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How Long Does It Take To Become A Doctor? (Ages & Full Timeline)

How Long Does It Take To Become A Doctor? (Ages & Full Timeline)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
Photo of author
Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

How long it takes to become a doctor in the UK depends on a number of different factors. But one thing’s for sure- it’s not quick!

To become a doctor in the UK, a student must complete 5 years at medical school. However, a doctor will not finish their training until 8-10 years following graduation. The shortest training pathway is for general practice at 5 years post-graduation while the longest is maxillofacial surgery at 11 years.

In this guide, I’m going to walk you through the pathway to becoming a fully qualified doctor- from sitting the required exams for getting into medical school, all the way up to becoming a consultant.

GCSEs And A-Levels For Medical School

GCSEs: 2 years14-16
A-Levels: 2 years16-18

Your journey to becoming a doctor really starts way back at school.

To get into medical school, you often need specific grades and subjects at both GCSE and A-Level.

These qualifications are each generally taken over two years, in years 10 and 11 for GCSEs and years 12 and 13 for A-levels.

However, if you are planning to resit a subject you can do this over only a single year.

There’s a wide variety of requirements for GCSEs from different medical schools.

In general, you should aim for at least a 6 (or B) in both English Language and maths.

Don’t worry if you haven’t achieved those grades though: you can find out which medical schools have no specific GCSE requirements here.

When it comes to A-levels, you’re rather more limited.

For undergraduate medicine, you’ll need at least 3 A’s if you’re not part of an access to medicine program.

Typical offers for elite institutions (such as Cambridge Medical School) do however go all the way up to A*A*A!

If you want to learn how to get into medicine with low grades, check out my specific guide here.

How Long Is Medical School?

5 years18-23

What actually makes you a doctor is graduating from medical school.

And how long you’re at medical school will depend on the course you’re enrolled in and the institution itself.

Medical school in the UK is generally five years long. However, many graduate-entry programs are only four years while some medical schools only offer a six-year program. These six-year courses often include an intercalated year in which students study for an additional qualification.

The standard course length is five years long.

This is the undergraduate medicine programme most universities will offer.

Within those five years, some medical schools will offer their students the option of intercalating.

What’s Intercalating?

  • Intercalating is essentially taking a year out of your medical studies to go and study something completely different.
  • It’s often some form of scientific research (although doesn’t have to be) and can be undertaken at a different university from which you’re at medical school!
  • At the end of it you’ll get an extra BSc degree, which can look good on your CV when applying for jobs as a doctor.

Other medical schools just automatically include this extra year in their standard course.

So their course is six years long and you have to do an intercalated year.

Finally, if you’re a graduate, you can apply for four-year graduate entry programs.

These courses are only available to people who’ve already done a degree.

Graduates can still apply to undergraduate courses though.

It just means they’ll spend an extra year at medical school- not necessarily a bad thing if your undergrad wasn’t science-based!

What Is A Foundation Year Doctor?

2 years23-25

After graduating from medical school you are officially a doctor.

So if you’re just interested in the time it takes to study medicine at university, then the answer to how long it takes to become a doctor is four to six years.

However, if you’re interested in how long it takes to become a fully qualified doctor, then you’ve got to start counting the length of training programmes.

And the first of these that everyone has to do is the foundation programme.

A foundation year doctor, or FY1 or FY2, is a junior doctor in the first two years of work following graduation from medical school. In these initial two years foundation doctors rotate through a number of different specialities before choosing one to continue their training in.

So straight out of medical school you’re an FY1 (foundation year 1), and in your second year after graduating you’re an FY2 (foundation year 2).

A foundation year doctor working at the ward’s reception desk

In my FY1 year I worked in:

  1. The Medical Assessment Unit (essentially where medical patients come straight from A&E) for four months
  2. Hepatobiliary surgery for eight months

You’re meant to only do four-month rotations in three different specialities, but my third rotation was postponed because of COVID-19.

In my FY2 year I worked in:

  1. The Accident & Emergency Department (four months)
  2. General Practice (four months)
  3. Orthopaedics (four months)

After your FY1 and FY2 years, you can then decide on a particular area to specialise in.

Up to this point you’ve just been a general junior doctor who can work in any department or specialty.

If you want to learn more about this work, check out my guide on the duties of a junior doctor.

How Long Does It Take To Become A GP?

3 years25-28

GP training is the shortest training pathway in medicine.

You can enter it straight after FY2 and at the end of it you’re a fully qualified GP.

GP training in the UK takes three years. However, this does not include the mandatory two foundation years a doctor must undertake following graduation from medical school. Therefore, including these and medical school itself, it takes ten years to fully train as a general practitioner.

The fact that GP training is only three years long attracts a lot of people to the specialty (myself included!).

Instead of nearly a decade of rotating around different hospitals, GP trainees generally spend about a year and a half in hospital and a year and a half in a GP training practice.

While in hospital, a GP trainee will do three six month placements.

These are in specialties that will be helpful to them in their future work as GPs- such as A&E, paediatrics or obstetrics and gynaecology.

While training in a GP practice, a GP trainee (or registrar as they’re called) will see patients independently, but can always ask questions to their supervisor who will be an experienced GP.

At the end of the three years, you’re then a fully qualified GP who can work wherever they’d like.

Run-Through Training Vs Uncoupled Training

An important distinction to make when it comes to medical training programmes is as to whether they’re a run-through training programme or whether they’re an uncoupled training programme.

GP training is an example of a run-through training programme.

That’s because you automatically progress through the three years as long as you’re meeting the required competencies.

Another example of run-through training is neurosurgery.

If you want to be a neurosurgeon, you can apply straight after your FY2 year.

