Early in their medical school journey, most students realize that medical education is a continuous, lifelong endeavor that will accompany them throughout their medical career.

In the blink of an eye, they transition from working toward earning their bachelor’s degree to embarking on the transformative journey from medical school to residency. During this phase, the question “What is residency, exactly?” takes center stage, marking a milestone in every aspiring physician’s path. So read on as we explore the residency programs, providing information beyond the medical residency definition.

What Is a Residency Program?

A residency program is an essential step in furthering medical education and training after completing medical school. During this phase, newly graduated doctors, referred to as residents, gain hands-on experience in their chosen specialty through clinical practice.

Aspiring medical professionals receive practical training in hospitals or other healthcare settings during a residency program, closely supervised by experienced attending physicians. The program’s primary goal is to equip residents with the skills, knowledge, and experience required to become competent and independent practitioners in their chosen medical field.

This period is demanding and immersive, and residents work long hours to gain hands-on experience in diagnosing, treating, and managing patients while learning to navigate the intricacies of healthcare delivery.

How Long Is Residency?


The duration of a residency program is dependent on the chosen medical specialty. Primary care fields like family medicine, pediatrics, and internal medicine are generally the shortest medical residency options, typically spanning three to four years. On the other hand, surgical residency programs and other specialized areas, such as neurology or cardiology, often necessitate more extensive training, potentially extending up to seven years.

Moreover, certain specialties offer the option of pursuing additional fellowship training following the standard residency period, enabling further subspecialization. It’s important to note that the information provided pertains to residency in the U.S.; the length of postgraduate training may vary in other countries due to differences in medical education systems and healthcare practices.

What Are the Responsibilities of a Resident Doctor?

Resident doctors have various responsibilities in healthcare, which differ based on their specialty and the hospital they work in. They are often the first point of contact for patients and families and have a crucial role in overseeing and managing personalized medical care plans. This involves thorough assessments, creating treatment strategies, and closely monitoring patient progress to ensure that the best standard of care is provided.

Senior residents also play a crucial role in supervising and collaborating with the healthcare team. They guide and oversee various healthcare professionals, from medical students to experienced nurses. By working closely, residents ensure that each patient receives timely and appropriate medical attention. This supervisory role is essential in maintaining the quality and effectiveness of healthcare delivery within their specific areas of expertise.

In some instances, they also need to handle significant administrative work. This includes managing patient records with great care ensuring that all medical histories, diagnoses, and treatment plans are accurately recorded and kept up-to-date.

Additionally, residents are responsible for ordering necessary tests, procedures, and treatments, all while maintaining clear communication with their colleagues in the healthcare field. Their administrative skills are critical in ensuring patients receive the best possible care and that healthcare professionals can make informed decisions.

What’s the Difference Between Residency and Fellowship?


While both residency and fellowship are postgraduate medical training programs, they serve distinct purposes. Residency is the initial phase after medical school graduation, focused on providing comprehensive training within a chosen specialty. It’s during this period that doctors develop the foundational clinical skills and knowledge required to practice independently.

In contrast, a fellowship is a more specialized training program that comes after completing residency and, at times, after becoming board-certified. Fellows choose to further subspecialize within their chosen field, delving deeper into a specific area of medicine by engaging in advanced research, gaining expertise in specialized procedures, and participating in complex patient care scenarios. Such programs are usually shorter than residencies, lasting one to three years.

What’s the Difference Between a Resident and a Medical Student?

A medical student is someone who is currently enrolled in a medical school program to obtain a degree in medicine. They are in the initial stages of their medical education and typically engage in classroom-based learning, studying subjects such as anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and pathology.

On the other hand, a resident is a licensed medical doctor who has completed medical school and is undergoing specialized training in a specific field of medicine. These professionals have earned their Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degrees and are actively involved in the clinical care of patients.

Residents work in hospitals or clinical settings, depending on their residency placements, applying their knowledge to diagnose and treat patients. Therefore, they have a more hands-on role compared to medical students as well as have greater autonomy in patient care, although they still work under the supervision of attending physicians.

What Are the Requirements for Medical Residency?

To enter a medical residency program, candidates must have completed medical school and obtained an MD or DO degree. Additionally, they must have passed the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) to become licensed physicians. Some residency programs may also require letters of recommendation and a personal statement as part of the application process.

The competition for residency positions, much like the competition for medical school, can be intense, and candidates often apply to multiple programs to increase their chances of being accepted and matched with a residency program.

How Much Do Medical Residents Work?

Medical residents typically work long and demanding hours, but the exact work hours may differ based on the specialty and the hospital or institution’s policies. Recent research reveals that residents work an average of 60 hours per week. Moreover, it’s common for them to work overnight shifts, weekends, and holidays on top of their regular hours.

