CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a neurologist.
Is becoming a neurologist right for me?
The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:
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Even while in high school, you can begin to prepare for a career in neurology. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) facilitates a summer study program in the neurological sciences. The program offers a unique opportunity for academically talented high school, undergraduate, graduate, and medical students to receive first-rate training in neuroscience research. Students get hands-on experience working with leading scientists in the Institute’s Division of Intramural Research. Labs are located in Bethesda and Rockville, Maryland and in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
If these extraordinary opportunities offered by the NINDS are not practical for you or accessible to you, there are other ways to lay the foundation to work in the neuroscience field:
- Take advanced science classes in anatomy, biology, chemistry, physiology, and physics
- Take math classes to facilitate the calculation of medication dosages and the reading of graphs
- Study Latin to help you understand unfamiliar medical terms that often have Latin roots
- Study a foreign language to increase your capacity to communicate with the segment of the population that does not speak English
- Interview a practising neurologist
Ask simple, but pointed questions:
What got you interested in neurology?
Can you tell me about an average day at your job, from beginning to end?
What do you like about your job? What do you dislike?
What is the most challenging part of being a neurologist?
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a neurologist?
If you could start over, would you still choose to be a neurologist? Why?
- Research which colleges offer the best neuroscience programs
While there is not a specific degree required for undergraduate study, aspiring neurologists tend to concentrate their coursework in advanced biological sciences to meet admission requirements for medical school. They must graduate from an accredited Bachelor's degree program with pre-med prerequisite courses, such as microbiology, biochemistry, and human anatomy. Also recommended are classes in English, advanced mathematics, and statistics. Most medical schools require a grade point average of at least 3.5 and may choose only those candidates who rank at the top of their graduating class.
During undergraduate study it is also important for students to gain experience that will set them apart from other medical school applicants and prepare them for their chosen career. This experience may include volunteering at a hospital, performing community service, and research work. Especially valuable are job shadowing programs, which allow students to follow neurologists and other doctors throughout a workday. All of these activities demonstrate work ethic and dedication to the medical field. Whenever possible, these experiences should be documented on letters of recommendation, which can be submitted with medical school applications.
Medical College Admissions Test
During their junior year of undergraduate study, prospective neurologists must sit for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM). Through a set of multiple-choice questions, this standardized exam allows medical schools to evaluate a candidate’s training and skill set. Many schools share their incoming student MCAT score average on their website to inform undergraduates of how well they need to score to compete with other applicants.
To achieve their highest possible MCAT score, students are encouraged to take advantage of assistance available to them. This includes study materials, pre-tests, practice tests, and online and in-person tutoring. These resources are designed to ensure that students attain the best possible score, which will open doors to medical schools.
Medical School & National Licensing
Neurologists obtain either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.
Medical school is a very challenging four years of study that is divided into two parts. The first part, comprising the first two years of the schooling, is focused on course and lab work that prepares students intellectually for patient interaction. This training is in the biological and natural sciences, physiology, chemistry, medical ethics, and the art and practice of medicine. Students who wish to become neurologists typically tailor their studies to include advanced classes in brain anatomy, medical diagnostics, and clinical research. To test their grasp of this portion of training, in the second year of medical school students pursuing an MD must take and pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) – Step 1. Those pursuing a DO must take and pass the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) – Level 1. A passing score on the USMLE or COMLEX-USA indicates that students are ready to begin supervised patient visits and gain clinical experience.
The second part of medical school, the second two years, is called Rotations. During this time, students have the opportunity to experience a variety of medical specialties and a variety of medical settings under the supervision of experienced physicians. Rotations further students’ understanding of patient care, situations, scenarios, and the teams that come together to help those that are sick. As they complete rotations, students tend to find out that they gravitate towards certain specialties or environments that fit their particular interests and skill sets. It is important that this time inform their decision of specialty or subspecialty, so that they find complete satisfaction as a physician.
After part two of medical school, students take the United States Medical Licensing Exam –Step 2 or the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination – Level 2. The objective of these exams is to test whether or not students have developed the clinical knowledge and skills that they will need to transition into unsupervised medical practice.
After finishing medical school, graduates who wish to pursue a career in neurology are required to spend one year as a hospital intern. While aspiring neurologists typically enter an internship in either internal medicine or surgery, they normally rotate through departments, exposing them to other fields of medicine as well. Interns do not have the right to practise unsupervised medicine, and must practise within the confines of the training program in which they are enrolled.
After completing their internship, postgraduates begin a three-year neurology residency accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. Neurology residents typically attend lectures, participate in patient rounds with a licensed neurologist, and complete clinical case studies. They gain experience with an assortment of neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and spinal cord injuries.
