From Nurse to Doctor: Applying to Medical School as a Nurse

Switching from nursing to medicine is a difficult transition, though it can be done.

“I certainly think that if you really want to do it, if it’s a burning desire in your heart, you should go for it,” says Dr. Kathryn A. Boling, a family medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore who previously worked as a nurse practitioner.

Boling acknowledges that it’s not easy to pivot from nursing to medicine. “Honestly, if you don’t have a burning desire to be a doctor, it’s going to be really hard,” she says, adding that it may take a significant amount of time to qualify for admission into medical school if someone did not take all of the mandatory premed courses as an undergraduate.

The Education Needed to Transition From Nursing to Medicine

Though both doctors and nurses are health care providers, the training required for a medical career is much lengthier than the education necessary within the nursing field.

[Read: What to Know About Applying to Medical School Later in Life.]

There are many types of nurses, including some advanced practice nursing jobs that require graduate degrees, many jobs that can be obtained with a bachelor’s degree and certain nursing occupations that don’t require a bachelor’s.

However, in order to become a physician, someone needs a medical degree in addition to an undergraduate degree. Medical school lasts for four years, and once it is over, the next step is a residency within a particular medical specialty, such as psychiatry.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing programs do not necessarily cover all of the material necessary to prepare for the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, and these programs rarely include all of the medical school prerequisite courses, experts say. So any aspiring doctor with a nursing degree should take all mandatory premed classes, including physics and organic chemistry.

Nurses who have already finished college may need to attend a premedical post-baccalaureate program before applying to medical school.

The Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC, has advice on the applying to medical school section of its website that discourages premeds from choosing to pursue a degree in health professions like nursing if they do not intend to work within that profession. “However, if you start out genuinely wanting to be a nurse and change your mind after having some experiences, you can certainly explain that and be accepted to medical school,” the AAMC suggests.

Nurse to Doctor: The High Cost of Medical Training in Time and Money

When Boling decided to pursue a career in medicine, she was earning a six-figure annual salary as a nurse, she says. But the desire to become a doctor was still there.

[Read: How to Decide Between Medical School and Another Health Care Degree Program.]

“I was going to do it, and I didn’t care if people believed in me,” says Boling, who was in her 40s when she enrolled at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in the District of Columbia. “I didn’t care how much it cost.”

Boling describes medicine as a labor of love for her and notes that when you add up the cost of medical school and the amount of income she forfeited in order to go back to school, the cost may have added up to more than a million dollars.

“It doesn’t matter how much it costs if you’re doing it for love,” she says, adding that although many people discouraged her from attempting to become a doctor, she was undeterred.

Experts warn that medical training is extremely time-consuming and not for everyone. A nurse who can work independently as a nurse may not want to restart clinical training. “The process can easily take ten years or more until a nurse is practicing independently as a doctor,” Sean Marchese, a registered nurse and oncology writer with The Mesothelioma Center, wrote in an email. “It’s a lifetime commitment.”

How Nursing Knowledge and Skills Relate to Medicine

A doctor’s approach to patients isn’t precisely the same as a nurse’s, experts say.

“It’s really a very different way of thinking, because medicine is very disease-focused,” says Lori Lupe, an advanced practice nurse who oversees the Doctor of Nursing Practice program at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro School of Nursing and has a DNP degree.

Doctors typically focus on figuring out what a patient’s problem is and deciding how to manage that problem, and they often use their scientific expertise to determine the best course of action, Lupe says.

Many nurses routinely implement recommendations given by doctors, though nurses with graduate degrees may have more authority and discretion than nurses without, and advanced practice nurses may write prescriptions.

According to Lupe, nurses often provide patients with guidance on precisely how they can follow a doctor’s advice. Nurses carefully monitor the physical and emotional condition of patients to ensure that problems are detected immediately and addressed appropriately, Lupe says.

Nurses who are weighing whether to focus on advancing within the nursing profession or attempt to become a doctor should consider what they most appreciate about the health care sector, Lupe suggests.

Someone who really enjoys interacting with patients and coaching people through lifestyle modifications is well-suited for a nursing career, Lupe suggests. By contrast, she says, someone intrigued by the possibility of diagnosing illness and developing a treatment plan may prefer medicine.

Furthermore, someone who loves science subjects may wish to become a physician so that he or she can explore that interest further, Lupe adds. “If you don’t love the sciences, don’t go into medicine,” she says. “If you do love the sciences, enjoy every bit of it, because it’s fascinating.”

Boling says that knowledge from her decades-long nursing career helped her during medical school.

[Read: Nursing Specialists Can Earn More Than Some Doctors.]

“I had a scaffolding on which to place the things I was learning, and that gave me a tremendous advantage,” she explains, adding that she could relate the concepts described in courses to her first-hand experiences, which made the lessons resonate better. She occasionally showed her medical school classmates how to do everyday hands-on procedures, such as looking in patients’ ears and noses, she says.

Physicians who previously worked as nurses say the reason they made the switch from nursing to medicine is that they felt a calling to become doctors, despite the hassles involved. “I wanted a little bit more responsibility and a little bit more autonomy,” says Dr. Antonio J. Webb, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Texas who was previously a licensed vocational nurse and staff sergeant for the U.S. Air Force.

Webb, who runs a YouTube channel where he gives free advice to premeds, says he highlighted his nursing background in his medical school applications. “Having nursing experience shows them that you’ve been at the bedside, you understand what goes on in the hospital, you have lots of clinical hours and you understand what you’re getting into,” he says.

Dr. Catherine Alessi, a neurologist affiliated with UConn Health, realized she wanted to become a doctor while pursuing an undergraduate nursing degree. She says that if she hadn’t tried to pursue a career in medicine, she would have regretted that choice for the rest of her life — despite the fact that medical training is extremely rigorous and time-consuming.

“It is challenging — a lot of stress, a lot of worrying,” says Alessi, an alumna of the St. George’s University School of Medicine, a Caribbean medical school. “But for me, it was all worth it.”

Searching for a medical school? Get our complete rankings of Best Medical Schools.

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