What to Expect as a Medical Resident: Doctors Dish All the Details


02.18.2019

Aspiring doctors often think of gaining acceptance to a medical program as the end goal. That changes shortly after classes begin. You start to realize that medical school is just the beginning of your path to becoming a doctor. An important part of your journey—residency training—actually occurs after you obtain your MD.

You probably have some general knowledge about what residency entails. Perhaps you’ve even heard some stories from alumni who graduated from your program a few years ago. Still, you can’t help but feel as though you’re missing some information.

To help you better understand what to expect during your postgraduate training, we asked current physicians to share a little about their residency experiences. Pay close attention to their valuable insight on what life as a medical resident is really like.

Answering 6 questions about life as a medical resident

You probably have some questions about residency, regardless of how many physicians you know. Keep reading to learn about everything from challenges you’ll face to salary specifics.

1. What is medical residency?

You know residency is the period of training you’ll go through after completing medical school, but it’s a little difficult to understand exactly what that means. The biggest change when you go from medical student to resident is that you’ll be acting, with supervision, as a physician. You’re no longer in the backseat.

"The only way you're going to learn medicine is through experience and mentorship."

“The only way you're going to learn medicine is through experience and mentorship,” explains Dr. Buck Parker, General and Trauma Surgeon at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah.

2. How long is medical residency?

The duration of postgraduate training depends on your specialty. Generally speaking, residency lasts for three to seven years. Future physicians interested in a highly specialized area of medicine, such as pediatric radiology, female pelvic medicine, or reconstructive surgery, will also need to complete additional fellowship training.

3. Is medical residency hard?

The short answer is yes. Every medical resident is different, but they all seem to agree that postgraduate training was a challenging time—as it should be!

"I expected residency to be grueling, and it was that and more."

“I expected residency to be grueling, and it was that and more,” says Dr. Barbara Bergin, Orthopaedic Surgeon based in Austin, Texas. “Each step along the process of becoming a physician supersedes the previous one in terms of physical and mental stress and degree of difficulty.”

Dr. Parkers agrees that postgraduate training was a bigger challenge than he initially anticipated. “I expected to work a lot and I expected to be super tired,” he muses. “I sorely underestimated all that.”

During his residency in Detroit, Michigan, Dr. Parker was thrown into a lot of unexpected situations. He saw medical issues he’d never encountered before, and seven people were admitted for gunshot wounds on his very first day. Soon enough, things became second-nature.

“The speed at which you improve is really impressive, because in your first week you don't even know where the bathroom is,” Dr. Parker says. “By the end of the first year, you're functioning as a real doctor.”

“By the end of the first year, you're functioning as a real doctor.”

4. What are medical residency hours like?

Perhaps you’ve heard horror stories about medical residents never getting a wink of sleep. While postgraduate training doesn’t leave much time for shut-eye, there are restrictions today that didn’t exist when Dr. Bergin was completing residency. Sometimes that was a good thing.

“I can remember being ready to walk out of the hospital to go home, and voluntarily staying to scrub in on an interesting case,” she adds. She spent her first six months in the hospital during every moment of daylight before a schedule change allowed her some sunshine.

The most notable residency shift changes came in 2003 when the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) imposed an 80-hour workweek limit and enforced certain rest requirements. One of the more recent changes was increasing the cap first-year residents are allowed to work in a single shift to 28 hours. While that seems like a step in the other direction, note that 28 hours is the maximum rather than the expectation.

“You should embrace that, because that's what's going to make you a better physician,” he says.

Even with the limits, Dr. Parker thinks many new residents will feel overwhelmed and exhausted. “You should embrace that, because that's what's going to make you a better physician,” he says.

5. How much do medical residents make?

Salary varies among residents just as it does for other professionals. Geographic region and years of experience both influence earning potential. Resident salaries also differ from one specialty to the next.

You can get a sense of what you should expect by evaluating resident and fellow stipend data collected by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). The most recent survey reports a first-year resident physician stipend of $56,126 for the 2018–2019 academic year. The fourth-year resident stipend is a mean of $63,014 for the same period.

Residents are typically eligible for benefits as well. The exact breakdown depends on which residency program you join. Health insurance and paid-time off are common. Some programs even foot part of the bill for meals and parking.

6. How can I set myself on the path for success?

While there’s no way to truly prepare for residency, there are some ways you can set the foundation for success. Start by finding great mentors. Learning from the pros is incredibly valuable.

“If they’re technically great transplant surgeons, you’re probably going to be a great technical transplant surgeon,” Dr. Parker offers.

“If they’re technically great transplant surgeons, you’re probably going to be a great technical transplant surgeon."

You could also really benefit from embracing the mindset of being a lifelong learner. Continuing education requirements and maintaining board certification are part of the job.

“You never quite get over that feeling of being a perennial student and under someone else’s thumb until you’ve taken that last recertification exam,” Dr. Bergin says. If you like a challenge, then you’re already a step ahead.

Finish strong

Life as a medical resident will certainly be chaotic and challenging at times. As tough as residency can be, most physicians also recognize their postgraduate training was a critical step in getting where they are today. It taught them to apply what they learned in medical school and gave them the confidence to work through unexpected scenarios.

Now that you have a better understanding of what life after medical school is like, make sure you do everything you can to secure a residency. Learn more about the process of obtaining a postgraduate position by checking out “The Match: Explaining the Application Process and Your Residency Results."

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