Securing a neurology residency is competitive. It is important to compile a thorough resume detailing educational history, research experience, and internships completed; as well as letters of recommendation.
State Licensing & Continuing Education
All physicians in the U.S. need to be state licensed. Licensing requirements may vary from state to state. Generally, candidates must have earned an undergraduate degree, graduated from medical school, completed a residency, and passed all necessary examinations. Often, the examination component is satisfied by passing the USMLE or the COMLEX-USA exam. States may further require periodic license renewal and mandate continuing education.
The continuing education component can be fulfilled by committing to a fellowship (see Step 9, below); by following a certification maintenance program (see Step 8, below); or by attending classes and seminars held by medical schools and professional organizations.
Board Certification (optional)
The American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) offers voluntary certifications for qualified neurologists. To be eligible to take the certification exam, candidates must have completed an accredited medical school program, earned a medical license, and satisfied the ABPN training requirements. To retain their certification, neurologists must participate in the ABPN 10-year certification maintenance program, which includes completing self-assessment activities and other ABPN continuing education components.
Specialized Training / Fellowship (optional)
A ‘fellow’ is a physician who elects to complete further training or a ‘fellowship’ in a subspecialty, after or near the end of residency. Neurology subspecialties include:
This subspecialty focuses on many diseases and ailments that impair functioning of the muscles, either directly, being pathologies of the voluntary muscle; or indirectly, being pathologies of nerves. It deals with neuromuscular junctions, where a motor neuron is able to transmit a signal to the muscle fiber, causing muscle contraction.
Clinical neurophysiology studies the central and peripheral nervous systems through the recording of bioelectrical activity, whether spontaneous or stimulated. It encompasses research regarding both pathophysiology and clinical methods used to diagnose diseases involving both central and peripheral nervous systems.
Vascular neurologists evaluate, treat, and study diseases which affect the structure and function of blood vessels supplying the brain. They primarily provide care for patients with cerebrovascular disease, which can lead to a stroke.
Neurodevelopmental disorders are impairments of the growth and development of the brain or central nervous system. A narrower use of the term refers to a disorder of brain function that affects emotion, learning ability, self-control, and memory. Examples of neurodevelopmental disorders include autism, cerebral palsy, and impairments in vision and hearing.
Behavioral neuroscience research investigates the interaction between the brain and the nervous system and behavior. Topics typically associated with this area include behavior genetics, behavioral neuroendocrinology, psychopharmacology, decision making, impulsivity, cognition, neuroplasticity, and the underlying neurobiological components of neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. Alzheimer’s disease is among the disorders studied by behavioral neurologists.
The field of movement disorders refers to conditions such as Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, tremor, dystonia, tics, and other involuntary movements.
This specialty focuses on the comprehensive treatment and management of migraine, facial pain, tension-type, cluster, chronic daily, and other headache conditions.
Sleep medicine is devoted to the diagnosis and therapy of sleep disturbances and disorders.
Pediatric neurology or child neurology deals with the diagnosis and management of neurological conditions in newborns, infants, children, and adolescents. The discipline of child neurology encompasses diseases and disorders of the spinal cord, brain, peripheral nervous system, autonomic nervous system, muscles, and blood vessels that affect individuals in these age groups.
How to become a Neurologist
The path to becoming a neurologist is a long one. The process involves earning a Bachelor’s Degree, passing the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), applying to and completing medical school, and completing an internship and residency program. Following this rigorous educational track, aspiring neurologists must pass both national and state licensing exams. Some neurologists choose to specialize in a specific area, such as Child and Pediatric Neurology, Epilepsy, Brain Injury, Sleep Medicine, or Neuromuscular Disorders.
Although there is no specific undergraduate degree required to be accepted to medical school, it is, of course, beneficial to major in a scientific field that fulfills the biology, chemistry, and physics prerequisites. Some students opt to major in pre-med, a program which encompasses all of the courses necessary to apply to medical school.
Acceptance to medical school is extremely competitive. Therefore, a high grade point average during undergraduate studies, excellent letters of recommendation, and an above average score on the MCAT are imperative.
During medical school, students can expect to spend the first few years taking courses in subjects such as anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology. The last two years of med school involve clinical rotations during which students work in hospitals and other medical facilities under the supervision of a licensed physician. Pediatrics and geriatrics are among the mandatory rotations.
After completing medical school, graduates typically declare their desire to focus on a particular field, such as neurology. At this stage, they complete a one-year internship to gain experience in many different areas of medicine. When finishing their internship, prospective neurologists go on to complete a three-year residency program focused on the practice of neurology. Throughout their residency, they work with patients under the supervision of a licensed neurologist.
Nationally and state licensed neurologists can choose to become board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. While this certification is voluntary, it demonstrates professionalism and dedication to the field, and instills confidence in patients.