Is an M.D. Right For You?

Being a doctor may seem glamorous, but medical training can take more than a decade.

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At one point or another, it's likely that almost everyone has dreamed of becoming a doctor. From a young age, we quickly learn that doctors are the ones who check up on us and prescribe those magic pills that, somehow, make us feel better. They're also the people who instantaneously earn the respect of our authority figures: parents, teachers, police officers, etc.

We always assume that our doctor must be really accomplished, dedicated, and smart. And don't forget—they always seem to be the ones with nice homes, expensive cars, and proud parents. So you think, "what does it take to become a doctor?"

In medical school, I remember asking an attending (a supervising faculty member to residents and medical students) what it took to become a great doctor. His reply: "Your 20s."

[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Medical Schools.]

The road to an M.D. is a substantial commitment. Like most graduate degrees, you (in most cases) need to ace the sciences in your undergraduate years, do four years of medical school, and between three and seven years of residency to become formally certified in whatever specialty you would like to practice. If you want to do a "niche" subspecialty, like child psychiatry or plastic surgery, in most cases you need to do an additional clinical fellowship that can last from as little as one year to as many as three years.

Training isn't cheap; medical school tuition can run upwards of $45,000 per year, and most residents make around $50,000 per year while having to repay their loans. Though training can feel grueling at times, most doctors graduate grateful they endured such intense training. Without it, panic would easily set in when they realize there's no one to consult when they're on their own and a patient rolls into the ER flat-lining.

If you're intimidated by the prospect of a 10+ year commitment to train for a career but still want to help people and make a difference, there are a multitude of adjunct healthcare professions where you can do many of the same things an M.D. can.

Becoming a physician's assistant is a two year commitment after college, and depending on your supervising M.D., allows you much of the same autonomy as an M.D. A nurse practitioner acts much like a physician's assistant, but you would need to complete an undergraduate and master's degree in nursing in order to act in that capacity. With either path, you can prescribe medication, but are constantly under the scrutiny and supervision of the M.D. whose license you would be using.

[Learn more about physician assistant programs.]

For many, the M.D. is an ultimately rewarding and fulfilling career choice. Among the many benefits of the M.D.:

· The ability to choose from a multitude of specialties, including surgery, radiology, pediatrics, or even psychiatry

· Being an influential, credible, and effective advocate for your patients

· Having ultimate (and final) discretion over the care delivered to your patients

Even when people enter medical school (or any career) with enthusiasm, they can sometimes become disillusioned. Whether it's from paperwork, time, or dealing with superiors, the training can be draining at times. The silver lining: most medical students find a specialty that inspires them, and they forget about the small stuff.

Even if you change your mind later on, having an M.D. can still be a valuable tool. Management consulting firms, investment banks, other businesses, and graduate schools are of the mindset that if you were able to be admitted to medical school, and finish, that you are probably able to succeed in those fields as well.

Choosing whether or not to attend medical school is tough. Whatever you decide, knowing the facts will help you make a more informed decision.

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of “Examkrackers’ How To Get Into Medical School.” He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.