What Is A Junior Doctor? (UK Definition)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

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

The term junior doctor is frequently used in hospitals, between medical professionals and in the media.

But what actually is the definition of a junior doctor in the UK?

A junior doctor is any doctor who has graduated from medical school but is yet to fully complete their postgraduate training pathway. Depending on the training pathway, this can mean doctors technically remain ‘junior’ doctors despite having worked in medicine for over a decade.

I’ve been a doctor for over 5 years now but am still, by definition, a junior doctor.

I can see patients independently, diagnose conditions, prescribe medications and give medical advice, but because I’m not a fully qualified consultant or GP I’m a ‘junior doctor.’

In this article, I’m going to delve more into exactly what that means, what junior doctors do, how much they’re paid, how long they work and even whether a junior doctor could be performing your next operation.

What’s The Definition Of A Junior Doctor?

The term ‘junior doctor’ is definitely quite misleading.

While it can be colloquially used to describe doctors fresh out of medical school, who are therefore relatively ‘junior,’ the technical definition is that of any doctor who hasn’t fully completed their postgraduate medical training.

The training of doctors is sort of done in two stages.

The first stage is medical school- which generally means a student studying full-time at a university for 4-6 years before graduating with a medical degree.

After a medical student has graduated from university they are a doctor.

As a doctor, they can do everything you’d expect a doctor to be able to do- see and examine patients, prescribe medications, order x-rays etc.

What Is A Junior Doctor Pixel Infographic

However, a doctor’s training continues long after the point they graduate from medical school.

Depending on the training pathway a doctor chooses, this can mean 5-10 years of further postgraduate medical training.

During all this time they’d technically be a junior doctor.

Although these doctors are ‘in training,’ they’re still working in a hospital or GP practice and are paid a full salary.

Postgraduate medical training is more like learning on the job. You’re working as a doctor, doing your normal job, but progressing up the training ladder as a result of doing the right combination of jobs and sitting the occasional exam.

At the end of these training pipelines, a doctor becomes either a fully-qualified GP or hospital consultant.

These are the top-level doctors, under whom all the other junior doctors work. It’s only once you reach this point that you stop being a ‘junior’ doctor.

Common Titles For Junior Doctors

Due to medical training pathways shifting over time, there are quite a few different terms in circulation that can all refer to different types of junior doctor.

I’ve tried to capture the most common ones in the table below, but you can learn more about the different titles doctors use at every stage of their training here.

Common Titles For Junior DoctorsDescription
FY1Foundation year 1 doctor. These are doctors in their first year of work following graduation from medical school. They have to work in a recognised training scheme to be legally allowed to practice as doctors.
FY2Foundation year 2 doctor. These are doctors in their second year of work as a doctor in the foundation training scheme.
SHOSenior house officer. This is now an outdated term but generally refers to a doctor who’s been working in a hospital for at least a year but less than 5.
RegistrarA registrar is a junior doctor who’s just one step below the top level of consultant. Registrar training programs generally take 4-6 years to complete.
GP Specialty TraineeA GP specialty trainee is a doctor in specialist GP training. This can be entered into after completion of the foundation training program and takes 3 years to finish.

How Long Are You A Junior Doctor For In The UK?

A doctor will generally remain a junior doctor for 5-10 years following their graduation from medical school. This length of time varies depending on the specialty a doctor chooses to train in as well as their job choices over the course of their training.

The shortest amount of time a doctor can stay as a junior doctor is 5 years. This is if a doctor chooses to immediately train as a GP.

This breaks down as:

  • 2 years in the foundation training program (FY1 and FY2)
  • 3 years as a GP trainee

Following this, they’re then a fully qualified GP and therefore no longer a junior doctor.

More commonly, training pathways will take a doctor 8-10 years to complete after graduating if done in a run-through manner.

One thing that’s important to note, however, is that a lot of doctors don’t choose to complete their postgraduate training in as quick a time as possible.

This might be because of years out, maternity leave, a sabbatical or choosing to work in another country for a bit (for example, Australia).

Any time that a doctor spends working not in a specific training pathway job can delay the point at which they become a consultant or GP and so increase the length of time they spend as a junior doctor.

However, in the grand scheme of things, most doctors appreciate this has a relatively minor impact on their career and so are happy to accept a slight delay in the training in return for an improved quality of life.

Junior Doctor Salary UK

Due to how many different types and grades of doctor the term ‘junior doctor’ encompasses, it’s almost impossible to put a single figure on how much a junior doctor earns.

For example, at one end of the spectrum, you’ve got a doctor literally receiving their first paycheck after leaving university, while at the other end, you’ve got a doctor who’s worked as a surgeon for over 10 years and is just about to become a consultant.

Junior doctors’ salaries also vary depending on which department they’re working in, what part of the country they’re working in and even on what hospital they’re employed at.

