The Job and What's Involved

Doctors are concerned with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illnesses, diseases, disorders and injuries.

There are around 60 areas of work in which doctors can specialise. Many of the specialisms are hospital-based, while a large number of doctors work as general practitioners.

General Practitioners (GPs) are usually the first point of contact with the National Health Service (NHS) for most people. They diagnose and treat a wide range of health conditions.

Hospital doctors fall into four main groups. These are:

Medicine - treating general medical conditions and emergencies.

Surgery - carrying out surgery and looking after patients before, during and after operations.

Pathology - working in a laboratory investigating the causes and effects of disease.

Psychiatry - working with patients with mental illness or disability, providing psychological treatment and prescribing (and managing) drug regimes for them.

Other doctors work in such areas as:

Pharmaceutical medicine, which is concerned with the discovery, development, evaluation, licensing and monitoring of medicines.

Occupational medicine, providing health advice to organisations and individuals to ensure the highest standards of health and safety at work.

Public health medicine, which involves monitoring the health of the population, identifying its health needs and promoting health.

Further information on some of these specialisms is available as separate job guides (Anaesthetist, Pathologist, Psychiatrist, Radiologist and Surgeon).

Doctors have traditionally worked very long hours. However, under European regulations, junior doctors should not now work more than an average of 58 hours a week, and this will reduce to 48 hours a week in 2009.

The hours of work are often irregular, and can include nights, shifts and weekends. However, opportunities for flexible working, part-time work and job sharing are increasing.

Generally, working conditions are clean, modern and comfortable. Doctors work in different settings, including hospital consulting rooms, wards and operating theatres, or general practices. Operations can be physically demanding and require long periods of standing and bending.

Most posts involve some travel, for example to attend meetings and conferences. Some GPs drive to visit patients at home.

Junior hospital doctors can earn between £33,300 and £41,300 a year. Hospital doctors in specialist training can earn up to £69,400 a year, and consultants can earn between £74,500 and £176,300 a year.

Consultants working in private hospitals may negotiate higher fees.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are more than 130,000 doctors working for the NHS in the UK, the majority of whom work in hospitals. Almost 43,000 are GPs. Some doctors combine work in the NHS with private practice.

In addition, doctors work for other organisations such as:

- The Armed Forces
- Public sector organisations such as the Prison Service
- Pharmaceutical companies
- Universities and research organisations

The total number of doctors has increased steadily over the past few years, but there is still a shortage.

Vacancies are advertised in The British Medical Journal, Hospital Doctor, The Lancet and on websites such as

Education and Training

All entrants to medical training need to take an undergraduate course leading to a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery, usually referred to as a 'first MB'. The course normally lasts five years. Medical degree courses are offered by a number of medical schools throughout the UK. See the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) website for the full list of courses at

Entry is highly competitive. Most candidates have three A levels/five H grades, with high grades, plus supporting GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent. Most university medical schools require A level/H grade chemistry, although some accept chemistry at AS level. Some medical schools also require A level/H grade biology.

For candidates without science A levels/H grades, a number of universities offer 'pre-medical courses' in sciences, lasting 30 weeks.

Most university medical schools also require candidates to take the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT). Additional admissions tests may be set by some medical schools.

Some relevant work experience, such as shadowing a hospital doctor or helping in a care home, is also useful and will greatly help university applications.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Medical degree courses combine academic study with practical experience in hospitals and community settings. Each medical school has an individual approach to study, but they all aim to give students experience of the different specialties within medicine.

After graduation, all doctors now undertake a two-year Foundation programme of general training, which includes placements in medicine, surgery and other specialisms. After satisfactorily completing Foundation year 1 (known as F1) doctors become fully registered with the General Medical Council, and continue into Foundation year 2 (F2).

Under new arrangements starting in 2007, doctors who have completed the Foundation programme will then compete for entry into specialist or GP training. The length of this training will vary, eg typically three years for GPs, five to seven years for hospital specialties.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of all doctors' work.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A doctor should:

  • Have scientific ability and be able to absorb and draw on large amounts of scientific and technical information.
  • Have excellent communication skills.
  • Have an enquiring mind.
  • Have the ability to put people at their ease and inspire their trust and confidence.
  • Have compassion, but with some detachment to cope with emotional stress.
  • Be able to work well in, and lead, a team.
  • Be able to work under pressure and make quick, clear decisions.
  • Work consistently to high professional standards.
  • Be prepared continually to update knowledge and learn new techniques.
  • Have a logical approach to problem solving.

Your Long Term Prospects

The new specialist training arrangements, to be introduced in 2007, are expected to improve opportunities for career progression. For example, it should be possible to reach consultant status more quickly than under current arrangements.

Doctors often need to relocate in order to take up more senior positions.

Self-employment, as a GP, is common.

There are also opportunities for doctors to work abroad, for example with voluntary organisations in developing countries.

Get Further Information

British Medical Association (BMA), BMA House,
Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9JP
Tel: 020 7387 4499

General Medical Council (GMC), Regent's Place,
350 Euston Road, London NW1 3JN
Tel: 0845 357 3456

UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT)

Working in the NHS:

England: NHS Careers. PO Box 2311,
Bristol BS2 2ZX
Tel: 0845 606 0655

Scotland: Careers and Opportunities in the NHS Scotland
Tel: 0845 601 4647

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