What is a Resident Doctor? 9 Questions About Residency Answered


What is a resident doctor? Is a resident a real doctor? Do residents see patients? How much do residents make? What’s residency like day-to-day?

We answer these questions and more about the residency process and how residency compares to other stages of the doctor journey. We’ll also share information about the residency application process, including helpful resources for applying, choosing a specialty, and creating a timeline to keep yourself on track.


1 | What is a Resident Doctor?

A resident doctor has recently graduated from medical school and is continuing the next step in their training by learning under the supervision of skilled, professional doctors. Because they have graduated from medical school, they have received either their MD or DO degree, but they’re still considered doctors in training.

Residency is the period of training resident doctors undertake to become a particular type of doctor, such as a pediatrician or a surgeon. In the first year of residency training, residents are sometimes called “interns.”


2 | Are Residents Doctors?

Although a resident has completed medical school and received a degree, they are still considered doctors in training. Once they complete their residency training and become board-certified, they are considered a fully credentialed doctor.

During residency, resident doctors participate in the hands-on care of patients, including assessments, diagnoses, and treatment of health conditions. However, they must be supervised by a senior, fully credentialed doctor, known as an attending physician, who is ultimately in charge of and legally responsible for the patient’s care.

Residents are often required to have a license from the state or jurisdiction where they are training, although this license is often restricted to training. To become a full doctor, they must complete residency and obtain a full, unrestricted license.


3 | What Are Residency Specialties?

All residents choose a specialty where they focus their training. In medical school, students receive in-person training for a variety of topics, whereas in residency, students begin to specialize what they learn and choose the type of doctor they want to become.

The residency specialties with the largest number of positions include internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, general surgery, anesthesiology, emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN), psychiatry, diagnostic radiology, and orthopedic surgery.

Residency programs are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). In 2021-2022, the ACGME accredited 871 institutions for 182 specialties and subspecialties. The American Medical Association offers a database of all accredited residency programs, as well as a guide to choosing specialties.

We’ve also extensively covered how to choose a specialty on the Med School Insiders blog. In addition to our 6 Steps to Choosing a Specialty guide, our So You Want to Be… series details what it really means to be a specific kind of doctor, such as a general surgeon, an interventional cardiologist, a reproductive endocrinologist, and much more. We have dozens of videos/articles in the series that break down what it’s actually like to pursue each specialty.


4 | How Many Years is Residency?

Residency training is generally between 3-7 years in duration, depending on the specialty and the specific residency program. Some of the shortest residency programs include family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics, which all last about 3 years. A neurosurgery residency is generally the longest at 7 years, followed by plastic surgery at 6 years.

Most commonly, residency programs last 4-5 years, including emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN), psychiatry, pathology, physical medicine, general surgery, and urology. Additionally, some programs require a postgraduate transitional/preliminary year of training, such as anesthesiology, neurology, ophthalmology, and radiology.


5 | How Much Does a Resident Doctor Make?

How much a resident doctor makes depends on the city, country, year of training, and program. However, on average, a first year resident earns about $60,000 a year, according to the American Medical Association.

This stipend is likely to increase throughout the residency program. The Association of American Medical Colleges reports annually on the stipends of residents. Their most recent report found that fourth-year residents earned a median stipend of $67,047.


6 | Can Patients See Resident Doctors?

Yes, patients can see resident doctors. However, the resident doctor they see will be supervised by a fully-certified attending physician. This means there is a team approach to patient care, and the setting encourages innovation and learning.

Despite the fact they are still in training, there are benefits to seeing resident doctors, as residents generally have more time to spend with their patients, are full of recently attained knowledge, and are enthusiastic about their work. However, patients have the legal right to refuse to be seen by a resident doctor.

When a patient seeks care at a teaching hospital or clinic where residents are trained, they are more likely to receive care by a resident doctor and their team.


7 | What Happens Before Residency?

