Medical careers guide: becoming a doctor in the UK

Group of medical students
Discover how to become a doctor, from medical school to achieving consultant or GP status. We cover medical qualifications, training programmes, types of doctor, medical specialties and all the terminology you need.

If you’re thinking of becoming a doctor, you’re probably already aware that the training process for medical careers extends well beyond university. Before you commit, make sure you understand what the process involves, how long it takes and the different types of doctor you could be.

What types of doctor are there?

There are lots of different types of doctor. The main divisions are:

  • General practitioners (GPs), who are often the first point of contact for patients and need to know the basics about lots of different areas of medicine. Typically they are based in GP surgeries.
  • Specialists, who focus on one particular area of medicine, such as emergency medicine, surgery, psychiatry or anaesthetics – and may specialise further within this, for example in neurosurgery, paediatric surgery or plastic surgery. Scroll down for more examples of medical specialties. Sometimes specialists are referred to as hospital doctors, as that’s usually where they work – but not always.

GPs refer patients on to specialists if they need more specialised treatment than the GP surgery can provide. Specialists also see patients directly (that is, not via a GP referral) if they are admitted to hospital via the emergency department – for example, a patient may be treated by an emergency medicine doctor and then transferred to a ward or for emergency surgery under the care of another specialist if they need to remain in hospital.

The most senior specialists are consultants – these are doctors who have completed a long programme of specialist training while working and are the top level of hospital doctor. They supervise the work of other hospital doctors, and don’t require other doctors to supervise them. All hospital patients officially have a consultant in charge of their care, even if in practice it is more junior staff who treat them. Specialists usually aim to become consultants, though it’s not essential (see below to learn about specialty and associate specialist doctors).

Some GPs choose to become partners in a GP practice – that is, effectively owning and running the surgery along with one or more other GP partners, and earning a share of the profits. This involves hiring the staff you need (and paying them) and dealing with the admin. However, lots of GPs decide not to and there are many jobs available that pay a salary in the normal way (typically working for a GP partner).

How to become a doctor – training to be a GP or consultant

To become a GP or a consultant doctor in the UK you need to:

  1. Complete and pass a medicine degree at university. Five years is a typical length for a medicine degree, though this varies. Read our separate medical degrees article for information on the subjects and work experience you need to get onto a medical degree, different types of medical degree and what to expect once you are at university.
  2. Complete and pass the two-year ‘foundation programme’, which involves continuing to learn and be assessed while working as a doctor in the NHS on a series of different job placements, covering different areas of medicine. You’ll start earning a salary as soon as you begin the foundation programme.
  3. Continue to work and learn via either GP training (which typically lasts three years) or other medical specialty training (which typically lasts between five and eight years and is for would-be specialists). This focuses on training you up as the specific type of doctor you want to become, so you need to know what area of medicine you ultimately want to work in before you apply for this stage. Assessment continues until you finish, and can include studying for exams while working.
  4. Apply for consultant job vacancies or GP job vacancies.

As an alternative to becoming a consultant, you could become a specialty and associate specialist (SAS) doctor, which requires less training. You need a minimum of four years’ training after your medical degree (which can include the foundation programme), including at least two years’ training in the specialty you want to work in. SAS doctors focus on core medical work – they don’t have the responsibilities of a consultant, or have to finish their medical specialty training, though they do need to keep up to date with new developments in their field of medicine. However, they are less senior than consultants (who remain the boss) and are paid less.

Medical careers training terminology

Medical qualifications you’ll get at UK universities and from subsequent training

The General Medical Council (GMC) oversees medical degrees in the UK and has a list of which UK universities offer approved medical degrees. Take care if you’re looking for ‘back door’ options – the GMC has a list of private colleges in the UK offering medical degrees that are not approved and won’t count as the first stage of your medical training.

The qualification you get at the end of your medical degree can have a variety of different names, depending on the university. It doesn’t matter which of the following you get.

  • MB (bachelor of medicine)
  • MBBS (bachelor of medicine, bachelor of surgery)
  • MBChB (bachelor of medicine, bachelor of surgery – spelled ‘chirgurie’)

Be aware that there are various similar-sounding degrees that don’t count as your first stage of training. For example, biomedical sciences degrees don’t train you as a doctor (though you might want to consider them if you’re interested in graduate entry to medicine, outlined below).

  • Once you’ve successfully completed the foundation programme, you’ll gain the Foundation Programme Certificate of Completion (FPCC).
  • Once you’ve successfully completed your specialty training or GP training you’ll get the Certificate of Completion of Training (CCT). You will be added to the GMC’s specialist register or GP register, which means that you are recognised as a competent, qualified doctor in your field.

Junior doctors and senior doctors explained

Junior doctors are doctors who are still in training (on the foundation programme, GP training or specialty training). Senior doctors are doctors who have finished their training and are consultants, GPs or SAS doctors (see above).

Junior doctors are sometimes referred to by what stage they are at in their training. For example:

  • FY1 doctor – doctor in first year of foundation programme
  • FY2 doctor – doctor in second year of foundation programme
  • ST1 doctor – doctor in first year of specialty training
  • GPST1 – doctor in first year of GP training

Graduate entry to medicine

It’s also possible to become a doctor by taking a degree in a subject other than medicine, then taking a medical degree afterwards. This is known as graduate entry to medicine. You can either apply to standard medical degrees, which typically last five years, or you can apply for four-year graduate entry programmes (GEPs), which condense a medical degree into a shorter space of time.

Some graduate entry programmes ask for a relevant degree subject; some don’t. Which degrees are counted as relevant varies from university to university but subjects related to biology are popular. You’ll usually need similar A levels as for standard medical degrees – chemistry and/or biology are likely to be required subjects.

Getting on a medicine course as a graduate is competitive and you’ll need strong grades, so it’s definitely not the easy way in if you’re unable to get onto a medicine degree first time round.

Training lifestyle – are you geographically flexible?

To train as a doctor, you’ll need to be geographically flexible about where you work. The NHS has to match junior doctors to the hospitals and GP surgeries that need them, and ensure that junior doctors have a variety of placements. As such, there are no guarantees that you’ll get to live in your preferred part of the country, or that all your placements will be close together. You can read more about this and other considerations in our article Is medicine for me?.

Examples of different medical specialties

There are a large number of medical specialties, many of which have their own subdivisions. Options include:

  • general practice
  • emergency medicine
  • intensive care medicine
  • medicine (which includes a huge number of areas such as cardiology, clinical genetics, dermatology, stroke medicine, neurology and infectious diseases)
  • oncology (treating cancer)
  • anaesthetics
  • surgery
  • psychiatry
  • paediatrics (working with children)
  • ophthalmology (dealing with eye conditions)
  • obstetrics and gynaecology (obstetrics relates to pregnancy and childbirth)
  • occupational medicine (treating and helping prevent medical problems caused by the workplace)
  • public health medicine (studying and taking action on health issues at group rather than individual level)
  • pathology (involves understanding and diagnosing disease, and can include working with patients and overseeing hospital labs where samples are tested – it’s not just about post mortems)

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