However, there are continuous efforts to implement work-hour restrictions to prioritize resident well-being and patient safety. Notably, in New York State, these restrictions are supported by law. They dictate that resident physicians may not exceed 80 working hours per week, averaged over four weeks, with no single work period extending beyond 24 hours. Additionally, residents are entitled to at least one 24-hour period of uninterrupted rest per week.

Do Residents Get Paid?

Certainly, resident doctors do receive compensation for their work. However, it’s important to note that as entry-level medical practitioners, their salaries are understandably lower compared to more seasoned doctors. On average, residents earn around $85,501 annually in total pay, whereas doctors earn $234,022 per year.

Many factors influence the amount residents earn during their residency period. This includes the level of training they’ve received and the financial performance of the hospital they’re associated with for that particular year. Additionally, the location of the hospital can play a significant role, as well as the specialization.

Some of the highest-paid residency programs include:

  • Medical Geneticists
  • Invasive Cardiology
  • Specialized Surgery/ Neurosurgery
  • Allergy and Immunology
  • HIV/Infectious Diseases
  • Plastic/Reconstructive Surgery
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Ophthalmology
  • Anesthesiology
  • Radiation Oncology

Is Residency Harder Than Medical School?

Medical school and residency are both challenging and demanding stages of a physician’s training. However, because the two differ significantly in terms of their scope and nature of responsibilities, residency is often considered more challenging.

While medical students are still in the process of learning and are closely supervised by attending physicians, residents find themselves in a distinctly different role. They are entrusted with leading patient care and making critical decisions. They must work quickly and efficiently under pressure, often with minimal supervision.

Moreover, the intensity and demands of residency, from the long work hours to the complex medical cases, can be physically and emotionally taxing.

Challenges Faced During Residency

In addition to the long work hours, some other common challenges that residents often face during their residency include, but are not limited to, the following:

High patient load

Residents are responsible for the care of a large number of patients. This task can be daunting, requiring excellent organizational skills and effective time management. They must balance the needs and priorities of multiple patients while ensuring that each receives the attention and care they need. It is a constant challenge but essential for providing quality healthcare.

Maintaining work-life balance

When consumed by the long hours of residency, finding time for personal pursuits, self-care, and leisure activities can become difficult. Balancing professional responsibilities with private life can be pretty challenging. That’s why making time for relaxation, hobbies, and spending time with loved ones is essential to maintain overall well-being and prevent burnout.

Adapting to different rotations

Residency programs often involve rotations through various specialties and clinical settings. This requires residents to swiftly adapt to new environments, patient populations, and medical procedures. The need to become proficient in diverse areas of medicine adds an extra layer of complexity to the learning curve during residency.

Financial constraints

Many residents earn a lower salary than attending physicians, which can lead to financial difficulties, especially for those who have acquired substantial student loan debt during their medical studies. Balancing financial constraints with basic needs and debt management can be stressful and challenging.

How To Succeed as a Resident

Attaining success as a resident relies significantly on possessing clinical expertise, honing effective communication skills, and nurturing personal well-being. Keep in mind the following tips as you work toward self-improvement:

  • Prioritize time management when dealing with patient care, educational activities, and personal time to maintain a balanced workload.
  • Embrace continuous learning by staying updated on medical literature and attending conferences to expand your knowledge and skills.
  • Practice clear and empathetic communication with patients, families, and colleagues to build trust and ensure understanding.
  • Try to adapt to changing clinical environments and patient populations
  • Take care of your health through regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and adequate sleep.
  • Foster positive relationships with colleagues, nurses, and allied health professionals.
  • Maintain professionalism and medical ethics in patient care and interactions.
  • Develop healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and emotional challenges.
  • Seek guidance from experienced physicians who can provide valuable insights.

The Bottom Line

Residency is essential for a physician’s professional growth and patient care. The challenges encountered during this stage help shape clinical expertise and responsibility.

Before reaching this step, however, lies the indispensable foundation of medical school education. We invite you to explore the admission requirements and consider joining our institution. We are committed to fostering the next generation of medical professionals, and you could be an ideal candidate.

Frequnetly Asked Questions (FAQs):

When does a physician participate in a residency program?

A physician typically participates in a residency program after graduating from medical school.

What skills do I develop during medical residency?

During medical residency, you can develop clinical expertise, communication skills, decision-making abilities, and gain practical experience in patient care.

Is it possible to switch specialties during residency?

Yes, it is possible to switch specialties during residency, but it involves a formal process and is subject to program availability.

Do all doctors have to complete a residency?

Yes, residency is mandatory for obtaining a medical license in the United States, granting you the privilege to practice medicine independently as a licensed physician.

Can I choose any hospital for my residency program?

No, residents typically apply and match to specific residency programs, so the choice of hospital depends on the programs available and your match results.

What happens after completing a residency?

After completing a residency, physicians can enter clinical practice, pursue further subspecialty training through a fellowship, or engage in academic or research positions.