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Physician Career Guide

What is a physician?

A physician the general term for a doctor who is licensed to practice medicine and trained to diagnose, treat, and prevent illnesses, diseases, and injuries in patients. Their expertise lies in understanding the human body, medical science, and applying clinical judgment to maintain and restore health.

They play a central role in the healthcare system, acting as primary caregivers for individuals and communities. Their work goes beyond merely treating symptoms; they focus on understanding underlying causes, promoting wellness, and providing personalized care that considers the physical, emotional, and social aspects of a patient’s well-being.

The relationship between doctors and their patients is often characterized by trust, empathy, and a shared commitment to achieving the best possible health outcomes. These professionals may specialize in various fields such as family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, psychiatry, pediatrics, or other medical specialties, each addressing specific health needs and populations.

This role is complex and extends to education, research, leadership, and advocacy. They contribute to medical knowledge, mentor future healthcare professionals, drive improvements in healthcare quality and accessibility, and engage with broader societal issues related to health and well-being.

Duties and responsibilities

The duties and responsibilities of a physician encompass a wide range of clinical and non-clinical activities. They conduct patient examinations, diagnose illnesses, prescribe medications, perform procedures, and develop treatment plans in collaboration with other healthcare professionals.

They provide ongoing care, monitoring patient progress, adjusting treatments as needed, and coordinating with specialists when required. Educating patients and families about health conditions, preventive measures, lifestyle choices, and treatment options is also a vital part of their role.

Beyond individual patient care, these doctors may be involved in research, teaching, healthcare administration, policy development, and community outreach, contributing to the broader health landscape.

Work environment

The work environment for a physician varies depending on the specifics of their role. Nevertheless, a large number of them work in hospitals and clinics. These environments are typically busy and fast-paced, as they administer to many patients with varying degrees of health concerns.

They might also work in quieter private practices or urgent care centers. Some specialize in fields requiring them to work in settings like operating rooms, maternity wards, or laboratories. Regardless of the setting, they often work closely with other healthcare staff, including nurses, physician assistants, and administrative personnel.

Typical work hours

Physicians often have demanding and irregular work hours. Many work much more than the standard 40-hour workweek, especially at the start of their careers. Depending on where they work, they may be required to work evenings, weekends, and holidays, or be on call, which means they are available to respond in case of an emergency. This availability is especially common among hospital doctors. However, those in private practice or certain specialties may have more control over their schedules, allowing for a more traditional workweek.

How to become a physician

This career guide section outlines the steps to become a physician. The journey focuses on key milestones such as acquiring a bachelor’s degree, passing the MCAT, completing an MD degree, and gaining hands-on experience through a residency program.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

Earning a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for admission into medical school. Most opt for pre-medical or biology majors, although any major is generally acceptable, provided the necessary science courses are completed. These science courses commonly include chemistry, physics, and biology.

Step 2: Pass the MCAT

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, the next step is passing the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This exam evaluates understanding and knowledge of physical sciences, life sciences, and verbal reasoning. A commendable score improves the chances of acceptance into a preferred medical school.

Step 3: Complete an MD degree

Attaining a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree from an accredited medical school is necessary. Over four years, this program involves two years of foundational medical education and two years of rotations in various medical specialties. These rotations provide practical experience in areas such as family practice, pediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery.

Step 4: Participate in a residency program

Post graduation, it’s important to participate in a residency program. This is where you receive specialized training in a chosen field of medicine. Depending upon your chosen specialty, this residency may range from three to seven years.

Step 5: Obtain a license

A practicing physician must have a valid license in the state they wish to practice. You must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) to obtain a license. The three-step exam covers everything from the basics of medicine to patient care, health promotion, and disease prevention.

Step 6: Become board certified

To enhance your credibility, consider becoming board-certified in a chosen specialty. To achieve this, you must meet additional requirements and pass an exam from a respected board, such as the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Step 7: Ongoing learning

Finally, keeping up with advancements in the field of medicine by participating in continuing educational activities and regular recertification are integral steps in maintaining your doctor’s credentials and staying current with the latest practices in medical care. Medicine is a rapidly changing field, and physicians must commit to a lifetime of learning.

