Reasons for Completing Medical School in Five Years

For someone considering becoming a doctor, the road ahead may look long. After finishing an undergraduate degree, there’s four years of medical school and then three to seven years to complete a residency. Aspiring subspecialists might follow that up with a fellowship.

It can all add up to a decade or more of advanced study before a new physician even interviews for their first job.

But for various reasons, many medical school students are opting to take another year — or even two — to complete their education, administrators say.

Dr. Michael Kim, an assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School, recommends that students use early meetings with their academic adviser to explore their goals and passions. What sort of medicine do they want to practice? Do they have interests outside of medicine that they want to pursue? At this early stage, the idea of using an extra year to add outside experiences might come up.

Traditionally, med school entails two years of full-time coursework followed by two years of clinical clerkship, or rotation, in a university hospital. Since the first two years are spent in class, Kim and other experts say the best time to add an extra year isn’t at the end, but in the middle after the second year. This way, coursework is finished but the intense schedule of clinical rotation hasn’t begun.

[Read: What a First-Year Medical School Student Can Expect.]

Students considering taking a longer track should think carefully before making that decision, experts say, but here are some of the reasons it may be worth it.

Pursue Other Interests or Earn a Dual Degree

Some students take extra time to pursue career-enhancing experiences outside medical school or work toward a dual degree. The University of Minnesota offers a flexible M.D. program for students interested in this approach. They can take a pause from med school to pursue other interests or take courses toward a dual degree.

Students interested in global health, for example, can work on research in one of eleven rotation sites that the university partners with, Kim says. Students can also earn graduate degrees in other subjects, like business or law. These programs typically are modified to be shorter than they would be for students who are not in medical school, so they can be completed in one year, Kim says.

Whichever path students choose, he says, the university wants to encourage them to broaden their experience and skills. “There is a lot that a physician can do to improve health that isn’t direct patient care. If they come in with medical legal expertise or have done other research to expand medical knowledge, they can contribute to public health and communities.”

Dr. Vineet Arora, dean for medical education at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, received her master’s in health policy while doing her residency at the university. Having clinical experience added to what she could bring to health policy classes, and vice versa.

“I was in class with students who didn’t have med expertise,” she says. “I got a lot out of that experience because I could apply what I was learning directly to patients.”

[Read: How Hard Is Medical School and What Is the Med School Curriculum?]

Gain a Competitive Edge for Residency

Arora says she is seeing “an explosion” of interest in adding an extra year to medical school. For many students, she says, the decision is a strategic move to improve their chances during “the match,” when medical school graduates find out where they’ll be doing their residencies.

Medical residencies, required after medical school, are more competitive than ever, Arora says. And many are asking applicants whether they have published research papers.

“Some students think about taking an extra year to do research for a competitive edge during the match,” but that’s a gamble, she says. “My personal belief is that you’re unlikely to get a publication off of just one year of research.”

So, it’s crucial to work closely with a career adviser to make sure it’s the right move, she says. An adviser — usually on the student affairs team, a dean or a faculty member — can direct you toward research opportunities with stipends. Recent graduates can also be a great source of advice about research opportunities.

But there is a risk if you’re not able to present why you did it or show much for it,” Arora says.

[READ: 5 Key Characteristics of Successful Medical School Applicants.]

Personal Exploration

Another reason med students might add an extra year is for personal exploration. Some students decide that before they head into the intensity of clinical rotation and residencies, they want to have that adventure they’ve been dreaming about. Other students might want to delay their graduation so that it aligns with their romantic partner’s education timeline.

A little-known side benefit of taking five years or more to finish medical school is that you are more likely to finish and graduate. Graduation rates for med students who take five years are significantly higher than those who take just four, according to a 2023 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The only big drawback to spending an extra year in medical school is financial, Kim says. Adding more time in school may mean more student loans and more accrued interest on them. The average debt for medical school graduates is more than $200,000, according to the Education Data Initiative, so it’s important to think about the financial impact of adding a year.

A related downside is that you lose a year of earning a practicing physician’s salary.

But it’s a personal decision, Arora says.

“There’s no one right way to finish medical school. Everyone has a different set of things they’re balancing in the back of their minds.”

More from U.S. News

The Medical School Admissions Cycle: A Month-by-Month Guide

Combined M.D.-J.D. Degrees: What to Know

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Medical School Admissions

Reasons for Completing Medical School in Five Years originally appeared on

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