Medical School

The US and the UK both have excellent medical school programs. While they differ a bit in structure, the time it takes to become a doctor is similar in either country.

When deciding where you want to study, a few factors are worth considering. How do you want to balance your studies in the classroom and in a clinical setting? Do you want to work in one place and get familiar with the staff over a period of years? Or would you rather get more immediate professional experience and work in several different places?

Time required to become a doctor

Even though the US and the UK are very different in terms of how they train doctors, your total amount of education will be similar in both countries.

US university students obtain a bachelor’s degree before going on to medical school, which is a graduate program. During their final years of their undergraduate program, they apply to medical school and take the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test). Overall, becoming a doctor in the US can take (on average) between eight and ten years: four years to obtain an undergraduate degree, and four to six years to complete medical school and a residency program.

In the UK, the study of medicine starts at the undergraduate level. Applicants declare a course in medicine when they send their university applications. Upon getting accepted, they spend between four and six years studying core science subjects and learning everyday clinical tasks. At the point they earn their bachelor’s and enter the workforce, they are considered to be junior doctors.

After completing their undergraduate education, UK medical students take two “foundation years,” reinforcing what they have learned in university in a professional environment. This is considered to be a continuation of their education although it is not in a university environment. Finally, they may spend between four and eight years learning a specialization like obstetrics or surgery. These studies are completed in clinics and/or hospitals. This means that becoming a doctor in the UK takes between six and twelve years, depending on whether a junior doctor chooses to pursue a complex specialization.

Coursework and exam requirements

The subjects US students study vary: earning a “pre-medicine” degree is not necessarily required to qualify for medical school. In fact, medical students can and do major in everything from mathematics to physics, even music! However, according to the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), the majority (53%) of those who matriculate into medical school majored in biological sciences fields.1 This includes dedicated pre-medicine programs, anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, and many more. It should be noted that students who wish to apply to a US medical school do not have to obtain their bachelor’s degree in the US, but they must complete one first.

One other requirement to enter medical school in the US is the MCAT. The following is the AAMC (the body which administers the test) description:

“The Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®), developed and administered by the AAMC, is a standardized, multiple-choice examination created to help medical school admissions offices assess your problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine.” (“Taking the MCAT”)

As we mentioned before, medicine in the UK is an undergraduate program that students enter after high school. Students apply through the general UCAS application site, which all UK university applicants use. They will be interviewed and either granted a conditional offer or offered admission outright. After this, each student will be required to sit for either A-level exams or something equally rigorous, like the IB, and obtain high marks in order to hold their place.

Upon entering their program, students can pick a focus, such as anesthetics or pathology. They will be exposed to multiple specialties to get a sense of what they are good at and what they are interested in. Finally, general professional and academic skills (such as group work and essay skills) are emphasized a bit earlier than in the US.

There is a second option for those who wish to study a subject more in-depth. Students may obtain an undergraduate bachelor’s degree with honors in biochemistry, medical science, or a similar field in three years. After this, they can apply to study Graduate Entry Medicine. This is a four-year degree with a similar structure to the U.S. system: it requires two years of course work and two years of rotations.

1. The AAMC’s data for the 2016-2017 academic year reveals that out of the 53,042 applicants who were recorded, 21,030 of them entered medical degree programs that same year. ↩


Professional development requirements

During the four years of medical school in the US, the first two years will be primarily spent in the classroom. At the end of the first two years, students will take an assessment test, which will be used for residency placement. During the last two years of medical school, students will be primarily engaged in clinical duties and making rounds within multiple departments in the hospital. Residents are expected to work long hours as they learn from seasoned physicians.

Towards the end of medical school, students will apply and interview for residency programs, which are essentially a medical student’s first job in the field. Some (i.e. dermatology and orthopedics) are more competitive than others due to their lifestyle and compensation benefits. Students match at different residency programs through a combination of listing their top choices, test scores, and interviews.

The first two years after earning the undergraduate degree in the UK are similar to the U.S., with two years of school and three years of clinical rotations in wards. Upon graduation, students attend a two-year program at a foundation school. Medical school graduates are not allowed to practice medicine until this is complete. Students complete an online application form, submit test scores and grades, and are matched similarly to the U.S. system. UK residencies are paid positions, just as in the US.

Upon completion of the foundation program, students can complete two 18-month training rotations and practice medicine independently as a general practitioner. Unlike US students, who usually stay at one hospital, UK junior doctors tend to work in several different clinics to get exposure to different environments.

Both the US and the UK have excellent medical education programs. Ultimately, a student’s learning style will determine where they will have the most success, and perhaps more importantly, enjoy their education.