How Long Do Medical Residencies Last Based on Specialty?

by Beth Greenwood

The path from high school graduation to full-fledged doctor takes more than a decade. Beginning with four years of college, the aspiring physician goes on for another four years in medical school, a residency and, in many cases, a specialty fellowship lasting one to four years. Residency length varies according to medical specialty.

Residencies Teach Practical Skills

Although a physician can become licensed upon graduation from medical school, she is not yet ready to practice medicine on her own. The purpose of a residency is to provide a supervised learning experience in which the resident practices her skills and learns what she needs to care for patients independently. Medical residencies are intense, with long hours, clinical rotations, conferences and additional training in both formal and informal settings. Residencies vary in length from three to as many seven years, and the length of a residency may also vary from one program to another.

Medical Specialty Residencies

A residency in medicine -- as opposed to surgery -- tends to be shorter, according to the University of Washington. Physicians in emergency medicine, family medicine, internal medicine and pediatrics usually spend three years in residency. Anesthesiologists, dermatologists, neurologists, pathologists, physiatrists -- who specialize in rehabilitation medicine -- and psychiatrists typically have a four-year residency. Radiation oncologists and diagnostic radiologists spend five years in residency. Physicians who specialize in emergency medicine complete a three- or four-year residency depending on the program, according to the American Medical Association.

Surgical Residency Takes Time

In many surgical specialties, the surgeon completes general surgical training followed by specialty training. Training in general surgery ranges from one year in neurological surgery to a full five years for thoracic surgery, according to the American College of Surgeons. Obstetrician-gynecologists and ophthalmologists spend four years in residency, while general surgeons, orthopedic surgeons, otolaryngologists and urologists spend five years. Plastic surgery residency lasts six years. A residency for a thoracic surgeon lasts six years, and for a vascular surgeon five to seven years.

Double the Residency

A few specialties require training in more than one residency. Child neurology residencies last three years, for example, but the physician must first complete two years of a pediatric residency, the first year of a neurology residency and a second year in pediatrics, or one year in pediatrics and one year in basic neurology. Physicians who want to specialize in medical genetics first complete two years in another residency -- the most common of which are pediatrics, internal medicine or obstetrics and gynecology, according to the University of Washington -- followed by a four-year residency in medical genetics. A nuclear medicine residency takes one year after completion of a diagnostic radiology program and two years if the physician completes a residency in another specialty.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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