Physician and Surgeon Careers

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Physicians diagnose patients and treat medical conditions, while surgeons operate on patients to treat injuries and diseases. The average physician salary exceeds $200,000 a year, making it one of the most lucrative career paths. This guide covers important information for prospective surgeons and physicians, including degree, residency, and licensure requirements.

Essential Career Information

Median Annual Salary More than $208,000
Employment Growth Forecast from 2018-2028 7%
Annual Salary of the Highest 10% N/A
Number of New Jobs from 2018-2028 55,400
Annual Salary of the Lowest 10% N/A
Average Entry-Level Education Requirements Doctoral or Professional Degree

Source: BLS

Alternate Job Titles


What are Physicians and Surgeons?

Physicians and surgeons are medical professionals who meet with patients to diagnose and treat medical conditions, prescribe medications, and/or perform surgery, depending on their specialization.

Prospective physicians and surgeons must attend medical school to receive a doctor of medicine (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). MDs may work as physicians or surgeons in any specialty, depending on their training. DOs receive specialized training in whole-person patient care and preventative medicine, and while they can work in any specialty, DO's often work as primary care physicians.

Like other medical professionals, many physicians and surgeons work in doctors' offices, hospitals, and other healthcare organizations. They can also work in medical schools, training future doctors while providing patient care. Surgeons typically work in hospitals or outpatient surgical centers where they perform surgeries in a sterile environment. Surgeons and physicians may work long and irregular hours, with many doctors operating on call; however, the high average physician and surgeon salary compensates for these hours.

Frequently Asked Questions


Is there a difference between a doctor and a physician?

Yes; a doctor refers to anyone with a doctorate, including non-medical professionals. Physicians must hold a medical doctorate.

What is the role of the physician?

Physicians provide medical treatments to patients, including diagnosing conditions and prescribing medications.

What is the role of a surgeon?

Surgeons perform surgical treatments to correct injuries or diseases. They diagnose patients, perform operations, and provide postoperative care.

How do you become a physician?

Physicians must earn a medical doctorate, complete a residency, and hold a medical license to practice medicine.

How do you become a surgeon?

Like physicians, surgeons must attend medical school, complete a residency, and hold a medical license to practice.

Why is a doctor called a physician?

Informally, people often call physicians doctors; however, while all physicians are doctors, not all doctors are physicians. Physicians are specifically medical doctors.

What do Physicians and Surgeons do?

Physicians and surgeons care for patients with medical conditions. They conduct physical examinations, review test results, and create treatment plans based on patient needs. Surgeons perform operations and counsel patients on surgical options. Both types of doctors draw on their extensive training to counsel patients and improve their health.

In medical school, physicians can pursue specializations within medicine, such as pediatrics, cardiology, or anesthesia. Pediatrics concentrations prepare graduates for careers as pediatricians, treating children with medical issues. Cardiology concentrations focus on the heart, leading to work as cardiologists who diagnose and treat cardiovascular system diseases. Learners that study anesthesia prepare for careers as anesthesiologists who administer pain relief drugs for patients.

Surgeons can also specialize their skills during medical school. An orthopedic surgeon, for example, diagnoses and treats bone and muscle disorders. They may perform knee replacement surgeries, repair broken bones, and treat congenital conditions like hip dysplasia. Orthopedic surgeons may specialize in a particular part of the musculoskeletal system or in a subfield like sports medicine. An oral surgeon, by contrast, treats injuries and conditions that affect the mouth. Some physicians and surgeons specialize in multiple areas.

In addition to working in patient care, physicians and surgeons may work in medical research, public policy, or academia. A professor of medicine, for example, teaches medical students and may treat patients. Physicians in public policy and medical research help advance the science of medicine and apply medical knowledge to improve public health.

Medical Doctor vs. Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine

Both MDs and DOs must attend medical school, complete a residency, and pass licensing examinations to practice. Additionally, both types of professionals can specialize in an area of medicine, diagnose and treat patients, and perform surgery; however, they attend different medical programs and receive their licenses from different boards. MDs study allopathic medicine, which is conventional western medicine, while DOs study osteopathic medicine, which takes a holistic approach to patient care.

How to Become a Physician or Surgeon

Physicians and surgeons must complete extensive training, which typically takes over 10 years. Prospective medical doctors begin their training by earning a bachelor's degree. Coursework in biology, chemistry, and other sciences helps undergraduates meet the prerequisite requirements for medical school. After earning a bachelor's degree, students must take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) before applying to medical school.

