What is a Medicine Degree?

The Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute and think tank, has articulated the four goals of medicine. They are (1) the prevention of disease and injury and the promotion and maintenance of health; (2) the relief of pain and suffering caused by maladies; (3) the care and cure of those with a malady and the care of those who cannot be cured; and (4) the avoidance of premature death and the pursuit of a peaceful death.

Throughout their education, aspiring doctors learn how to achieve these goals. They study the science of body systems, their diseases, and treatment. They learn how to apply their knowledge with patients, in clinical settings. And they discover firsthand that medicine is not just science. It is the art of caring and comfort based on science.

Program Options


  • The traditional route to a degree in medicine starts with a two-step process involving completion of a bachelor’s degree program followed by applications and admission to medical school. There is, however, an alternative pathway to becoming a doctor. The information below reviews both options.
  • At some schools, students with multiple academic interests can pursue an additional degree in conjunction with the MD, such as a research-based Ph.D, Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Public Health (MPH), or Master of Public Policy (MPP).

The Traditional Program

Bachelor’s Degree in Any Discipline – Four Year Duration
There is not a specific degree that is required for pre-med undergraduate study. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), aspiring physicians are most likely to earn a bachelor’s in a major from these areas:

  • Biological Sciences
  • Social Sciences
  • Physical Sciences
  • Humanities
  • Mathematics / Statistics

Regardless of their chosen undergrad major, students planning to attend medical school must meet med school admission requirements, which typically include:

  • Biology with lab
  • General Chemistry with lab
  • Organic Chemistry with lab
  • Physics with lab
  • Biochemistry
  • Mathematics and/or Statistics
  • English

Because pre-med students are not required to earn their bachelor’s degree in a science discipline, they can easily apply their undergraduate credits to another course of study should they change their mind and decide not to apply to medical school.

Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)

It is common for undergraduates to write the MCAT and begin applying to medical schools in their junior year. Through a set of multiple-choice questions, the MCAT 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.

Doctor of Medicine (MD) Degree or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) Degree – Four Year Duration
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.

To test their grasp of this portion of training, in the second year of medical school students pursuing a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree must take and pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) – Step 1. Those pursuing a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree 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.

Below is an overview of physician specialties that students may experience during their rotations. Some of these specialties offer subspecialties.

  • Allergy and Immunology
  • Anesthesiology
  • Dermatology
  • Diagnostic Radiology
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Family Medicine
  • Internal Medicine
  • Medical Genetics
  • Neurology
  • Nuclear Medicine
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • Ophthalmology
  • Pathology
  • Pediatrics
  • Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • Preventative Medicine
  • Psychiatry
  • Radiation Oncology
  • Surgery
  • Urology

After part two of medical school, students take the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) – Step 2 or the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) – 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.

The first year of specialty training after medical school is called first year of residency or PGY-1 (Post-Graduate Year-1). The following years are called PGY-2, PGY-3, etc. Training after residency focuses on a subspecialty and is called a fellowship. For example, subspecialties of the internal medicine specialty include cardiovascular disease, hematology (blood), and oncology (cancer). The length of residencies and fellowships varies from specialty to specialty. Only top doctoral graduates are accepted into a fellowship training program.

The Combined Program

  • The option to the traditional program is called a combined program. The majority of bachelor’s / MD programs – which are limited in number – allow high school students to go right from undergraduate studies to the medical school curriculum, removing the stresses of traditional medical school admissions.
  • Instead of applying separately to medical school, applicants undergo a single admission process encompassing both the undergraduate and graduate requirements. Because combined programs omit the need to apply to multiple med schools, students in these programs commit to a specific college and medical school, which is typically part of the same institution or a partner school in the same region or college network.
  • While combined programs offered students assured admission to med school, some still require applicants to take and do well on the MCAT, the details of which are described above in the traditional program section.
  • Most combined programs are the same length as non-combined traditional ones: eight years.
  • A few programs offer accelerated six- or seven-year programs by reducing the time spent as an undergrad.

In a combined program, students are focused on medicine throughout their education, starting with their bachelor’s program:

Bachelor’s Degree in Medicine – Four Year Duration

  • Biology of Organisms
  • Freshman Inquiry Writing Seminar – Narrative Medicine
  • Freshman Inquiry Writing Seminar – Composition
  • General Physics
  • World Cultures and Global Issues
  • Principles of General Chemistry
  • The Development of the United States and Its People
  • Writing for the Sciences
  • Introduction to Population Health and Community-Orientated Primary Care
  • Professional Foundations
  • Bio-Organic Chemistry
  • Application of Psychology in the Modern World
  • Fundamentals of Epidemiology and Biostatistics
  • Practice of Medicine: Lifestyle Medicine – how different physiological systems respond to different environmental factors; stress management, diet, exercise, sleep, and tobacco, alcohol, and drug use
  • Molecules to Cells
  • Introduction to Human Genetics
  • Population Health and Community Health Assessment
  • Evaluation of Healthcare Settings
  • US Healthcare Systems and Policy
  • Introduction to Biomedical Ethics
  • Clinical Anatomy
  • Fundamentals of Organ Systems
  • Practice of Medicine: Clinical Experience on Primary Care – fostering behavior change in patients; students will partner with the patient’s primary care physician in the care of the patient

After earning their medicine-focused bachelor’s – and passing the MCAT if required by their specific program – combined program students complete medical school, as described above in the traditional program section.

Degrees Similar to Medicine

The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.

Biomedical Engineering
Simply stated, biomedical engineering uses engineering to solve health and medical problems. For example, a biomedical engineer might look for chemical signals in the body that warn of a particular disease or condition.

Biophysics applies the theories and methods of physics to understand how biological systems like the brain, the circulatory system, and the immune system function. Coursework includes math, chemistry, physics, engineering, pharmacology, and materials science.