A CT scan of a patient’s head that shows a brain tumour

If accepted, you’ll then start down an eight-year pipeline which spits you out at the other end as a fully qualified neurosurgeon!

Of course that’s a gross oversimplification of the years of hard work neurosurgeon trainees go through, but you get the picture!

On the flip side of this, you have uncoupled training programmes.

These are training programmes that have two parts to them.

For example, if you want to become a renal physician (kidney specialist), you’d first have to apply to core medical training.

What’s Core Training?

  • Core training is a two-year training programme that can be undertaken after the completion of your foundation years.
  • There are two different types: core medical training, and core surgical training.
  • The CT1 and CT2 years act as a common stem from which doctors can then go on to apply to specialty-specific training programmes.

The main downside of uncoupled training programmes for trainees is it means you have to do two competitive applications.

You first have to apply to either core medical or core surgical training.

Following completion of your core training, you then have to make a second competitive application to your chosen specialty.

So in our example, after completing core medical training you’d then apply to renal specialty training.

At each stage you may slightly miss the mark, meaning you have to take a year out and apply again the next time around.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about how a training pathway operates.

People usually decide on a specialty they like and then undertake whatever training is required.

An understanding of how the different training pathways work is however something you can have at the back of your mind when deciding on career aspirations.

How Long Does It Take To Become A Surgeon?

8+ years25-33+

Surgical training pathways are some of the longest out of any available to doctors.

It takes years to develop the anatomical knowledge and skills required to perform the intricate operations required by many specialties.

To become a surgeon in the UK takes at least 10 years of training following graduation from medical school. The length of training differs depending on the specialty and how successful a candidate is at each stage. For more competitive specialties, trainees often take time out to partake in research or complete PhDs.

So after graduating from medical school, you’d first complete your FY1 and FY2 years.

Following this, if you’re applying to a run-through specialty, you’d apply directly to their training programme.

So for example for neurosurgery, you’d then start on your eight years of training.

If you’re applying to an uncoupled training programme, as the majority of surgical specialties are, you’d first have to apply to core surgical training.

In these two years of core surgical training you rotate through a number of surgical specialties and develop basic surgical skills that you can build on later down the line.

Having completed CT1 and CT2, you then apply for your chosen specialty’s training programme.

So for vascular surgery, you’d then spend six years as a vascular registrar.

After finishing your registrar years and passing all the exams, you become a fully qualified surgeon.

That means you can operate completely unsupervised and are in charge of the management plans for all your patients.

Check out a more detailed look at each of the steps required in this article all about how long it takes to become a surgeon.

How Long Does It Take To Become A Consultant?

8+ years25-33+

A consultant is a term used to describe fully qualified hospital doctors.

Consultant physicians are doctors who look after medical patients, as opposed to patients who need some form of surgery.

To become a consultant physician in the UK generally takes eight to ten years of training following graduation from medical school. This breaks down to two years in the foundation program, two or three years as a core medical trainee and then four to five years as part of specialty training.

Medical specialties include:

  • Endocrinology (hormones)
  • Rheumatology (joints and bones)
  • Renal (kidneys)
  • Hepatology (livers)
  • Geriatrics (elderly care)

As well as many more!

To complicate matters, there are a number of different ‘middle grade’ training pathways out there, in addition to core medical training.

The specifics aren’t that important and things will likely have slightly changed by the time you get to that stage in your career.

The key takeaway is that just as with surgical training, some specialties have run-through training and some have uncoupled training.

And just as with surgical training, once you’ve completed your time as a specialty trainee (a.ka. registrar) you become a fully qualified medical consultant.

As a consultant, you’re then the doctor ultimately responsible for the care of every patient that comes under you.

What Is The Shortest Possible Time To Become A Doctor?

So now you’ve got a handle on how postgraduate training for doctors works, you may be wondering what the shortest possible time to become a fully-qualified doctor is?

The shortest possible time to become a fully qualified doctor in the UK is nine years. In nine years you’ll do four years at medical school, two years as a foundation year doctor and then three years in GP training. These four-year medicine courses are however only open to graduates.

So without already having a degree, the shortest time you can become a fully qualified doctor is ten years, as you’d have to do a five year undergraduate course.

If however, you’re just interested in how quickly you can get through medical school, as you are then technically a doctor, it’s four years.

A group of newly qualified doctors graduating from medical school

If you don’t want to be a GP, then the time it takes to complete your training gets significantly longer.

Medical specialties with shorter training programmes include:

  • Radiology at 5 years post-F2
  • Psychiatry at 6 years post-F2
  • Emergency Medicine at 6 years post-F2

With all the timelines and ages I’ve used in this guide I’ve been considering the quickest possible route.

Something that isn’t always realistic.

You may indeed go straight from F2 to core training to your dream specialty to consultant.

But lots of people also choose to take an F3 year after F2, don’t get into core training the first time round or take two tries to get their specialty training job.

Within their specialty training doctors also often take time out for maternity leave, to do a year of research or even complete a PhD!

That’s why hopefully the durations I’ve used in this guide will be helpful to you, but don’t take them as gospel.

Final Thoughts

The road to becoming a fully qualified doctor is undoubtedly a long one…

But you probably knew that already!

I think it’s important not to get into the mindset that nothing really counts until you’re a consultant physician/surgeon/GP.

At the risk of sounding too cheesy, you need to enjoy the journey…

  1. Because it’s so long!
  2. Because you’ll have some of your best times along the way!

Although being a consultant is when you finally get to be the big boss, the job comes with its own stresses and responsibilities as well as rewards.

Taking it one step at a time is exactly what I’m trying to do as I’m sure I’ll blink one day and find myself close to retirement!

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.