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Can a nurse eventually become a doctor?

This is a common question that many nurses have. The short answer is yes, it is possible for a nurse to eventually become a doctor given the right circumstances and qualifications. However, the road from being a nurse to becoming a doctor is not necessarily a straightforward one. There are several key factors to consider and steps that need to be taken in order to make this career transition.

Educational Requirements

The first major consideration is the educational requirements. To become a medical doctor requires much more extensive schooling than is needed to become a nurse.

To become a registered nurse typically requires either a 2-year Associate’s degree in Nursing (ADN) or a 4-year Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Many nurses these days are encouraged to pursue their BSN for enhanced career prospects. Nursing students take courses in anatomy, physiology, microbiology, psychology, and more alongside hands-on clinical training.

On the other hand, becoming a physician requires completing medical school after obtaining an undergraduate degree. This is typically 4 years of medical school, resulting in either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. Medical school provides intensive education in areas like pathology, biochemistry, pharmacology, medical ethics, and clinical rotations.

Furthermore, physicians must complete residency training after medical school which lasts 3-7 years depending on the specialty. Residency provides hands-on experience treating patients in a clinical setting.

Therefore, at minimum, a nurse wanting to become a doctor must:

  • Earn a 4-year Bachelor’s degree (in any field)
  • Complete 4 years of medical school
  • Finish 3+ years of residency training

This means going back to school for a minimum of 7-11 additional years of training beyond a 4-year nursing degree. It requires a major commitment of time and finances.

Licensing Exams

Nurses and doctors also have to pass certain licensing exams in order to be legally qualified to practice.

To become a registered nurse, candidates must pass the NCLEX-RN exam. This computerized exam tests nursing knowledge, skills, and abilities. The NCLEX-RN is administered by state nursing boards.

Physicians, on the other hand, must pass the 3-step United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This consists of Step 1, Step 2 CK (Clinical Knowledge), and Step 3. These rigorous exams assess medical knowledge and ability to safely practice clinical medicine. They are administered by the Federation of State Medical Boards and the National Board of Medical Examiners.

Therefore, a nurse wanting to become a doctor would need to devote substantial additional study time to prepare for and pass these comprehensive licensing exams required for physicians.

Residency Training

As mentioned, physicians are required to complete residency training in their specialty area of choice. Residency lasts at least 3 years for primary care fields and up to 7 years for some surgical specialties.

Residency is an essential period of hands-on clinical training under the supervision of experienced physician mentors. Residents progressively take on more responsibility in caring for patients. There are over 120 different residency programs to choose from, all with their own uniquely rigorous demands.

Therefore, the road to becoming a doctor requires not only more years of schooling but also successfully completing demanding postgraduate residency training.

Alternative Routes

There are a handful of alternative pathways that allow nurses to transition into becoming doctors without necessarily having to re-do the entire traditional medical school route.

Accelerated Nursing Programs

Some medical schools offer accelerated programs where nurses with Bachelor’s degrees can obtain their medical degrees in only 2-3 years instead of the typical 4. These programs condense the preclinical education through intense course loads. They acknowledge the clinical base that nurses develop through their prior training.

The reduced cost and time commitments make accelerated medical degrees an attractive option for some nurses. However, they still require passing medical licensing exams and residency training.

Dual Degree Programs

Dual nursing-medical degree programs allow students to pursue their BSN and MD/DO degrees at the same time over 5-7 years. They take both nursing and medical courses simultaneously. This integrated curriculum lets students benefit from both perspectives. These programs can be completed more quickly than obtaining the degrees sequentially.

Doctor of Nursing Practice

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a terminal degree in nursing that emphasizes clinical practice skills and leadership. The DNP curriculum includes advanced training in evidence-based practice, quality improvement, and systems leadership.

DNP programs typically require a 2-year Master’s degree in nursing for entry. Obtaining a DNP allows nurses to work in advanced clinical practice roles with more autonomy. However, DNPs are not the medical equivalent of physicians and cannot provide the full scope of medical care.

Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia

The Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP) degree prepares nurses to specialize as Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs). CRNAs can administer anesthesia independently for surgeries and procedures. DNAP programs take 2-3 years post nursing bachelor’s degree.

Becoming a CRNA gives nurses medical responsibility for anesthesia services. However, it focuses specifically on anesthesia practice rather than comprehensive medical care.

Career Prospects

When weighing the decision of transitioning from nurse to doctor, it is also important to consider the career prospects of each path.

The nursing field is projected to grow substantially in the coming years due to factors like an aging population, increased focus on preventative care, and chronic disease management. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of registered nurses will grow 9% from 2020-2030, faster than the average across all occupations.

Physicians also continue to be in high demand. However, projected growth rates vary depending on specialty. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs for physicians and surgeons will grow 4% from 2020 to 2030, on par with the national average. Greater growth is expected in some specialties like anesthesiology and general internal medicine.

When looking at median pay, doctors earn significantly higher salaries on average compared to nurses. The table below compares key stats for each career path:

Career Projected Job Growth 2020-2030 Median Annual Salary
Registered Nurses 9% (faster than average) $75,330
Physicians & Surgeons 4% (average) $208,870

However, salary should not be the only consideration. Job satisfaction and work-life balance also tend to be strong among nurses. For those who feel called to nursing, the years of extra training to become a doctor may not feel warranted.


In summary, it is certainly possible for nurses to advance their education and training to become doctors. However, the road requires major investments of money, years of schooling and residency, and passing rigorous exams. Nurses should thoughtfully assess their career goals and motivations if contemplating this path.

Accelerated medical degrees and dual degree programs can streamline the process somewhat for nurses who want to become doctors. Specialized nursing doctorate degrees like the DNP and DNAP provide additional options to take on greater clinical responsibility within the nursing profession.

Weighing factors like length of training, costs, work-life balance, and career advancement prospects can help nurses decide if transitioning to become a physician is the right move for their personal and professional goals.