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What It Takes to Have a Career in Medicine

After ordering ample amounts of sides and some fried chicken for my husband, I pulled up to the KFC drive-through window to pick up my food. I had just finished a long shift in the ED so I was wearing scrubs and my stethoscope was still slung around my neck. The young woman at the window looked at me curiously and asked, “Are you a nurse?”

It’s a common question.

I said, “Nope. I’m a doctor.”

“You’re a doctor??”


“That’s what I want to do. How long did you have to go to school?”

“Four years of college, four years of medical school, and I did four years of residency – so 12 years.”

“TWELVE years?! Well, I think I’m going to be a medical assistant first and then go from there.”

I have conversations like this a lot. People know it takes a long time to become a physician, but they’re really not sure how long.

Patients and friends will sometimes tell me that someone they know is in medical school. To which I usually respond, “That’s great! Where?”

The answer is often a community/technical college.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but generally speaking, most physicians think of medical school as a higher education institution that grants doctorates of medicine/osteopathic medicine.

While the general public isn’t well-versed in the intricacies of medical training, I’ve found that few physicians are experts on the training of the people who work alongside us. I didn’t know the difference between a paramedic and an EMT until I was half-way through my residency. I didn’t know what a perfusionist was until a few months ago and I had never even heard of a medical dosimetrist until I started preparing this article.

There are so many jobs in medicine with huge variations in training and compensation. So I spent some time creating a chart. The stated training periods represent the usual MINIMUM amount of time required. Salaries vary widely by region of the country and experience; the chart lists ball-park figures. I used Google search terms “job title” and “duration of training” or “average salary” to find this information.

I want to be clear:

  • Job titles do not define intelligence. I know many physicians who were former CNA’s, medics, nurses and PA’s. Twelve years from now that cashier from KFC might be my doctor in an Emergency Department. You never know.
  • Salaries do not define worth. Medicine, like football, is a team sport, but not all players are paid the same. According to Sports Illustrated, tight ends are paid less than any other position with an average salary of $1.4m. Quarterbacks are paid the highest salaries averaging $3.4m. Teams need quarterbacks and tight ends; hospitals need physicians and ultrasound techs. They’re just not all paid the same. One of the smartest, most valuable team members in the Vandy ED was a medic with years of experience. I have no idea how much he was paid, but whatever it was, it wasn’t enough!

Without further ado, here’s the chart:

Title/Profession Total Duration of Education (including undergraduate degree if necessary) Average Annual Income Additional Comments
Certified Nurse Aide (CNA) 2 months $12/hr
Emergency Medicine Technician (EMT) 2 months (80-150 hours) $33,000 “Basic” requires less time “Intermediate” more.
Medical Assistant (MA) 9 months $14/hr
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) 1 year $42,000
Surgical Technologist 18 months $42,000
Paramedic (Medic) 2 years $40,000 EMT+6 months experience, then 1 year
Radiographer (X-ray Tech) 2 years $44,000
Computed Tomography Technologist (CT Tech) 2 years $60,000
Ultrasound Tech 2 years $60,000
Respiratory Therapist (RT) 2 years $57,000
Nurse RN-ADN (Associate Degree of Nursing) 2 years $60,000
Radiation Therapist 2 years $75,000
Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologist (MRI Tech) 3 years $66,000
Nurse RN-BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) 4 years $75,000
Child Life Specialist 5 years (Bachelor’s + internship) $36,000
Perfusionist 5.5 years $85,000 Perfusionists run bypass equipment during open-heart surgeries and ECMO machines.
Hospital Social Worker 6 years $50,000
Physical Therapist 6 years $76,000
Occupational Therapist 6 years $72,000
Speech Language Pathologist 6 years $74,000
Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) 6 years $90,000
Medical Dosimetrist 6 years $90,000 Skilled in physics, assists radiation oncologist with radiation planning/execution.
Physician Assistant (PA) 6 years $148,000
Nurse Practitioner (NP) 6 years $90,000 RN-BSN and 2 years of grad school minimum. However many programs require nursing experience. 16 states allow independent practice without physician oversight.
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) 7 years $90,000
Certified Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) 7 years $148,000 RN-BSN plus 1 year critical care nursing, and 2 years of grad school
PharmD 8 years $112,000
Physician (MD/DO)

Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, Emergency Medicine

11 years $200K-320K
Physician (MD/DO)

Anesthesiology, Obstetrics/Gynecology, Physical Medicine & Rehab, Pathology, Psychiatry, Dermatology, Neurology, Ophthalmology

12 years $220K-400K
Physician (MD/DO)

Radiology, Radiation Oncology, General Surgery, Orthopedic Surgery, Urology, Otolaryngology

13 years $220-540K
Physician (MD/DO)

Gastroenterology, Cardiology, Infectious Disease, Rheumatology, Child Abuse, Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Endocrinology, Hematology/Oncology, Nephrology, Neonatology, Pulmonology/Critical Care, Endocrine surgery, Colorectal Surgery, Vascular Surgery, Breast Surgery, Neurosurgery

14 years $170-600K
Physician (MD/DO)

Pediatric Surgery, Surgical Oncology, Cardiothoracic Surgery, Plastic Surgery, Surgical Critical Care/Emergency General Surgery (Trauma Surgery)

15 years $350-450K

If this chart proves anything, it’s that becoming a physician is an exercise in delayed gratification. Do you remember the marshmallow experiment? This John Stossel report explains it (and gives some good parenting advice about why you shouldn’t give into the demands of tantrums):


So becoming a physician is like waiting for marshmallows. When you’re in medical school, you watch your friends buy homes while you’re scraping by on school loans. But 11-15 YEARS later – you get TWO marshmallows (and late night KFC).


Cover photo credit: Flikr – AllieKF – cropped – creative commons license.


  1. Katie cooper Katie cooper

    You forgot the laboratory staff 🙂

    • Sorry, Katie!! Man healthcare is a huge industry! I was mainly focused on careers with patient contact – but that would certainly include phlebotomists! Definitely not an exhaustive list. Thanks for the work you do. It’s important and we’d never know what’s wrong with our patients 1/2 the time if we didn’t have you!

  2. You get 2 marsh mellows later, but it costs you lots of taffy to pay off all the loans so 2 marsh mellows are not as big and fluffy. Looking ONLY at the numbers and not personal choice for career, the smartest thing to do is to get your 2 year nursing ADN. Then start working at a hospital and putting money in the bank. And, continue school while working at a hospital that will usually contribute money towards tuition assistance. Get BSN while you are continuing to get practical, paid, hands on experience then, get more advanced nursing degrees, with the same tuition assistance (CRNA, CRNP, MSN informatics etc…),start making near ore more than 6 figures from a much younger age, with less debt. In the long run, more money ends up in the bank at retirement, thanks to compounding interest from the money you saved in your 20’s.
    In my next life I will follow this plan. I figured it out too late. I advise this to many folks, especially career changers.
    Or… get your degree, then serve your country. Less cash up front, they pay off your debt, low cost of living will enable you to save more.

    • It’s good advice…but it’s not ALL about the money…some of it is just about the job you want to have in the end. If it was all about financially saavy decisions no one would be a child life specialist!

      • or child abuse specialist – those people make very little – but their work is a calling and so, so very important

        • Right..which is why I said, if it was ONLY about money….

  3. Thank you Dr. Ott for compiling this information. I linked to this post on my blog and it’s already popular. It reminds me of how many different jobs and how many people it takes to deliver health care and to appreciate the work we all do.

    • I know you already know this, but I did write a comment on your article on your blog! Thanks for the mention and the link:)

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