Chemistry deals with identifying the substances that make up matter. Degree programs in chemistry focus on investigating these substances: their properties; how they interact, combine, and change; and how scientists can use chemical processes to form new substances.

Clinical Laboratory Science
Degree programs in clinical laboratory science prepare students to work as laboratory technicians, who use chemicals and other substances to test body fluids and tissues for the purpose of diagnosing diseases. The curriculum combines chemistry, biology, and medicine.

Emergency Medical Technology (EMT Paramedic)
Students who enrol in EMT degree programs learn the skills required to provide emergency medical care. The curriculum includes courses in medical terminology, patient assessment, and advanced life support such as performing respiratory procedures and administering IV fluids, injections, and medications.

Genetics is the study of heredity. It attempts to answer questions about how inherited traits are transmitted from parents to offspring.

Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. These ‘microbes’ include bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa, and algae.

Midwives are health professionals who provide primary care to women with low-risk pregnancies, from conception until six weeks after birth. The training that students of midwifery receive happens in the classroom and in work placements. Programs are focused on the stages of midwifery care: antepartum (pre-childbirth), intrapartum (labor through delivery), postpartum (following delivery), and newborn care. They cover physiology, primary care of women, reproductive healthcare of childbearing women, fetal wellbeing and complications, and related pharmacology and medicines management.

Molecular Biology
Degree programs in molecular biology teach the composition, structure, and interactions of cellular molecules like nucleic acids and proteins that are essential to cell function.

This degree program is designed to give students the knowledge and experience for safe, compassionate, evidence-based, competent, and ethical nursing practice.

Naturopathic Medicine
The practice of naturopathic medicine or ‘naturopathy’ is centuries old. This alternative wellness system is built on the belief that the body can heal itself. It combines modern medical methods with a broad range of natural therapies to aid recovery, prevent illness, and boost overall health. Massage, herbs, exercise, nutritional counseling, and acupuncture all fall under the umbrella of naturopathy.

Osteopathic Medicine
Medical school attendees can choose to pursue a Doctor of Medicine (MD) Degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) Degree. MDs generally focus on treating specific conditions with medication. Their approach is less holistic than that of DOs, who focus on whole-body healing, with or without medication.

Physician Assistant
This program prepares students to work as a physician assistant or PA. Under the supervision of a physician, PAs take medical histories, conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, and provide preventative healthcare. They may also assist in surgery and conduct research.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Public Health
Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.

Surgical Technology
Surgical technology certificate and degree programs teach students how to be effective members of operating room teams. Students learn how to equip operating rooms for specific procedures, how to prepare patients for surgery, how to sterilize surgical instruments, and how to assist doctors, nurses, and patients. Coursework includes anatomy and physiology, surgical patient care, and health law and ethics.

Skills You’ll Learn

Attention to Detail
Diagnosing and treating patients demand attention to detail. Patients’ lives are at stake.

A significant part of the physician’s role is communicating with and educating patients.

Empathy and Compassion
Working with patients on a daily basis calls for someone who is not only adept at monitoring patients’ physical comfort, but sensitive and responsive to the emotional stress they may be experiencing.

The physician who knows their limitations is the best physician, because they know when to call in another specialist to avoid making a misdiagnosis, risking a patient’s health, and triggering a lawsuit.

Physical Stamina
Physicians spend much of their time on their feet.

Stress Management
The medical and health implications of the work can make it stressful.

Teamwork and Collaboration
Physicians are part of a team of medical professionals, who share information and work together for the well-being of the patient.

What Can You Do with a Medicine Degree?

The initial intention of anyone who earns a degree in medicine is to practise medicine. The specific focus of a medical career depends, of course, on the specialty chosen by each individual. An overview of specialties is provided in the program options section above. There are, however, alternative routes for graduates with a medical degree. Here is a snapshot of some potential professional pathways outside of the traditional medical / clinical practice:

  • Public Health Worker – focus on maintaining public health, on preventing the spread of infectious diseases or environmental health hazards
  • Health Journalist – writes about healthcare related issues
  • Medical Teacher / Professor – teaches medical students or educates the public regarding medicine and healthcare
  • Forensic Pathologist / Forensic Medical Examiner – trained to perform medical examinations on the dead
  • Crowd Doctor – a medically qualified doctor trained in managing the medical needs of crowds of people attending large events in stadiums and other venues
  • Medical Photographer – produces images and videos for healthcare, education, or scientific purposes
  • Medical / Pharmaceutical Researcher – conducts experiments and analyzes results to learn more about the human body and potential treatments of disease
  • Sports and Exercise Medicine – SEM physicians diagnose and manage acute, degenerative, and overuse joint and muscular problems
  • Volunteer Work / International Aid and Development – improving the health of people living in less fortunate circumstances or in developing countries; one example is Doctors Without Borders
  • Medical Sales Representative – the liaison between healthcare professionals and the pharmaceutical industry
  • Medical Legal Advisor – works as the interface between the doctor and the legal process, handling a wide variety of files ranging from general advice through to claims, complaints, regulatory issues, inquests, and criminal investigations
  • Occupational Physician – doctors in occupational medicine diagnose, manage, and prevent disease and injury in the workplace; their focus is occupational health and safety
  • Transplant Coordinator – oversees the administrative and medical tasks involved in the organ donation and transplant process; liaises with the patient, the patient’s family, the surgeon, the donor, and the donor’s family
  • Radiology / Diagnostic Imagining Director – oversees a diagnostic imaging (x-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds, MRIs, etc.) department in a hospital, clinic, or university setting
  • Healthcare Equity Research Analyst – uses medical background to give advice on mergers and acquisitions in biotech companies and other sectors of the health industry


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