Finding and Achieving Your Dream Career in Medicine

Michelle Landahl
Finding and Achieving Your Dream Career in Medicine

So you think that a career in medicine may be right for you, but now you’re scrolling through med school websites and pages of requirements, exams, and statistics that are making your head spin. The pre-med world can be a confusing vortex of choices and decisions, and it can be hard to choose one job or even understand each position. Before you can move forward, you have to narrow your choices down. Then, you need to start planning for the future. So to help you sort through all the chaos, here is a broad list of common careers (mostly hospital-based) in the medical field, complete with the steps to get there.


Although most usually think of these people as the ones driving ambulances and responding to car crashes and 911 calls, there are many other positions that EMTs and paramedics can work. Some of those positions include less-intense hours at industrial and chemical plants, part-time positions, or even involvement in the military. Most EMT programs require no formal college education, but most employers want to see a high school diploma at the very least. The next step is to complete an approved EMT or paramedic education course, but to be eligible for a paramedic course, you must be an EMT and generally have at least six months of work experience. Then, pass the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) exam and apply for certification. From there, it’s all about finding a job, but be wary – wages vary greatly state by state and even by city, so take that into consideration when job hunting.


Although nursing responsibilities vary by specialization or unit, nearly all nurses provide, coordinate and monitor patient care, educate patients and family members about health conditions, administer medications, provide treatments and emotional support and more. Many also work with healthy people and are more focused on preventative care and wellness. Although nurses work primarily in hospitals, they can also work for schools, private clinics, nursing homes, placement agencies, businesses, prisons, and military bases. Nurses also don’t just take care of patients; some supervise other nurses, teach nursing, work in administration, or do research. Work hours vary quite a bit depending on the area and the training of each nurse.

There are many different types of nursing, each with different jobs and different requirements. The shortest path to nursing is to become a CNA, or certified nursing assistant. This is done by taking a six- to eight-week course and then passing a written and practical exam (administered by each state). CNAs are able to provide maintenance-type care; they are commonly found in hospitals, group homes, and hospice centers and are almost always in high demand. They can take vitals, roll patients to avoid bed sores, help them in and out of bed, and help them do their daily tasks like getting dressed and eating meals. CNA is a good position to start in if you think nursing might be for you but want more experience before committing to formal schooling for a prolonged period.

The next step up on the nursing ladder is the licensed practical nurse (LPN). An LPN program is typically one year long and goes into more detail than the CNA education, which means that LPNs are licensed to do a few more things. They are usually found in nursing homes and home care, providing patient care and administering certain medicines and treatments under the supervision of an RN or physician.

The classically pictured nurse is almost always an RN. Programs to become a registered nurse are either three-year hospital-based nursing school programs (diploma), or two- or four-year college programs and graduate with a nursing degree. Graduates must then pass the national nursing exam (the NCLEX) before applying for a license to practice. Registered nurses have more autonomy than LPNs, and the degree of care they provide depends on their level of education. An RN with an associate’s degree generally provides hands-on care directly to patients and can supervise LPNs. There may also be some administrative work involved with their position. An RN with a BSN can take on more leadership roles and more advanced nursing care in specialized units.

For those interested in even higher positions, nurses can get a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) and become nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, or nurse anesthetists. These are called advanced practice nurses (ARPNs). They have a larger scope of practice and are more independent, specializing almost like physicians.

Physical/Occupational Therapist

PTs primarily work with patients in recovery and prevention rather than treating injuries. Although they can be found in hospitals, therapists usually have their own practice or work under a company’s label. They help people who have been injured or who suffer from chronic illness or disability regain previous abilities or help them discover new ones. They use everything from exercise machines to physical modulation and electrical stimulus to heal their patients and help them regain their previous quality of life. Most people who become PTs or OTs graduate from college with a degree in the sciences and apply to PT school sometime during their senior year. Most schools require applicants to have taken the GRE and also gain a certain amount of PT volunteer hours (those hours vary by school). Most programs take between two and three years to complete, and once licensure is achieved, physical therapists have a large level of autonomy and are very versatile in their field.

Physician’s Assistant

The physician’s assistant, or PA, is one of the fastest growing medical careers. Physician’s assistants become PAs by attending college and obtaining their bachelor’s degree first. Their degree can be in anything as long as they have taken the proper courses — each PA school is different, but most require common chemistry, biology, anatomy, physiology, and math courses similar to medical school requirements — and that they have taken the GRE. From there, applicants must apply to one of the few PA schools in the nation (the average is less than one per state) with their undergraduate transcript (most want higher than a 3.2 GPA but accept those closer to 3.7), GRE scores, resume, essay questions, and patient contact hours. These vary by school, but many require numerous hours of PA shadowing and between 1,000 and 2,000 direct patient contact hours before applying to the school; this usually results in at least one gap year between undergrad and PA school. PA programs are usually two- to- two and a half years long, and graduates can work almost any job an MD can with slightly less autonomy. PAs can work in emergency rooms, general practitioners’ offices and can specialize into just about any area.

Medical Doctor/Doctor of Osteopathy

MDs and DOs are very similar in training and positions, often working side-by-side or even in the same jobs. The only difference is their education. Both graduate with a bachelor’s (usually in science), take the MCAT standardized exam while in college, and build their resumes before applying to their choice schools. This process is extremely competitive and involves a lot of work, including numerous essays and interviews. Both medical school and DO programs are four years long, complete with classes and on-site job rotations; but DOs learn about less invasive methods of treatment and some alternative therapies that typical medical schools do not cover. After graduation (and licensing), both search for residencies at hospitals to place into. Depending on their department and specialization, most graduated DOs and MDs still need two- to- six years of residency before they can practice medicine independently. DOs and MDs can open their own practices, work in just about any location of the hospital, and have many other opportunities open to them with their advanced degree. They make a high salary, but also devote a huge amount of their time to their work.


Surgeons are perhaps the most specialized and highest ranking on this list. The initial steps to become a surgeon are the same as those to become a DO or MD, and surgeons can be licensed as either of those. However, after graduating from medical school, aspiring surgeons must continue their medical training in competitive residency programs, gaining practical experience in a chosen specialty under the supervision of licensed physicians; these programs can last three- to- seven years depending on the specialty, though general surgery residencies typically take five years to complete. Surgeons who wish to focus their careers on sub-specialties must complete an additional one- to- three years of post-doctoral training in fellowship programs. In order to practice, surgeons must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam. Surgeons must also become board-certified in surgery and any subspecialties by the American Board of Medical Specialists or the American Osteopathic Association. Surgeons are generally required to complete continuing education credits throughout their careers to maintain licensure and certification. Although student loans and low-pay residencies mean that surgeons usually incur a large amount of debt, their extremely high salaries help to offset the expense, but they spend many hours on-call and life often revolves around work.

These are just some of the most common careers in the medical field. If none of these options appealed to you, don’t give up hope! There are plenty of other positions that weren’t mentioned here – dentistry, speech pathology, chiropractic, athletic training, occupational therapy, alternative medicine, etc. – that may be the right one for you! So keep searching; just don’t lose sight of yourself in the process!