As a pediatric radiologist, I get to meet some pretty amazing kids. There are even some who want to become our future doctors, nurses, speech therapists, radiology techs, sonographers, and other healthcare professionals. One question that I get asked from time to time is, “How did you become a radiologist?” Parents, on the other hand, sometimes ask, “How long did it take you to become a radiologist?” Both answers are related, of course!
For me, deciding to be a doctor came pretty early in life. What my parents tell me is that I announced at age three that I was going to be the first doctor to perform surgery in space. The astronaut training hasn’t happened yet, but who’s to say what will happen in the future?
The road to becoming a doctor for me really started in college. Some schools have a pre-med major, while others, like the school I went to, let you major in anything you want as long as you complete some specific classes required to start medical school. For most people, you apply to medical school in the next-to-last year of college, usually your third year, but everyone’s different, and some people I met in medical school had finished college and worked for years in other jobs before going to medical school. I decided to take two years to work in a different job between college and medical school. Once you decide to apply, there’s a big test to take, called the MCAT, and after you apply, some schools will ask you to interview. Once you decide which school to attend, it’s off to medical school!
In most places, medical school, which usually lasts four years, is divided into two parts. The first part is classroom learning, similar to college. This usually lasts between one and two years. The second part is when you actually get to take care of patients, and this lasts the rest of medical school. As a medical student, you get to spend time in a bunch of different departments in the hospital. You get to deliver babies, help in surgeries and take care of patients in the emergency room and at their family doctor’s office. If you’re lucky, like me, you might even get to spend some time in radiology, where you get to see how we use imaging to help out every other department in the hospital. Radiologists do a little bit of everything, just like a medical student – we get to see ultrasounds of babies that haven’t been born yet, we help surgeons plan their operations, we help emergency room doctors decide how to treat their patients, and we see patients who are sent by their family doctors for both routine screening imaging, diagnosing problems so we can help them get better.
Before you know it, medical school is almost over! Before you finish, though, you have to decide where you’re going next. Medical students get to choose a specific area in medicine to specialize in, and they apply to residency to get that special training. Many medical students apply to a lot of different residency programs, and then they interview all over the country (of course, those are done by computer right now). For radiologists, you actually pick two different programs at the same time: one is for the first year after medical school, called an internship, and the other is the program that teaches you radiology, called a residency. Some people do both at the same place, but other people do them separately. You could even do them in two different cities or states.
The internship and residency you end up going to are chosen in a unique way called “The Match.” Medical students applying for these jobs list the places they want to go in order of preference, with their top choice listed as number one. The programs also list the people they want to hire in order of preference, and a computer matches up the lists and assigns each medical student a job in order to make both the residency programs and the medical students as happy with the result as possible. Medical students all around the country find out their job assignments for residency on the same day, called Match Day. It’s a big day, because you might not even know what city you’ll be living in until you see your match result. This happens in March of the last year of medical school, and you start your new job at the very end of June or the beginning of July.
Once you graduate medical school, you’re officially a doctor! The first time someone called me “doctor” after I graduated from medical school felt so strange. I’d learned so much during medical school, but I still had so much to learn. Even though you get called “doctor” at this point, your training is far from over. This is probably one of the most common misconceptions about medical training that we hear. Interns, residents, and fellows are already doctors – they’re just still working under the close supervision of an attending doctor who’s all finished with training. You could think of the attending doctor like the team manager. The doctors working under him or her still make decisions and do much of the work, but they run the plan by the attending doctor each day and make big decisions as a team.
Internships for radiologists can be in medicine, surgery, pediatrics, or what’s called a transitional year, which might involve a little bit of each of these. During this year, you get to take more responsibility for patients and might even get to teach medical students. You work as part of a team to take care of patients and learn from everyone else on the team. This lasts just one year, and it goes by very quickly.
Soon, you’re off to your residency! For radiologists, this is a big change. Being a radiologist is very different from the kind of work you did in medical school or internship. It can seem hard sometimes to learn everything so quickly, but by the end you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come. This lasts a total of four years.
Because radiologists do a little bit of everything, some radiologists sub-specialize. This means that you do even more specific training in a particular part of radiology. This sub-specialized training is called fellowship. Not everyone does a fellowship, but for pediatric radiologists, like those of us here at Cincinnati Children’s, we spend at least another year learning all about the changes kids go through as they grow up and how that impacts our work as radiologists.
After that’s over, you’re finally done with training! Wow! It can be hard to believe that you’re finally finished. After all, we all learn new things every day, so we’re never really finished with learning, are we? In total, after finishing high school, you’ve spent a total of 14 years in the process of becoming a pediatric radiologist.
If you’re thinking about becoming a doctor, congratulations! It’s a great job, and you get to make a difference in your patients’ lives every day. It takes quite a few years to get there, but we get to do amazing things and meet wonderful people every day.
So if you want to be a doctor, what should you do first? Making the decision to do it is the first step. People who like science and have a passion for taking care of other people make great doctors. If that’s you, then in several years we might be lucky enough to welcome you as the newest doctor at Cincinnati Children’s.
Dr. Stacey Elangovan, author; Glenn Miñano, BFA, editor; Meredith Towbin, copy editor