When someone says the word "doctor," most of us picture a person who treats us when we're sick, and helps us to stay well. There are, however, many kinds of doctors, including "Doctors of Philosophy" (Ph.D.s), "Doctors of Pharmacy," "Doctors of Dental Medicine," "Doctors of Law," and more. A more precise term for the doctor who treats you when you're sick is a physician.
In the United States, there are several kinds of physicians. Currently, though, there are only two types which, with proper training and licensing, have the legal authority to prescribe medication, perform surgery, and generally practice the full range of medical techniques: doctors of allopathic medicine (M.D.s) and doctors of osteopathic medicine (D.O.s).
When osteopathic medicine first split off from allopathic medicine in the late 19th century, the two were markedly different. Allopathic medicine tended to focus on treating symptoms, while osteopathic medicine focused on the whole patient. Over time, however, both have moved toward each other: M.D.s now realize that it's important to know more about a patient than just their symptoms, while D.O.s realize that sometimes the solution to a patient's problems is an antiobiotic!
Nevertheless, there remains a significant difference in philosophy. Most of us are familiar with allopathic medicine. For more on osteopathic medicine, check out this video from the New York Institute of Technology College of Medicine.
Both allopathic and osteopathic physicians may choose to become "primary care physicians," meaning that they diagnose and treat all ailments, referring patients to specialists as necessary, or they may specialize. Primary care physicians include general practitioners, internists, and pediatricians. There are more than one hundred specialties within medicine; a few examples are anesthesiology, cardiology, neurology, OB/GYN, opthamology, psychiatry, and surgery.
First, a Bachelor's Degree
To become a physician (either allopathic or osteopathic), you must first complete a bachelor's degree. This is a separate step, requiring that you choose a major and complete general education requirements. This is different from the system in many other countries, in which a future doctor is on a medical track from the moment they graduate high school. The U.S. system values applicants who have gained a broad education, and who have succesfully committed themselves to in-depth study of some particular topic, whether biology or history or music. The point is to show your ability to learn and excel, rather than a narrow preparation for medical career.
You must also acquire a set of skills and knowledge, particularly in the sciences. Typically, this requirement is fulfilled by taking courses, although some medical schools allow you to fulfill it in other ways. Your mastery of this knowledge is confirmed by your performance on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
To Gap or Not to Gap
A "gap year" is a year between completing your undergraduate degree and beginning medical school. Taking a gap year has the following benefits:
- Allows more time to complete coursework necessary for the MCAT (see below)
- Usually results in a higher science G.P.A. at time of application
- Full-time work during the gap year can allow money to be saved for use during medical school
- Provides a break from schooling!
If you are not taking a gap year, you need to take the MCAT by the summer after your junior year. The MCAT covers material equivalent to courses in a year of general biology, a year of general chemistry, a year of organic chemistry, a year of physics, a semester of biochemistry, a semester of psychology, and a semester of sociology. It is not unusual to self study one, or perhaps two, of those subjects prior to taking the MCAT, but more than that is very difficult. Thus, if you do not wish to take a gap year, you should have taken the majority of courses in that list before the end of your junior year.
If you are taking a gap year, you will typically take the MCAT late spring or early summer of your graduation year, meaning that you can complete your MCAT-preparatory courses during your senior year.
The Application Process
The application process typically begins nearly two years before you plan to enter medical school, in the Fall semester of your senior year (if taking a gap year) or junior year (if not taking a gap year). At that time, you let us know that you'd like a "committee letter" (Nov. 30 is the deadline). A committee letter is a kind of summary of all the arguments in favor of your admission to medical school, written for you by faculty at Lehman. As part of the process of creating the committee letter, you will provide us with letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and answers to our supplementary questionnaire. We will also interview you. Note: this part of the process is not competitive! Everyone who takes at least five of their core pre-med prerequisites at Lehman is eligible for a committee letter. The application and interview are so that we can understand you and your background better, and thus write a more effective letter on your behalf. This process will continue through the Spring semester.
In early summer following your senior (if taking a gap) or junior (if not) year, you will take the MCAT. You then apply through a central system (AMCAS for allopathic schools and AACOMAS for osteopathic schools). Medical schools admit students on a rolling basis, so it's best to apply early in the cycle, perhaps in July.
After you apply through the central system and specify the schools you are interested in, you will usually be invited to complete "secondary" applications for those schools. These secondaries request more information, in part to make sure you are serious about that particular school.
