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From Nurse to Doctor: How to Advance Your Medical Career

6 min read / Medical Practice


Many registered nurses are incredibly satisfied with their career choices. Yet some wonder if it’s possible to go from nurse to doctor. While this may not be the typical path, it’s certainly a feasible to become a career changerby pursuing medicine.

“If you have a burning desire like I did, you should do it,” says Dr. Kathryn Boling, a former nurse and current family physician at Mercy Personal Physicians at Lutherville. “You should go for it. You should do whatever you have to do.”

In fact, the process of applying to medical school obtaining your medical degree, and completing residency isn’t much different than it is for any other student. Keep reading to find out how making the leap from RN to MD might not be as drastic as you first thought.

Should you consider becoming a doctor?

Wanting to move forward as a medical professional is understandable. But while you may think about the shift as a way to do even more for your patients, not everyone will see it this way. Some individuals who’ve transitioned from nurse to doctor were discouraged from doing so by mentors, fellow nurses, and physicians. Dr. Kathryn Boling, former nurse and Family Physician at Mercy Personal Physicians at Lutherville, experienced this when she decided to pursue an MD to further her career.

“I think there’s a bit of a prejudice against letting nurses come into medicine,” Dr. Boling says. “And it’s a little sad, because I personally don’t think there’s anything better than a nurse-doctor.”

“I personally don’t think there’s anything better than a nurse-doctor.”

Nurses who aspire to be MDs need to understand the amount of hard work, time, and energy it takes. You also need to recognize that you won’t be making your usual salary during medical school and residency. Becoming a doctor might not be the best idea if you’re interested in a quick way to advance, but it can be incredibly rewarding for the right kind of nurse.

“If you have a burning desire like I did, you should do it,” Dr. Boling enthuses. “You should go for it. You should do whatever you have to do.”

How to go from nurse to doctor

To help you gain a better sense of what to expect, we asked Dr. Boling to outline each step of her RN to MD journey. She actually found she had some advantages over her peers.

1. Tackle medical school admission requirements

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) does a good job of outlining all the medical school application components you’ll need to complete, such as taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), securing letters of recommendation, and completing course prerequisites.

Pay particular attention to education requirements because you may have to take some additional courses. Dr. Boling opted to complete a postbaccalaureate program.

Even if you have to revisit some college courses when going from RN to MD (or another nursing degree to an MD), you’ll probably have a leg up your peers later on thanks to your clinical skills.

“Having already talked to people about sensitive issues for a long time, I had an advantage.”

“I had examined thousands and thousands of people during my 20 years as a nurse practitioner,” Dr. Boling says. She also had experience verbally conveying information to patients. “Having already talked to people about sensitive issues for a long time, I had an advantage,” Dr. Boling says.

2. Apply and gain acceptance to medical school


The next step in making a career change to medicine, is applying for medical school. You’ll most likely apply to schools through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), a centralized system which allows you to easily submit numerous applications. Once programs receive your initial application, they may send you a secondary one with questions or essay prompts.

The next step is attending interviews, and you should go to as many as you can. While you might ultimately end up choosing a medical school far from home, you should feel empowered to do what it takes to achieve your goals.

“I just thought, ‘Okay, this is where I’m going now,’” Dr. Boling says, reflecting on her decision to move across the country for medical school.

3. Obtain your MD

Your medical school journey starts with two years devoted to covering the basic sciences. Your third and fourth years will be spent completing clinical rotations. Your third and fourth years will be spent learning from experienced physicians and developing practical skills during clinical rotations.


You’ll also begin the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) series while in medical school. Plan to complete the first two portions before graduating. Passing the USMLE Step 1 and a securing a strong score on the USMLE Step 2 are important for showing residency programs that you’re prepared for the next stage of your training.

4. Complete residency and any other requirements

Once you’ve applied to residency programs and submitted your ranked list, a computer algorithm matches residents to programs. You’ll spend anywhere from three to seven years training as a resident physician—it all depends on your specialty. You’ll then need to pass the USMLE Step 3, and many also choose to take the appropriate board certification exam. It’s sounds like a lot, but you’ll likely be amazed at how much you can achieve.


Dr. Boling recalls being in an elevator with two co-residents who were talking about how tired they were. “I thought, ‘You know what? I’m actually doing okay,’” she reflects.

Additional requirements vary by state and specialty. If you’re pursuing a subspecialty, you’ll need to gain additional experience though a fellowship before you can practice. All physicians need to meet their state’s licensing requirements.

5. Start practicing

Once you’re licensed, you’re free to begin your MD career in whichever practice option you prefer. Regardless of which route you choose, you’ll be responsible for renewing your medical license and completing continuing education credits—requirements vary by state—throughout your career. If you love learning and are passionate about medicine, the journey from nurse to doctor can be incredibly rewarding.
If you love learning and are passionate about medicine, the journey from nurse to doctor can be incredibly rewarding. Dr. Boling is among those who feel satisfied with their choice to pursue an MD.

“I’m a physician, and I love it.”

“I’m a physician, and I love it,” she says. “I love my patients. And I love that the buck totally stops with me. I don’t have to convince anybody that I know what I’m talking about anymore.”

Catapult your medical career

Dr. Boling proves that with motivation and commitment, it’s possible for a nurse to become a doctor. Now that you have a better sense of how to go from nurse to doctor, it’s a good idea to start preparing for the application and interview process. Make sure you’re ready by reading our article, “How to Prepare for Medical School Interviews: Steps for Success.”


May 26, 2021