The first step on the path to residency is getting a bachelor’s degree. As an undergraduate, future doctors are called premeds. However, premed is not a major; it simply signifies that the student is on the path to medical school.

Premed students must take courses in biology, physics, chemistry, English, and math, with other prerequisite courses varying from school to school. Nearing the end of their undergraduate careers, premed students take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), which medical schools weigh heavily in the admissions process. This is also the time when students will apply to medical school, which includes a primary application, secondary applications, and in-person interviews in order to gain acceptance.

Medical school itself is usually four years long. During the first two years, training is primarily classroom-based and focused on building a core foundation in medicine. During the final two years, med students spend more time in the hospital and clinic, getting hands-on training. The med students rotate through various specialties, spending several weeks getting hands-on training in specialties like internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN), psychiatry, pediatrics, and surgery.

After medical school, applying to residency is an extensive process with many steps. Applicants must:

  • Complete medical school and receive an MD or DO degree (Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathy)
  • Take the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX)
  • Apply through the Electronic Residency Application Services (ERAS)
  • Interview at various residency programs
  • Rank their top choice programs using the National Residency Matching Program (NRMP).

Finally, they will be “matched” with several programs. More information about this process is detailed below.

Once matched with a medical residency program, the resident will further hone their skills in patient care, laboratory work, medical procedures, and other techniques required of physicians. The residency program takes place in a hospital or a clinic. Rather than paying for medical school, residents finally earn a salary and benefits.


8 | What is Residency Like Day-to-Day?

It’s no secret that residents work very hard, and long hours are not uncommon. Fortunately, the ACGME has imposed an 80-hour workweek limit, as well as various other limits to the number of hours one can work in a single shift. Residents’ days are still full of many different activities. They spend a lot of time on their feet.

During the first year of residency, resident doctors are known as interns. This year focuses on exposing the intern to various specialties for several weeks at a time as they rotate through different wards. Depending on the specialty they enter, completing this training will take between 2-7 years.

During residency, resident doctors are supervised by an attending physician who is legally responsible for patient care. Under the fully credentialed doctor’s supervision, the resident doctor gradually gains more and more responsibility, performing exams and procedures, making diagnoses, and ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests as part of patient care. Outside of patient care, residents are constantly learning by attending lectures, clinics, and conferences.

The day-to-day of a resident begins early and often runs late. In general, residents spend most of their time conducting rounds, which is when they see their patients and discuss their care with the attending physician. They will also spend time preparing for rounds and following up on patient care after the rounds.

Pre-round preparation consists of tasks like checking patient records, assessing vital signs and labs, making notes, and creating plans for patient care. During rounds, residents visit with patients and discuss the plan of care with the attending physician, who emphasizes bedside manner and physical examination skills.

Finally, after rounds are completed, the resident has many tasks to follow up on and complete. These include anything from ordering new tests, treatments, and imaging, talking to specialists about things they need to clarify, monitoring patients after a new treatment, and finishing up their notes and other records.


9 | What Happens After Residency?

After residency training, residents may choose to begin their medical practice. To do so, they must be licensed to practice medicine by the licensing board in the state in which they will practice. Licensing requirements vary by state but require the successful completion of one or several exams. These exams are administered by the state licensing board.

They may also become certified in the specialty in which they trained by taking specialty boards. These always involve a written exam, and they sometimes involve an oral exam as well.

Alternatively, after completing residency, the physician may choose to pursue further training in a subspecialty through a fellowship. The subspecialties are specific to the specialty they trained in as a resident. For example, doctors who completed residency in general surgery may choose a fellowship to subspecialize in plastic or reconstructive surgery, vascular surgery, hand surgery, pediatric surgery, and others. They are known as a fellow doctors for the duration of the fellowship.

Learn more in our guide: What is a Fellow Doctor? Understanding Medical Fellowships.