How much do physicians make?

Physician salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Additional factors such as the specific specialization in medicine, reputation, years of experience, certifications, and the overall demand in a geographical area can significantly impact their earnings.

Highest paying states

  • Wyoming – $261,620
  • South Dakota – $250,890
  • New Hampshire – $245,930
  • Alaska – $242,220
  • Minnesota – $237,650

Browse physician salary data by market

Types of physicians

Below, we highlight the various career types and areas of specialization for physicians. This guide will provide an overview of the many paths a doctor can take in their profession, from elderly care to sports medicine and beyond.

Primary care physician

Medical practitioners who are often the first point of contact for patients, these physicians diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions. They’re also responsible for preventative healthcare, ensuring patients receive appropriate screenings and vaccinations. They typically build long-term relationships with the individuals under their care and have an integral role in managing their overall health.


Focusing on healthcare from infancy through adolescence, pediatricians manage their patients’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Whether treating minor ailments and acute illnesses or providing regular check-ups and vaccinations, the mission remains the same: to ensure proper health and development.


These professionals have specialized knowledge and training to perform operations for health conditions ranging from appendicitis to life-threatening injuries. Operating within a variety of environments, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, and trauma centers, surgeons work closely with anesthesiologists, surgical nurses, and other medical professionals to ensure successful outcomes for their patients.


These doctors specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. By employing various therapies and medications, they support the mental health of their patients, assisting them in navigating their everyday lives with the tools and strategies needed to manage their conditions.


Dealing with illnesses affecting joints, muscles, bones, and the immune system, rheumatologists diagnose and treat conditions such as arthritis, lupus, and fibromyalgia. Through their expertise, they manage chronic conditions to improve the quality of life for their patients.


Dealing with all aspects of patient care before, during, and after surgery, anesthesiologists ensure the safety and comfort of patients undergoing procedures. This involves administering anesthesia, monitoring vital signs, and making any necessary adjustments to the patient’s anesthesia level.

Top skills for physicians

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a physician. Below, we describe the essential abilities and personal qualities important to this profession.

Medical knowledge

Medical knowledge is at the heart of a doctor’s career. It’s crucial to be well-versed in the scientific principles behind diseases and their treatments, as well as advancements in the medical field. Keeping up with the latest research and practices also falls under this category.

Patience and compassion

Working with patients often requires exceptional patience and understanding. In this field, you’ll regularly interact with individuals experiencing pain and discomfort, making empathy a valuable trait to possess. Showing compassion not only comforts patients but also aids in building trust, which is essential for a productive doctor-patient relationship.

Excellent communication

Effective verbal and written communication skills are necessary for physicians. This role often involves explaining complex medical concepts in a way that patients and their families easily understand. Additionally, strong communication skills play a significant role when interacting with other healthcare professionals, including providing clear instructions to nurses and other supporting staff.

Problem-solving abilities

A reliable physician should demonstrate excellent problem-solving skills. You are often faced with difficult medical cases, each with unique challenges. Clear thinking and the ability to decide under pressure are vital, ensuring the best possible course of action for any given situation.

Attention to detail

An eye for detail is critical in this role. This trait is essential when analyzing patient symptoms, interpreting medical histories, and making diagnoses. Small oversights may lead to serious errors, emphasizing this skill’s importance.

Physician career path options

As a physician, the vast and varied field of medicine is your oyster for potential progression. The growth trajectory typically begins as a resident or intern under the watchful eye of experienced practitioners. This is a time for one to refine their skills and make pivotal decisions about their career path in medicine.

For those who find the appeal of a general practitioner role satisfying, their next step often includes gaining physical and administrative control of a practice. This could mean opening your own clinic or joining an existing one as a partner. Leadership roles within the healthcare community, such as medical director or taking up advisory roles within healthcare organizations, are also possibilities as one deepens their experience and networking circles.