Most medical schools take four years to complete. During the first two years, students complete classes on topics like anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology. Medical students also learn how to take medical histories, conduct patient exams, and diagnose illnesses. The final two years of medical school incorporate clinical rotations in different medical specialties, allowing medical students to interact with patients under the supervision of licensed physicians.

After medical school, graduates must complete a residency in their specialty area, which can take 3-7 years. Physicians and surgeons can apply for a state license after earning a degree from an accredited medical school and completing their residency. Before receiving their license, they must pass a national licensing exam. The U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) applies to MDs, while the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) applies to DOs.

Medical doctors can also pursue board certification within their specialty to demonstrate expertise within a particular area, such as anesthesiology, family medicine, internal medicine, or pediatrics.

Bachelor's Degree Programs

Prospective physicians and surgeons begin their training by earning a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. During a bachelor's program, students take general education and major coursework, typically graduating within four years of full-time study.

Students considering medical school should take common prerequisite courses like biology, chemistry, physics, and math. Some medical schools also expect students to take biochemistry, English, and social science courses. After completing a bachelor's degree, students can apply to medical school or pursue a master's degree.

Master's Degree Programs

A master's degree helps students bolster their medical school application. Prospective doctors should pursue a master's in the sciences or in a healthcare field, such as health science or public health, to gain relevant training before medical school. Master's programs typically take two years of full-time study to complete.

Prospective master's students should ensure they choose an accredited institution as medical schools will not recognize or accept an unaccredited degree.

Doctoral Degree Programs

All physicians and surgeons must hold an accredited doctoral degree to earn their medical license. Prospective doctors can choose an MD or DO program, depending on their career goals. Applicants must hold an accredited bachelor's degree and meet coursework prerequisites for admission. Medical schools also require MCAT scores, letters of evaluation, and essays. Some programs conduct interviews during the admissions process.

Many medical schools accept applications through the American Medical College Application Service, a centralized application process offered by the Association of American Medical Colleges. Prospective medical students should always choose an accredited program. Accredited medical schools meet the highest standards for training physicians and surgeons, and only an accredited medical degree meets state licensing requirements.

First-year students complete coursework in medical and scientific fields, like anatomy, pathology, and biochemistry. Many medical schools also incorporate classes in medical ethics and patient case studies. These classes lay a foundation for second-year coursework, which features a greater clinical component. Third- and fourth-year medical students complete clinical rotations to build skills in different medical specialties, such as pediatrics, internal medicine, and obstetrics. In their final year, students pursue specialized training in preparation for their residency.

Internships and Residencies

After graduating from medical school, physicians and surgeons must complete residency requirements before earning their medical license and practicing medicine independently. Many physicians and surgeons complete a one-year internship before applying to residency programs. Medical interns study under a licensed physician. After their internship year, physicians and surgeons complete residencies to gain additional training in their specialties.

Residency applications must include medical school transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and exam scores. Residency programs often interview candidates during the winter and release acceptance notifications in the spring. Depending on their specialty, residents may practice for up to seven years. Family practice doctors typically complete a three-year residency, while general surgery residencies last for five years. Some physicians complete additional specialized residency training in their subfield, such as neurologists.

Professional Licensure and Certification

Medical doctors must hold a medical license and a state license to practice medicine. To earn their license, surgeons and physicians must hold an accredited medical degree, complete a residency, and pass a three-part examination. MDs and DOs take different examinations.

MDs typically take Step 1 and Step 2 of the USMLE after their second year of medical school. Step 1 tests students on basic sciences, including biochemistry, anatomy, and physiology. Step 2 focuses on clinical science and skills. MDs complete Step 3 during their residency, which tests cumulative clinical knowledge and skills and results in a pass or fail score. DOs must pass the COMLEX-USA. Like MDs, DOs complete the three-part examination during medical school and their residency. The exam tests clinical science and patient skills.

Physicians and surgeons can pursue board certification to demonstrate specialized expertise in areas like pediatrics or cardiology. Doctors do not need board certification to practice medicine; however, the additional credential helps physicians pursue competitive jobs. Candidates for board certification must complete a residency in their specialization and pass a specialty examination.

Several organizations offer board certification, depending on the specialty, including the American Board of Medical Specialties, American Osteopathic Association, American Board of Physician Specialties, and American College of Surgeons. Board-certified physicians must regularly renew their credentials.

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