The Princeton Review.

Salary Info

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the employment outlook for physicians is strong. An expanding healthcare system and an aging and growing population were expected to cultivate more demand for physician services, and the BLS anticipates an impressive 18% increase in jobs between 2012 and 2022. Prospects were anticipated to be especially abundant for those willing to work in rural and low-income areas.

In 2014, the BLS reported an average annual salary for physicians of about $189,760. This figure is significantly higher for those working in less-populated and rural states; for example, the average salary for physicians in Montana was reported at about $228,880, while in South Dakota, the average was around $232,530. Physician's salaries also vary by specialty. According to a 2014 BLS report, the following industries were the some of the top earning specialties:

  • Office of Dentists: $241,060 mean salary
  • Medical Diagnostic Laboratories: $231,040
  • Offices of Physicians: $223,580

Education Requirements

The journey to becoming a physician is lengthy and arduous. It begins by obtaining a 4-year bachelor's degree, preferably through a program that accentuates courses in English, biology, physics, general chemistry and organic chemistry. After completing undergraduate studies, you must pass the Medical College Admission Tests to be considered for medical school. You'll spend the first half of medical school, which generally lasts four years, in classrooms and labs, but the second half involves being supervised in clinical and hospital settings by experienced physicians. After graduation, you may complete a residency (training for a specialty) and a fellowship (if training in a subspecialty) that may take a total of 4-10 years. Prior to getting a job, you must pass a set of national exams - U.S. Medical Licensing Examination for MDs and the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination for DOs - and obtain a state license to practice.

Most physicians choose to earn board certification from among 24 medical specialty boards, according to the AMA, which involves additional examinations and ongoing education to maintain certification. The process for becoming a DO is similar, but instead of attending allopathic medical school, you'd go to an osteopathic medical school.

Continuing Education

Physicians are lifelong learners, and they proceed to take courses after getting their licenses and board certifications. Some states, professional organizations and medical boards require continuing education to ensure physicians remain up-to-date with current practices and advances.

Top Skills for Physicians

Physicians need to be patient, compassionate and interested in serving their patients. They must be caring, self-motivated, able to lead during emergencies and emotionally stable. Physicians also need to be skilled at conveying complex and potentially devastating information. Additional skills include:

  • Dexterity
  • Leadership
  • Empathy
  • Organization

What Employers Are Looking For?

Employers typically look for candidates who are board certified or eligible for board certification. Job postings for physicians are usually geared toward specific physician specializations. Below are some examples of physician job openings that employers posted in April 2012:

  • A medical school in Providence, RI, seeks an attending physician to supervise and instruct medical students, emergency room interns, obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) residents, nurse practitioners, and midwives who are administering OB/GYN care in the emergency department. The job includes working nights, weekends, and holidays. Candidates must be board certified or board eligible in obstetrics and gynecology and have experience in teaching and treating women's health issues.
  • A military facility in Florida needs a family practice physician (MD or DO) to provide outpatient care, including preventative health programs, medical procedures, and disease diagnosis and treatment. Applicants should have completed all residency requirements and logged at least 24 months of family practice experience within the last 36 months. They must also be board certified in family medicine, have basic life support certification, and possess an active drug enforcement agency license.
  • A consulting firm in the District of Columbia requires a physician to conduct workshops, deliver lectures and provide consultative services to clients struggling with issues, particularly around talent management. All applicants must have an MD, be willing to travel full-time, and be able to present and teach. The ideal candidate will have excellent written and oral communication skills, at least three years of hospital experience, and an understanding of health systems management and operational issues.

How to Stand Out as a Physician

Continue Your Education

As mentioned above, keeping up with current knowledge in your field may be a requirement for maintaining your state physician's license, board certification, or professional association membership. Remaining up-to-speed may also help demonstrate to employers and patients that you are passionate about your work and understand modern medical techniques. You can stay current by reading peer-reviewed medical journals, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, and attending conferences, workshops, and continuing education courses. You can also demonstrate your knowledge by publishing articles on topics related to your field or practice.

Join a Professional Association

Many people land jobs because they know the right people. By joining a professional association, such as the American Medical Association, you can build your professional network and get your name listed on their online physician profiles so that employers and patients can find you.

Build a Web Presence

More and more people are using the Internet to find medical information and doctors. For physicians, setting up a website can be an effective approach to connecting with current and future patients. Patients can learn about your professional and personal interests before they even meet you, which can 'humanize' your image and increase the likelihood of getting patients who are suitable matches for your practice.

Other Careers to Consider

Nurse Practitioner

If you like the prospect of diagnosing illnesses and injuries and writing prescriptions, but the amount of education doesn't appeal to you, you can consider becoming a nurse practitioner. In fact, for many patients, nurse practitioners are now the main source of primary care, according to U.S. News and World Report. If you elect this career, you won't need as much training as you would to become a physician; entrance into this field typically requires a master's degree. Some states don't allow nurse practitioners to write prescriptions, per the BLS. According to, the median pay for a nurse practitioner was approximately $90,000 as of May 2011. The BLS anticipated a 26% increase in all registered nursing jobs, including nurse practitioners, from 2010-2020.

Medical Scientist

If you're interested in medicine, but you don't want to work closely with patients, you might prefer to become a medical scientist. In this career, you will conduct medical research to improve human health. You'll most likely need a Ph.D.; ideally, you'd have both a Ph.D. and a medical degree. The BLS predicts a 36% job growth from 2010-2020, which is must faster than average. However, the average pay was just under $88,000 as of 2011, according to the BLS, which is significantly less than a physician's salary.


Alternatively, you could become a veterinarian and work with animals instead of people. Veterinarians and physicians do similar work, examining patients, diagnosing illnesses and injuries, and prescribing treatments. You can become a veterinarian by getting a 4-year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree after you complete your undergraduate program. The BLS predicted a 36% increase in jobs between 2010 and 2020. The average salary in 2011 for a veterinarian was about $91,000, which is high, but less than you could make as a physician.

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