Other physicians feel a pull toward a particular specialty where they can channel their passion and expertise. As a specialist, you might ascend the ranks from a junior associate to a senior associate, eventually becoming a partner or head of your department. Roles in academic medicine, such as a professor or researcher, are also potential career stepping stones, contributing to advancements in your field while nurturing the next generation of healthcare providers.


Doctors passionate about organization and leadership might be drawn to hospital administration. Roles such as medical director, chief medical officer, or even the hospital CEO are potential prospects. In these administrative roles, one can shape policies and processes, positively impacting the healthcare experience for both patients and medical practitioners.

Related fields

Lastly, there is also the opportunity to utilize skills and knowledge gained in medicine to transition into related careers. Some might find their interests align with the pharmaceutical or biotech industries, where they can have an influential role in drug discovery and testing. Others might step into health journalism or medical consulting, leveraging their expertise to educate the public or help businesses scale in health-related industries

Within the healthcare industry, a significant trend influencing the role of a physician is the rise in telemedicine. The advancement in digital technology has encouraged medical consultations to occur virtually rather than in-person. This trend promotes flexibility, convenience, and accessibility for both doctors and patients.

In response to increasing healthcare costs and a growing patient population, group practices over solo practices have grown popular. Physicians are now more integrated with healthcare systems and work in teams alongside other healthcare professionals. This trend enables them to share patient load, reducing burnout and improving patient care.

Emphasis on preventive care has also emerged in recent years. People are becoming more proactive about their health. This, along with advances in predictive analytics, has led doctors to focus more on preventing diseases rather than just treating them.

Employment projections for physicians

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for physicians is projected to grow 3 percent through 2031. Increased demand for healthcare services from the growing and aging population is expected to drive overall growth in the demand for doctors.

Physician career tips

Understand your unique value

You have a specific set of skills and knowledge that distinguishes you in the healthcare field. Pinpoint your special area of expertise and use it to bring unique value to your practice or hospital. This could be a sub-specialty within your field, proficiency in a complex procedure, or an exceptional talent for communication that aids patient understanding and compliance.

Be current with medical advancements

The medical field is constantly evolving – new research, treatments, and technologies come to light often. As a physician, staying at the forefront of these advancements is critical. Read medical journals, attend seminars, and participate in professional development to maintain cutting-edge knowledge that will enhance patient care.

Communicate effectively

Communication in healthcare is about more than just talking to patients. It extends to written communication, electronic health records management, and interpersonal communication with other health professionals. Effective and efficient communication skills can aid in team collaboration and enhance patient care, making this an essential area for ongoing development.

Build a professional network

Networking can open doors to new opportunities in your medical career. Connecting with other doctors and healthcare professionals can provide guidance, support, and resources. Attending industry events and joining relevant associations to expand your network is a good idea.

  • American Medical Association (AMA)
  • National Medical Association (NMA)
  • Association of American Physicians (AAP)
  • American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP)

Develop non-clinical skills

In addition to medical expertise, physicians need proficient non-clinical skills such as leadership, management, and advocacy. Consider participating in training programs that help develop these abilities and facilitate their implementation in your practice.

Pursue continuous learning

A doctor’s education doesn’t end after medical school and residency. It’s critical to seek continuous learning opportunities for improved practice and patient outcomes throughout your career. Below are a few options for continued learning:

  • Take part in relevant workshops or seminars
  • Enroll in online courses targeted at physicians, such as data science or healthcare management
  • Pursue additional certifications in sub-specialties of interest
  • Attend scientific conferences to stay aware of the latest research and developments

Where the physician jobs are

Top employers

  • Mayo Clinic
  • Cleveland Clinic
  • Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Johns Hopkins Hospital
  • UCLA Medical Center

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Monster
  • CareerBuilder


What type of training is required to become a physician?

