What Is a Medical Residency? Salary, Length, Requirements, and More

Becoming a doctor is the professional dream held by many medical students. 

Physicians are responsible for diagnosing and treating a wide variety of injuries and illnesses. In the day to day, they examine patients, take medical histories, prescribe medications, and perform diagnostic tests. Surgeons operate on patients to treat diseases, deformities, and other injuries. 

To protect the safety of patients, doctors go through many years of education before practicing. Aspiring doctors tend to think of gaining acceptance to a strong medical program as the end goal. 

However, medical school is just the beginning of the journey to becoming a doctor. During medical school, students spend their time in classrooms and laboratories to gain practical knowledge and skills. Medical students must also go through residency training after obtaining their degree to focus on a particular specialty. 

The Association of American Medical Colleges lists over 135 medical specialties and subspecialties. These specialties include internal medicine, family medicine, anesthesiology, obstetrics and gynecology, dermatology, surgery, and neurosurgery. 

Students are able to pursue their passions in any field. 

After residency, medical students can participate in a fellowship to further specialize and gain additional training. Medical school and residency programs prepare students to pass their licensure exam, become board certified, and practice medicine.

During a medical residency, med students rotate through various areas within a particular type of practice. They make rounds with their medical team, led by an attending physician, to gain exposure before practicing. 

By acting as a physician, medical residents are no longer in the backseat. The only way to learn medicine is through experience and dedicated mentorship. While on the job, residents learn many essential qualities including communication, leadership, and critical thinking.

Definition of a Medical Residency

Medical Center for Residency
Fuzzy901, UCLA Reagan Medical Center, CC BY-SA 3.0

Medical residency is the required postgraduate training for medical students with a Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathy degree. Although they have earned their degree and the title of Doctor, they are not yet ready to practice medicine. 

A medical residency helps students develop necessary skills in laboratory work, medical procedures, patient care, and quality control. These placements take place in hospitals or clinics and provide in-depth training in a specific specialty.

Successful completion of a residency program is required to obtain a license and practice medicine in a chosen specialty. With over 5,000 medical residencies across the United States, students have the freedom to choose a specialty that they want to explore and apply to several programs. 

On Match Day in their final semester of med school, students learn if they have been matched with a residency program. 

The first year of medical residency, or internship, is when the newly graduated doctors may only practice medicine under the supervision of attending physicians. They gain exposure to many types of patients and explore different subspecialties. 

During the later years of residency, they concentrate more on their specialties. Resident doctors work closely alongside their attending physician and may assist supervision of other medical students and interns. 

During residency, medical students will encounter unexpected situations and medical issues that they haven’t seen before. Attending conferences, conducting physical exams, taking medical histories, and performing new procedures are just some of the activities that residents perform. 

This prepares them for the rigor of being a doctor and allows them to improve at an impressive speed. By embracing the mindset of being a lifelong learner and learning from great mentors, medical residency prepares residents to function as a real doctor. 

Length of a Medical Residency

Medical residency programs typically last for three to five years, although they can take longer to complete depending on the specialty. 

In general, primary care requires the least amount of time, and surgical programs last longer. 

Each institution may approach training differently, thus the length can vary even within the same specialty. 

Based on average residency lengths reported by the American Medical Association, or AMA:

  • Pediatrics and internal medicine take three years.
  • Anesthesiology, obstetrics, and gynecology take four years.
  • General surgery takes five years.
  • Neurosurgery can take up to 7 years.

After residency, physicians may go into practice and gain certification by the board of their specialty.

Medical residents must consider all aspects of their desired specialization, including how they want to spend their time and the type of medicine they want to practice. 

While passion for a particular branch of medicine is the most important, doctors must balance the length of training with practical considerations like debt, family plans, or other personal factors. Although it takes years to complete, the duration of training is all that stands between a physician and practice.

Furthermore, highly specialized areas of medicine will need to complete fellowships to develop their skills further. Fellowships give medical students a deeper understanding of nuanced subspecialties, including reconstructive surgery and pediatric radiology. 

Pursuing any exceptional experiences, such as medical research, would increase the length of a medical residency. 

Residency training requires new physicians to be patient and channel their passion. They will be working long hours and undergoing the busiest and most challenging part of their education. 

In order to ensure quality care, medical residents will be limited to an 80-hour workweek during their residency. This includes any in-house clinical practice, educational training, working from home, and additional jobs. 

Furthermore, residents are required to take 8-hour breaks between shifts and at least one day off per week. Extended residency programs can be trying, so doctors-in-training must take care of their physical and mental state to avoid burnout.

Salary for a Medical Residency

Duke University Medical School
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

A recent survey by the Association of American Medical Colleges revealed the average first-year resident stipend is $56,000.

Interns and residents provide valuable work for their clinical sites by taking care of patients and providing year-round coverage. Funded through Medicare, resident salaries are provided by the US government.

Just like any other profession, medical residency salaries vary based on a wide range of factors. Earning potential among doctors changes depending on the geographic region, specialty, and years of experience. 

In general, the highest paying medical specialties are procedure-based, such as surgery or neurosurgery. 

That being said, resident salaries are determined by the hospital or clinical site and correlate with the training year. 

Along with their stipend, resident doctors are typically eligible for benefits including health insurance, paid time off, and meals or parking.

