How Long Does It Take For A Doctor To Make Money?

It takes 11 to 15 years to become a doctor, which can also give you an idea of how long it takes for doctors to start making money — that is, earning a salary by being employed at a hospital or joining a private practice. While it takes considerable time before a doctor starts earning a regular paycheck; once they do, they earn a great deal, as the profession is consistently among the highest-paying jobs in the U.S. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical doctors account for 18 of the 20 highest-paying occupations in the country, with nurse anesthetists and airline pilots taking up the other spots on the list. The median annual salary for physicians and surgeons in the United States is $229,300 (or $110.24 an hour), per BLS.

However, it should be noted that at the start of their careers, doctors carry major debt. The median debt for medical students is $200,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, and this number is minus undergraduate debt, which for 28% of med students, adds about $27,000 more to what they owe. As AAMC explains, a doctor with a starting salary of $200,000, who opts to repay their $200,000 education debt over 20 years (17 of them post-residency) through an income-driven SAVE plan will end up paying $359,000 in principal and interest.

Salary during residency

The roadmap to becoming a doctor includes four years to earn an undergraduate degree, four years of medical school, and three to seven years in a residency program. Depending on which specialty a doctor chooses to pursue, their residency can be three, four, five, six, or seven years in length. As a resident, a doctor in training earns a set salary of around $60,000 a year, according to the American Medical Association, and this pay increases each year of the residency program. But clearly, this is far below a doctor's future salary.

Of course, even while earning $60,000 as a resident, this is still about 30% more than the median annual salary for all occupations in the U.S. total. And with that (and an income-driven repayment plan), a resident physician can already start thinking about savings and investment strategies, like building an emergency fund or realizing that they're at the right age to start saving for retirement (that is, the earlier the better). This said, it takes significantly more time for a doctor to realize their full earning potential compared to other occupations. For example, while a graduate who holds a master's degree in computer science can start competing for top developer jobs after about six years of college, or around their mid-20s, doctors won't start earning their $200,000-plus salaries until much later (early 30s).

Specialty impacts salary

As mentioned, a residency program is typically three to seven years and its length depends on the specialty. A neurology residency, for example, lasts for seven years, while one in pediatrics, family practice, or internal medicine will take three years to complete. A doctor's chosen specialty also has an impact on their earning potential, as certain medical specialties earn significantly more. A 2022 survey by Medscape, which received answers from over 13,000 physicians and across 29 specialties, found the highest-paying medical specialties have earning potentials over $450,000 per year (via AMA). Doctors specializing in orthopedics, for example, reported earnings of $557,000, while a cardiologist can earn upward of $490,000 a year.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes this about specialties and earning potential as well, grouping them into "$239,200 or more" for annual salary. This group includes anesthesiologists, surgeons (all other, pediatric, orthopedic), radiologists, pathologists, obstetricians/gynecologists, dermatologists, cardiologists, and emergency medicine physicians. These specialties also represent the top 10% of earners, while the bottom 10% of earners in the medical field earn $65,620 a year, which you can attribute to resident doctors (who haven't yet started to make actual money as doctors).