How to Get Into Residency

Getting into residency requires a lengthy application process that’s similar to the medical school application process, though an applicant’s residency application must reflect a sense of maturity, growth, and deepened dedication to medicine.

Medical students apply through ERAS. The Electronic Residency Application Service is the centralized online application service applicants use to deliver their application and supporting documents to residency programs. ERAS streamlines the application process for applicants as well as their Designated Dean’s Office, letter of recommendation authors, and program directors.

Residency Application Components

The residency application is made up of multiple parts, including letters of recommendation, a personal statement, an experiences section, and transcripts.

ERAS Residency Application Checklist

Each component is important and offers residency programs new insight into who you are and why you’d make a good fit for their program. While most of the residency application is mandatory, adding a photo to your application is optional. Though not required, it is highly recommended, as a friendly, professional photo helps those assessing your application remember you.

Learn more: ERAS Residency Application Photo Requirements and Tips.

Residency Application Timeline

ERAS access opens in June, but residency applicants must begin preparing before this date. It’s a good idea to start preparing important elements of your application early on in the year, including requesting letters of recommendation and ideating on and writing the first drafts of your personal statement.

Ideally, throughout your time in medical school, you will have taken plenty of notes on any and all relevant experiences, including rotations, research, volunteer work, employment, and other related extracurriculars. You will need this information to complete the experiences section of your residency application.

Additionally, choosing your specialty of interest and the programs you wish to apply to will take time. Starting this process early will ensure you make the decisions that are right for you, and it gives you more time to succeed in every aspect of your application.

Come June, you will gain access to MyERAS, and you can begin fine-tuning your application. Throughout the summer, confirm your letters of recommendation, edit, revise, and finalize your personal statement, craft descriptive experience entries, and begin interview prep. Once applications are submitted in September, residency interview season will begin.

In February, residency programs and applicants submit their Rank Order List (ROL). The National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) runs a sophisticated algorithm to determine everyone’s match. Learn more: NRMP Residency Match Algorithm Explained.

ERAS Residency Application Timeline

There’s a lot to remember and plan ahead for when applying to residency. That’s why we created a Residency Application Timeline that breaks down everything you should be working on month-by-month.

During Match Week, medical students finally find out whether or not they matched with a residency program and where they matched. This takes place during the third week of March. It begins at 9 am ET on Monday and ends at 12 pm ET on Friday (Match Day) when the National Resident Matching Program releases the results of the Match all at the same time to graduating medical students.

Students who haven’t matched find out at the beginning of the week. They have the opportunity to utilize the Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program (SOAP) service Monday through Thursday to apply and interview for unfilled positions.

Residency Application Resources

The Med School Insiders blog is filled with resources for premeds and medical students. We have an extensive ERAS Residency Application Guide, which covers the entire application process, including important dates, an application checklist, mistakes to avoid, and frequently asked questions.

For a more in-depth view of every application component and step, check out the following guides:

As you get ready for interviews, we also have guides on how to prepare and what to wear.


Take Your Residency Application to the Next Level

There’s a lot to juggle during residency application season, and even though the residency application is similar to the medical school application, more is expected of you after three years of medical school.

The team of doctors at Med School Insiders has years of experience helping medical students get matched with their ideal program. We offer a number of Residency Admissions Consulting Services tailored to your needs, including personal statement editing, mock interviews, and overall application editing. Our team also offers one-on-one advising to help you choose your ideal specialty, as well as the best programs to apply to.

How does it work? We begin with a thorough and systematic questionnaire that gathers information about your previous accomplishments, current point in training, career aspirations, and areas of concern. Next, one of our physician advisors will contact you to guide you in creating a future that aligns with your vision. From crafting an ideal timeline to pinpointing areas of weakness to studying for USMLE, we’re with you every step of the way.

Learn more about our one-on-one advising services.


Medical School vs Residency Comparison

The transition from Medical School to Residency is often misunderstood. Learn about the key differences between med school and residency so that you can best prepare yourself for both types of training.

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