An annual salary of $60,000 may seem counterintuitive considering that wages for physicians and surgeons are among the highest of all occupations. Resident doctors provide patient care, but an attending doctor must supervise any work they do. 

Because their services are dependent on their attending physician, residents do not independently generate revenue. The medical residency program is meant for students to learn all they can about medicine instead of earning enough to pay off their loans.

While the median wage for full-time doctors exceeds $200,000 depending on specialty, it takes years for doctors to realize their full earning potential. Doctors will not maximize their earnings until the completion of graduate medical education. 

Lucrative specialties require more training, which reduces the time available to practice. It is possible to reduce student loan debt and earn money more quickly by spending less time in residency. 

Requirements for a Medical Residency

As their medical school education ends, students need to focus on securing a residency. 

Medical students go through applications, interviews, and an intense match process before beginning their residency. 

Doctors-in-training must challenge themselves to put their classroom and clinical experience into practice. 

Due to the intensity of medical residency, programs want to see that applicants are up to the task. 

In the modern world, medical students use “The Match” system to place into a medical residency program in the United States. 

It is essential to secure a spot, as completing a postgraduate residency program is necessary to obtain a medical license. Plenty of qualified candidates apply to every program, so you need to make sure your application stands out.

CV for a Medical Residency

A CV, or curriculum vitae, provides a succinct overview of your experience and training as a medical student. The aim is to convince residency directors that your overall trajectory and background match the program. This document should showcase your most significant academic and extracurricular achievements.

Personal data, education, honors and awards, employment experience, extracurricular activities, publications, and clinical experiences are important to include in your CV. 

In particular, any leadership roles or research experiences that show you will excel during residency should be highlighted. 

Throughout your education, you may have many possible experiences to include. Be sure to choose the positions and organizations that are medically related or show the breadth of your work experience.

The purpose of a CV is to quickly show the admissions team why you should be chosen for the residency program over other candidates. 

In most cases, an admissions committee will scan a CV in a matter of minutes. The CV must employ professional formatting, consistent spelling and grammar, and meaningfully demonstrate what makes you unique as a candidate. 

Most medical residency CVs are 3 – 5 pages in length, using bullet points and action words instead of complete sentences.

Personal Statement for Medical Residency

Many residency programs will ultimately make their decision based on the person behind the grades. The personal statement is a unique opportunity to set yourself apart from other candidates. 

Lasting around a page, the personal statement describes who you are and why you want to enter a particular medical specialty. 

The admissions team can contextualize your achievements by highlighting characteristics that aren’t represented elsewhere in your application.

The personal statement gives you the freedom to describe the motivations behind your choice of specialty. 

This is one of the primary opportunities to make a case for yourself and why you are a great fit for the specific medical residency. 

For the personal statement, some essential ideas to reflect on are: 

  • What drew you to the particular medical specialty?
  • The qualities that will help you succeed as a practicing physician. 
  • What you hope to accomplish as a doctor. 

These elements will give the admissions team an idea of how you would fit in with the other members of the program.

To write your personal statement, it is essential to have a realistic idea of what your specialty will entail. What qualifies the best physicians in your target specialty? How do you embody these characteristics? How will you make a difference in the field? 

By brainstorming answers to these questions, you will be able to show what makes you uniquely qualified. 

While writing the personal statement, it is essential to tell a story instead of repeating facts from other aspects of the application.

Letters of Recommendation

To be considered for medical residency, applicants typically need at least two or three letters of recommendation. Having high-quality offers from practicing physicians will strengthen your application.

In particular, a letter from a specialist in the area you want to match will carry a lot of weight. Be sure to develop meaningful relationships with your recommenders and ask them for a letter ahead of time for the best results.

Letters of recommendation should incorporate how well the writer knows the medical student. Demonstrating a good relationship with the writer will show that you can work well as part of a medical team and leave a good impression. 

If you pick someone you don’t know as well, the resulting letter might be too short or generic. Start out your clinical rotations during medical school with the objective of impressing your clinician-educators enough to write a unique recommendation.

Along with a strong relationship with the writer, letters of recommendation should include specific examples of academic and personal qualities that show what kind of resident you will be. 

The admissions team wants to know if your recommender believes you are an exceptional choice for the specialty. This can be shown through a description of skills, ability to work as a healthcare team member, interactions with patients, or potential for the field.

Recap – A Medical Residency Is a Necessity for Medical Students, and It Even Helps With Future Employment Opportunities

Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
© Jeremy Atherton, 2006, Ward Building, CC BY-SA 2.5

Currently, over 750,000 physicians and surgeons practice across the United States, with a projected growth of 4% over the next decade. The demand for more qualified doctors is driven by a quickly growing and aging population. 

As a result, rates of chronic illness are expected to increase, and consumers will begin to seek higher levels of care. To keep up with the demand, more students will need to attend medical school and complete their residency to keep up with the demand.

Medical school teaches physicians a broad range of medical knowledge, basic clinical skills, and supervised experiences in a variety of fields. 

On the other hand, residency gives in-depth training within a specific branch of medicine. 

As residents gain more responsibility, this signifies the next step in their future careers. 

In short, doctors can only become fully licensed and practice without supervision once they complete their residency.