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As Who, Seuss and Dre have found, attaching the honorific “doctor” to your name leverages respect. We reserve special regard for physicians, who have undergone the extensive years of study and training to officially add that title to their moniker and practice medicine. There are two types: Medical Doctors (M.D.s) and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.s). Both diagnose and treat patients for a range of medical issues, although a D.O. might also specialize in preventative medicine and holistic patient care.

There are even more designations among physicians, according to speciality. For example, general and family physicians concentrate on general medical conditions. Internists treat and diagnose problems with internal organs. A pediatrician cares for children from infancy to teenage years. Obstetricians and gynecologists provide care related to the female reproductive system and also treat pregnant women and deliver babies. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who treat and diagnose mental illnesses. A dermatologist treats the skin and scalp. Surgeons operate on patients to treat a variety of medical issues, and the list of types of physicians goes on.

One thing is certain: All types are needed to attend to an aging population. The number of Americans ages 65 and older will double in the next 25 years to about 72 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s State of Aging and Health in America 2013 report. And given that two out of three older Americans have multiple chronic conditions, physicians are needed to tend to their health care needs. The Affordable Care Act also provides more health insurance options at a reasonable cost, which means more Americans are expected to seek health care services in the coming years.

The combination of aging baby boomers and a larger patient population means stellar employment prospects in this field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment for physicians and surgeons will jump nearly 18 percent from 2012 to 2022, which translates to a cosmic 123,300 job openings. The occupation ranks among the top 10 jobs on our Best Jobs list, coming in at No. 8.


A physician’s average salary varies. In 2012, a general internist made an average salary of $191,520, according to the BLS. Those with subspecialties, such as gastroenterologists, cardiologists and urologists, had average salaries that eclipsed $187,199 in 2012. Areas of the country that pay physicians particularly well include Wilmington, N.C., Wichita, Kan., and Tallahassee, Fla. The lowest-paid in the profession make about $66,790.

Salary Range

25th Percentile $137,310


Becoming a physician requires years of study. All doctors have to complete at least four years at an undergraduate program, followed by four years of medical school. Your ability to land a spot in a quality medical school partially depends on earning exemplary grades as an undergraduate and a good score on the Medical College Admission Test. Students spend the first two years in the classroom taking classes on subjects such as anatomy, biochemistry and medical ethics. During the last two years, students apply their knowledge by working with patients in clinics and hospitals, under the supervision of experienced doctors.

Each specialty also has its own internship and residency programs, which may require three to eight years of training. Charles Cutler, M.D., a practicing internist and the chair of the Board of Regents for the American College of Physicians, spent one year working as an intern, followed by two years of residency. He recalls the long hours. “Back in those days when I worked in the hospital, I remember driving into work on Sunday morning when the rest of the world was asleep, and knowing that I was going to be at work all day Sunday, and all night, and then part of the day Monday,” he says. “It would be more than 30 hours before I’d leave the hospital.”

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Following residency, a doctor must receive the appropriate licensure to practice in all states and the District of Columbia. To qualify for a license, you must graduate from an accredited medical school, complete residency training and pass written exams. M.D.s take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination, while D.O.s take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination.

Yet Cutler says you could have the highest test scores and still become an abysmal doctor. To him, the best doctors are good listeners who empathize with people. “You have to be willing to take the time to listen to patients with a sympathetic ear,” he says. “Working in primary care, many of the symptoms and concerns that patients describe to you have an emotional overlay ... You have to hear all the patient has to say and be willing to connect with them.”

Similar to other health care practitioners, a good doctor should have plenty of patience. Good problem-solving skills are also valued: “That doesn’t mean you need to have the right answers and find the right diagnoses,” Cutler says, explaining that you should brush hubris aside and consult other physicians when in doubt. “Get help to determine the right thing to do, the right diagnoses and treatment.”

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Last updated by Stephanie Steinberg.

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