Once your secondaries are in, you will (hopefully!) be invited to some schools for interviews. Interviews typically take place in the fall or winter prior to when you'll start attending medical school.
After interviews, you finally get to find out who accepted you--hopefully you'll have the happy dilemma of choosing between acceptances!
Medical School and Beyond
Once in medical school, it is very likely you'll end up being a doctor. Most people accepted to medical school graduate, pass their boards, and become practicing physicians.
The first two years of medical school are usually "didactic," meaning that you'll take courses. The next two years are "clinical," involving working with doctors and patients directly.
At the end of four years, you graduate medical school, and you're a physician, but you're not done. In order to practice medicine, you'll need to complete a "residency." While you're a resident, you are a practicing physician, but you're under supervision. You do get paid, but much less than you will once you complete you residencies. It's possible to practice medicine with as little as one year of residency, but four years is more typical.
There are also another set of exams to take before you can be licesnsed to practice medicine.
Regardless of your major, there are certain courses you must complete in order to gain admission to most medical schools. Some schools follow a "competencies not courses” approach, which allows you to demonstrate that you have learned the material in the courses without actually having the course on your transcript. This approach can be particularly helpful to students who have taken some of their core prerequisites outside the United States.
Ideally, the following courses should be taken as prepartion for either allopathic or osteopathic medical schools:
|Course Name||Lehman Code||Comments|
|Gen. Chem. 1||CHE 166 + 167|
|Gen. Chem. 2||CHE 168 + 169||Gen. Chem. 1 is prerequisite|
|Organic Chem. 1||CHE 232 + 233||Gen. Chem. 2 is prerequisite|
|Organic Chem 2||CHE 234 + 235||Organic Chem. 1 is prerequisite|
|Biochem 1||CHE 444 or BIO 400||Organic Chem. 2 is prerequisite|
|Gen. Physics 1||PHY 166 or PHY 168|
|Gen. Physics 2||PHY 167 or PHY 169||General Physics 1 is prerequisite|
|Gen. Bio. 1||BIO 166|
|Gen. Bio. 2||BIO 167|
|Statistics||Multiple courses fulfill||Not on MCAT, not required by some med schools|
|Calculus 1 (for a few schools)||MAT 175 + 155||
Not on MCAT, not required by most med schools
|Psychology||PSY 166||On MCAT, but not required by some med schools|
|Sociology||Various courses||On MCAT, but not required by some med schools|
Below is an example of a timeline for a hypothetical student, Maria. Maria is planning to take a gap year and decides to major in psychology. She entered without a strong math background. Your timeline will be somewhat different, because you're not Maria. (Or if your name is Maria, you're not this Maria.) You'll almost certainly take some different courses than Maria did. Be sure to consult with your pre-health advisor to decide what's right for you. Still, Maria's timeline should give you a sense of how it can all work out.
|Semester||Coursework||Consult Pre-Health Advisor Regarding...||Application||Other|
|Freshman Fall||MAT 104, BIO 166, PSY 166, ENG 111, LEH 100||Get to know each other|
|Freshman Spring||MAT 172, CHE 166+167, ENG 121, Gen. Ed.||Choice of major, internships, progress||Plan summer: medical volunteering? Summer research program?|
|Sophomore Fall||CHE 168+169, PSY courses, Gen. ed. courses||Progress, plans for following summer||
|Sophomore Spring||CHE 232+233, BIO 167, PSY course, Gen. ed. course||Progress. Gap or no gap?||
Apply for summer programs
|Junior Fall||CHE 234+235, PSY courses, MAT 175+155||Progress. Summer plans.||Begin investigating which med schools to apply to||
|Junior Spring||BIO 400, LEH, PSY courses||Progress||Volunteer/shadow|
|Senior Fall||PHY 166, LEH, PSY courses||MCAT prep, letters of recommendation, personal statement||
Arrange for letters of recommendation
Request committee letter by Nov. 30
Plan gap year
|Senior Spring||PHY 167, PSY courses||MCAT, personal statement||Committee letter process; mock interviews||MCAT prep|
|June after graduation||MCAT|
|July after graduation||Application to AMCAS/AACOMAS|
|Fall after graduation||Secondary applications||Gap year activities|
|Winter after graduation||Interview preparation||Interviews||Gap year activities|
|Spring after graduation||Inform pre-health advisor of acceptance||Accept admission to med school of her choice||Gap year activities|
|One year after graduation||Begin medical school!|