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​Becoming a physician — what you need to know

Resources and next steps to help you decide if you want to become a physician.

What do doctors do?
What qualities make a good physician?
Who can be a doctor?
Where do I start?
Costs, potential income?
Will I get into medical school?
Questions?

What do doctors do?

Doctors work to improve health and well-being at individual and societal levels. This can mean different things — from diagnosing a source of pain or disease and prescribing medication to launching a local to stop-smoking campaign.

Medicine is a diverse, flexible field. Physicians may work in labs, health clinics, government offices, military settings or in business. At the clinical level, doctors may care for seniors, children, athletes or those with specific health challenges such as brain, heart or digestive disorders. They often work in teams comprising the patient and patient's family, friends and caregivers, plus other health professionals


What qualities make a good physician?

Qualities in four key areas are vital:

  • knowledge
  • communication and caring
  • commitment
  • lifelong learning

Knowledge involves specific training about the human body and illness, acquired during and after medical school. This training is based on accepted scientific findings. Basic scientific knowledge is a prerequisite.

Communication and caring skills are essential because medicine is all about caring for people and wanting to help. You should like to be with people, have good interpersonal skills and express a real concern for others' physical and mental well-being.

Commitment is at the core of deciding to be a doctor. The full process takes seven years (minimum); it may require some 16 years from start to finish. These years are demanding, so you need to be sure it's what you want to do and that you're determined to see it through.

Lifelong learning refers to the ever-changing knowledge base that supports contemporary medicine. You have to keep learning to keep up. Keen intellectual curiosity and an ongoing desire to learn are good qualities to have.


Who can be a doctor?

The field is open — almost anyone can become a doctor. Women make up just over half of all medical students, and many medical students are married. Several have previously worked full time in other fields, and many have families. All religions, cultures and races are represented. Some practising physicians have overcome mental or physical handicaps to enter the profession.


Where do I start?

High school — You don’t have to commit to medicine as your chosen profession at this stage, but if it's on the short list check with a guidance counsellor or medical school(s) to identify the science and other preparatory courses you'll need to ensure eligibility. Volunteering in a related setting or talking with various health care workers may help expand your knowledge and understanding — of both the profession and life outside the work environment.

College/university — Most students entering medicine have a degree or previous postsecondary education. Canadian medical schools require two to four years of full-time undergraduate courses as a precondition to medical studies. College students take a number of pre-med courses in subjects such as physics, chemistry and biology. It's best to check early with the school(s) where you wish to study to determine specific admission requirements.

Canadian medical schools

Strong academic standing is essential. A range of studies in non-medical areas is recommended, to broaden basic knowledge and personal horizons and to confirm interest in a medical career. Not every applicant will be accepted, so it's good to have other skills and interests to fall back on. Doctors are part of their communities, so some community involvement is also advised.

Medical school — You'll spend three or four years in basic medical school training. The first two years generally cover the human body and how it functions, healthy or ill. Practical working time in hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices comes in the final year or two, followed by a residency of two to seven years (depending on specialty or focus) and a mandatory written exam.


Costs and potential income?

Costs continue to rise, and vary depending on the school and area of medicine selected. Current living, tuition, book, food and other expenses must also be factored in, and the demands of medical training rule out most part-time work. Check with the medical school where you hope to study to investigate actual program costs.

Scholarships, bursaries and other financial supports are available. It's worth setting up a sound financial plan in advance, to avoid building up considerable debt.

There likely won't be much income – if any – until residency, and it’s a small wage that increases each year until completion. Physicians generally make a decent living, but it is affected by method of payment, area of practice, where you live, number of hours worked and other factors. Medicine should be considered a passion first, and a way to achieve financial security second.


Many of the deciding factors are within your control. Prepare carefully and early, keep your interests and options open and be persistent if you sincerely want a medical career. It helps to talk to others in the profession who have been there before.

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Questions?

There are many sources of information — such as the Canadian Federation of Medical Students. See also information from the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada.


*Prepared in collaboration with the Canadian Federation of Medical Students