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What is it like to be a doctor?

Physicians, or doctors, have an effect upon all our lives. When we are sick, they tell us what is wrong. They give us medicine and other kinds of treatment. They examine us and listen to us tell them how we feel. They tell us what is good for us to eat and how we can have better hygiene. They may be part of a team that works together for our health.

There are two types of doctors: the doctor of medicine (M.D.) and the doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.). M.D.s treat all kinds of diseases. D.O.s focus on our muscles and bones. They stretch, knead, and align our bones and muscles to help us feel better.

About one-third of M.D.s and more than half of D.O.s are family doctors, baby doctors, or doctors who know about our insides. They are usually the first doctors we see when we get sick. They tend to see the same patients over and over. And they treat all kinds of ailments. When they need to, they refer patients to other doctors, called specialists. D.O.s can also be the first doctors we see when we get sick. But they can also be specialists.

Many doctors work long hours, at all times. Almost one-third of physicians worked 60 hours a week or more in 2002. Often, older doctors have fewer new patients and tend to work shorter hours. Physicians who are on call may have to go to the hospital when someone gets sick. Sometimes, doctors must travel between their offices and the hospital to care for their patients.

How do you get ready to be a doctor?

Becoming a doctor requires more training than most other jobs. It usually takes at least 11 years to become a doctor: 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, and 3 years working in a hospital. A few medical schools let students go to college and medical school for 6 years combined instead of the usual 8 years. For some specialties, a doctor may have to work in a hospital for up to 8 years.

To become a doctor, you should study mostly math, English, and science when you go to college. You may also want to work for no money at a hospital or clinic to get experience.

After you finish college, you will have to go to medical school. There are 146 medical schools in the United States. One hundred twenty-six award M.D. degrees. Twenty award D.O. degrees. It is not easy to get into medical school. You have to do very well in college and on medical school entrance tests.

Students spend most of the first 2 years of medical school in labs and classrooms. They take lots of science courses. They also learn to ask patients the right questions and how to examine them. They learn how to tell what sickness a patient has. In the last 2 years, students work with patients and doctors in hospitals and clinics. There, they learn many ways to treat a patient's disease.

After medical school, doctors go to work in a hospital for a few years. They are called residents. To be a resident, you must take a test.

It costs a lot to become a doctor. More than 80 percent of medical students must borrow money to go to school. If you want to be a doctor, you should like to heal sick people. You should also not mind the long hours of study and work. You must make sure to keep up with new medical knowledge. You have to know how to talk to sick people. And you should be able to make decisions in emergencies.

How much do doctors get paid?

Of all jobs, doctors earn the most money. The Medical Group Management Association's Physician Compensation and Production Survey says doctors earned between $150,267 and $306,964 in 2002. How much you make depends on how long you have been working and where you live. It also depends on how many hours you work and how good a doctor you are. And it depends on what kind of doctor you are—a family doctor or a specialist.

How many jobs are there?

Physicians held about 583,000 jobs in 2002. About half worked mostly in their offices and about 1 out of 4 worked in hospitals. Others worked for the government. More and more doctors are working as partners or in a group.

There are more doctors in the Northeast. There are fewer in the South. D.O.s are more likely than M.D.s to practice in small cities and towns and in rural areas. M.D.s tend to work in urban areas, close to a hospital or a college. Some rural and inner city areas do not have enough doctors.

What about the future?  

BLS expects the number of jobs for physicians to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2012. This is partly because of new machines and tools that let doctors treat more diseases. And it is partly because people are living longer and need more care.

Job opportunities for doctors are expected to be good, especially in rural areas. Future doctors are more likely to take jobs in group medical practices, clinics, and health networks.

Are there other jobs like this?

  • Acupuncturists
  • Audiologists
  • Chiropractors
  • Dentists
  • Medical transcriptionists
  • Optometrists
  • Pharmacists
  • Physician assistants
  • Podiatrists
  • Nurses
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Speech-language pathologists
  • Veterinarians
Where can you find more information?

More information about physicians and surgeons can be found in the Careers Database.

Source: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics

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