Should You Go to Medical School or Nursing School?

Learn the differing education and training requirements for physicians and nurses.

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As many aspiring healthcare workers are drawn to the field by a desire to help and make a difference in the lives of patients, the decision between medical school and nursing school can be difficult. Differing time and financial commitments, coupled with distinct roles nurses and doctors play on a healthcare team, make it important to explore both careers fully before making a choice.

There are advantages and disadvantages to either career path, so it's important to be sure of your specific aspirations before you take the plunge. In terms of education and training, the two careers differ most in time/requirements, costs, and roles.

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Time/requirement differences

• Medical school: To be eligible to apply to medical school, you will need to have earned a bachelor's degree before entry and, in many cases, a higher-than-average GPA and MCAT score. Once in medical school, you'll need to complete at least four years to earn a medical degree, and then complete a three to seven year residency training program depending on your chosen specialty.

Though those in other careers typically cannot fast-track into medicine using other degrees or experiences, there are combined B.A./M.D. programs for those confident of their interest in medicine, which can shave a year off of training time.

• Nursing school: There are three paths to pursuing a nursing career: obtaining a bachelor of science in nursing (B.S.N.) degree in four years; an associate degree in nursing (A.D.N.) in two to three years; or a diploma from a hospital-run program, typically in three years. Advance practice nurses, such as nurse practitioners, need a master's degree (M.S.N.), which takes two years.

For many jobs, a bachelor's degree or higher is usually required. There are accelerated B.S.N. programs for those with degrees in other fields, which can take from 12 to 18 months, and combined B.S.N./M.S.N. programs of three to four years in duration. The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers more specific information on their website.

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Cost differences

• Medical school: Though costs can vary significantly depending on the individual institution, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that as of 2008-09, undergraduate tuition and room and board totaled $12,283 at public schools and $31,233 at private schools.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the median total cost of attendance for medical schools in 2010-11 was $49,298 and $66,984 for public and private universities, respectively. Student loans and aid are available to help cover this cost burden; in 2010 the AAMC reported the median medical student loan debt was around $160,000.

During residency, residents are paid a stipend that usually ranges from $40,000 to $50,000 per year depending on the region and year of training; however, many residents must begin repaying loans during training.

• Nursing school: Since many nursing schools awarding the B.S.N. degree are undergraduate programs, their tuition rates, for the most part, reflect those of undergraduate institutions in general. Pursuing the A.D.N. degree can be done at a community college, or in some cases even online for many of the requirements, for much lower fees.

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Role differences

• Physician: As a physician, you would play a role in a patient care team more as a thought leader, examining the big picture diagnostically and guiding the healthcare team toward implementing a treatment plan for each patient. Though face-to-face time is important, the volume of patients limits the amount of contact time. Physicians, in many cases, are ultimately held responsible for patient outcomes. Many jobs also involve being on overnight call (depending on specialty).

• Nurse: Nurses work more closely with patients and play an important role in educating patients and families about their illnesses and best ways in which to manage them. They are also important "eyes and ears" for physicians in alerting them to potentially problematic changes in a patient's condition.

Deciding between nursing and medical school involves considering many of the differences in training and the eventual career potential. Though there are pros and cons to both career paths, perhaps the best way to assess which one is right for you is by volunteering firsthand with doctors and nurses in a hospital.

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.