However, I’ve tried to summarise rough salaries for junior doctors in England at the following milestones in their careers:

Career MilestoneSalary Estimate
First year of work as a doctor£29,000
Been a doctor for 5 years£51,000
About to qualify as a consultant£58,000

Once a doctor qualifies as a consultant, their pay then jumps up to £88,000 and slowly increases as they accrue years of experience under their belt.

As part of a junior doctor’s training, they generally rotate around a few different departments and medical specialties in order to give them a rounded perspective of how lots of different teams in the hospital work together to help treat patients.

Different jobs and different departments have different requirements of their juniors. For example, in A&E a junior doctor will be expected to work a lot of night shifts while in community psychiatry you may not have to work any nights or weekends.

If doctors are working longer hours, or unsociable hours (such as nights or weekends) their pay is increased accordingly in order to offer appropriate compensation.

What this does mean is that two different junior doctors, at the same point in their training pathways, can have two different salaries depending on the demands of the job that they’re currently working in.

An FY2 doctor working in A&E will very likely take home a larger sum each month, because of these longer hours, compared to an FY2 doctor working in a GP practice.

How Old Are Junior Doctors?

I graduated from medical school when I was 23, which is roughly the lower bound at which junior doctors start at.

I went to medical school straight from school at 18 and completed a 5-year degree.

If I’d then gone straight into GP training I could have qualified as a GP at 28 and thereby stopped being a junior doctor.

A GP administering a vaccine to a patient

However, lots of people take gap years before university, complete an undergraduate degree before studying medicine or even go to medical school as a mature student.

Junior doctors generally range in age from 23 to 36 years old. The vast majority of doctors will have entered consultancy by the time they’re 40 and so cease being junior doctors.

How Many Hours Do Junior Doctors Work?

For a typical day shift, junior doctors will start work at 8 or 9am and work till 5 or 5:30pm.

However, hospital work is frequently done on a few different shift patterns, so you could have a day shift, a long day, late shift or night shift.

The exact hours for these will vary from hospital to hospital but ballpark figures would be:

  • 8am-5:30pm for a day shift
  • 8am-8pm for a long day
  • 2pm-11pm for a late shift
  • 8pm-8am for a night shift

Doctors in their first few years of work are generally contracted to work just under 48 hours per week.

The European Working Time Directive sets this limit at 48 to prevent junior doctors from being overworked and becoming dangerously tired.

However, junior doctors will still frequently work unpaid overtime, with approximately 50% of doctors working an average of an extra hour a day as a result of the constraints of their job.

Gone are the days of junior doctors working 24-hour shifts and being completely exhausted at all hours of the day, but I can attest to the fact that you can still be pretty tired at the end of a busy shift!

Do Junior Doctors Do Surgery?

Junior doctors can perform surgery, either as an assistant to a consultant surgeon or as the lead surgeon themselves. Their experience and training grade will dictate whether they will simply assist another doctor performing the surgery or complete the operation themself.

Again, this is where the term ‘junior doctor’ can be quite misleading.

Hearing that a ‘junior doctor’ is going to be performing your surgery probably wouldn’t fill most patients with confidence. But, when you consider the fact that the surgeon has been a doctor for 10 years and has been performing this operation unassisted for 8, you may feel a bit more reassured.

Of course, at the start of their surgical training, a junior doctor won’t be performing operations without close supervision.

In fact, they’re more likely to just be holding instruments in place while a more experienced surgeon completes the procedure.

But, over the years and as a surgical trainee gains experience, they’ll start to become more and more independent in what they can do and what they’re trusted with.

Towards the end of their training, just before becoming a consultant themselves, a ‘junior’ doctor would be able to perform all but the most complicated procedures by themselves, often with the consultant just on the end of the phone in case they need any advice in the moment.

Junior Doctor FAQs

What is the difference between a junior doctor and a doctor?

There is no difference between a junior doctor and a doctor- a junior doctor is simply a type of doctor who has not yet completed their postgraduate training. A junior doctor is still a fully qualified doctor who can see, treat and manage patients according to their best judgement.

Do junior doctors do night shifts?

Junior doctors will frequently do night shifts as part of their work in a hospital. Overnight, hospitals are staffed almost exclusively by junior doctors, with the more senior doctors on-call at home. Senior doctors can be contacted for advice or called in to see a complicated patient if required.

Is a GP a junior doctor?

A GP is not a junior doctor. GPs are doctors who have completed their postgraduate medical training, specialising in general practice. In order to become a GP, a doctor will have been a junior doctor for a minimum of 5 years prior to their completion of clinical training.

Final Thoughts

The training pathways for doctors are all pretty confusing if you’re not a doctor yourself or you’re not familiar with the main training schemes in use.

The term junior doctor is a bit of a technical term that doesn’t intuitively describe what it refers to.

But, if I’ve done a good job of explaining it, you should hopefully now have a much clearer idea of what a junior doctor is and what they do.

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.