Training to become a physician can be a lengthy process, often taking over a decade. First, an individual must complete a bachelor’s degree, typically in a science-related field. Once complete, the individual must pass the MCAT before entering medical school. Medical school, which usually lasts four years, combines classroom learning with clinical rotations. Upon graduation, the individual then enters a residency program lasting three to seven years, depending on the area of specialization. Some doctors also choose to continue on to a fellowship for additional specialized training.

What skills and qualities are important for a physician to have?

Physicians need to possess a variety of skills and qualities to do their jobs effectively. Important skills include superior listening and communication abilities, as understanding and responding to patient concerns is a fundamental part of the role. They must also have excellent problem-solving skills to diagnose and treat various health conditions. Attention to detail is crucial in many aspects of healthcare, from reading complex medical records to performing procedures. Emotional resilience is necessary due to the often high-stress environment. Above all, a strong desire to help others and a commitment to ethical practice procedures are vital traits for these professionals.

What is the work environment like for a physician?

The work environment for a physician can vary considerably depending on their area of specialty and where they choose to work. Doctors often work in hospitals, private practices, clinics, or community health organizations. They typically work long hours, and the job can often be physically demanding, requiring stamina to spend significant time on their feet. The role can also be high-stress, especially for those who work in emergency medicine or other high-intensity areas of healthcare. However, despite the challenges, many find the job highly rewarding.

What are some common tasks or duties of a physician?

Physicians perform a wide range of tasks to provide care to patients. Typically, their duties may include examining patients to diagnose their health conditions, ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests such as blood work or imaging studies, recommending and providing treatment which may involve prescribing medication, conducting follow-ups to monitor a patient’s condition and progress, advising patients on preventative health care strategies, and documenting patient’s health information. Depending on their specialty, their specific tasks can vary widely.

Do I need to have a certain personality type to be successful as a physician?

While people of diverse personality types can become successful physicians, certain common traits are beneficial in the role. Empathy, patience, and compassion are important because they often work with patients in pain or distress. An analytical mindset is crucial for effectively diagnosing health conditions and deciding treatment approaches. Being calm under pressure, efficient in time management, and excellent in communication can also significantly aid in a doctor’s daily duties and challenges. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this – the key is finding the intersection between your passion, skills, and the needs of the field.

What is the most rewarding part of being a physician?

Many physicians find the most rewarding part of their job to be the opportunity to impact people’s lives positively. This can involve diagnosing and treating illnesses, helping manage chronic conditions, or providing advice to improve lifestyle choices. The relationship and trust developed with patients can also be highly rewarding. Additionally, the profession offers continuous learning and development possibilities, which can satisfy those intellectually curious and eager to stay at the forefront of their specialty area.

What is the most challenging part of being a physician?

The most challenging aspects of being a physician include dealing with high-stress situations and coping with patients’ suffering or distress. The responsibility of making crucial decisions that affect others’ lives can also be challenging. They also frequently face long-working hours and must stay updated with the latest medical research and technologies. Handling administrative tasks or managing a private practice’s business aspects can also be demanding. These challenges can lead to stress and burnout, making work-life balance an important aspect for doctors to manage.

Is it possible to maintain a balance between work and personal life as a physician?

Finding a balance between work and personal life can be challenging for physicians, particularly those in demanding specialties or who work in emergency medicine. However, it is feasible with proactive planning, setting boundaries, and a commitment to self-care. Some may choose to work part-time or in locum positions to provide greater flexibility. Mentoring and support from more seasoned colleagues can also be beneficial. Ultimately, the balance is personal and varies from one individual to another. It’s key for each doctor to determine their own limits and needs and seek employment that aligns with them.

What do physicians find most challenging about their interaction with patients?

Physicians sometimes face challenges in their interactions with patients. This could include explaining complex medical concepts and treatment options in a way that the patient can understand and make informed decisions. Dealing with uncooperative patients or those not following through on treatment plans can also be frustrating. Additionally, conveying sensitive news, such as a serious diagnosis, can be emotionally difficult. Given the nature of their work, they also experience situations where they must balance respect for the patient’s autonomy with what they believe is in the patient’s best health interest, creating a potential ethical dilemma.