What Can You Do With a Medical Degree?

After graduating with a medical degree, most doctors complete a full three-year residency training program. While it’s possible for medical school graduates to earn a general medical license after completing a single postgraduate year and passing all three steps of the United States Medical Licensing Examination, clinical opportunities are extremely limited for those who don’t complete residency and become board-certified.

Most doctors go on to become traditional clinicians, examining, diagnosing and treating patients.

For those who want to treat patients, the long list of medical and surgical specialties includes pediatrics, internal medicine, radiology, psychiatry, oncology, emergency medicine, anesthesiology, general surgery, plastic and maxillofacial surgery, ophthalmology and orthopedics.

Because a medical degree represents enormous financial and personal sacrifice, and pursuing a clinical career means years of rigorous training beyond medical school, most physicians expect to stay in clinical practice for decades. And while almost two-thirds of doctors say they’d still choose the profession if they had their career to do over, according to a 2023 survey by The Physicians Foundation, life as a clinician is not for everyone.

Dr. Steve Liggett, vice dean for research at the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida and associate vice president for research at USF Health, is a doctor who isn’t in clinical practice. As a professor of internal medicine and of molecular pharmacology and physiology, he focuses on research and leads the USF Health Office of Research.

“To succeed in the nonclinical space is going to take additional training,” he says. “It’s not really feasible, for example, to be a molecular biologist — which is what I am — and not having had any molecular biology training.”

[How Long Is Medical School and What Is It Like?]

Here are some careers you can pursue as a doctor, including some that don’t require completing residency or additional training.

Pharmaceutical Research

Liggett says he sees doctors who have completed their clinical training move on, after just a few years of practice, to work in early clinical trials and drug development in the pharmaceutical industry.

“They really love it. They don’t see as many patients, but they’re really involved at the cutting edge of what’s going to be the next generation of drugs that are going to come out, often in their specialty,” he says, “and so that is one of the more common paths that I’ve seen.”

Doctors in this field may work for pharmaceutical companies, research organizations or regulatory agencies in medicine discovery, development and licensing. Potential roles include medical adviser or medical science liaison officer, medical reviewer, clinical research physician, pharmacovigilance (drug safety) practitioner and medical affairs specialist.


Health care consulting is a common path for medical school graduates who move into a nonclinical career, says Dr. Daniel Clinchot, vice dean for education at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and a professor at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.

They may consult for corporations or insurance companies, he says, or use their knowledge of clinical care to help doctors and clinical health care facilities improve their business and management practices.

Other consulting roles include being an adviser to a medical startup company, working with a market research company, educating physicians on equipment or technology, or giving input on the operations of a hospital or health care system.

Teaching and Clinical Education

Medical schools rely on doctors who can teach for clinical rotations, where third- and fourth-year students learn from preceptors — and experts say schools across the U.S. are struggling to find them. Clinchot says most med schools prefer to hire teachers who have some clinical experience in addition to a medical degree.

Liggett says doctors who choose teaching typically provide didactic instruction for first- and second-year medical students, or bedside teaching with small groups.

“Medical schools are taking that very seriously and want full-time teachers,” Liggett says, “and an M.D. could certainly do that.”

[What Premeds Should Know About Types of Doctors]

Public Health

Public health deals with population-level health problems, including causes, prevention and intervention.

“Some people get a master’s in public health” after graduating from medical school, Liggett says, “and then they’re able to be more of an epidemiologist and look at national trends, analyze data across states or across zip codes to try to understand environmental basis of disease or the way communicable diseases might be passed, for example.”

But there are public health roles for doctors beyond epidemiology. According to PublicHealth.org, physicians who transition to work in public health “may still provide individual clinical care, but they also devote more of their time to developing public health programs and initiatives. Their credentials as medical doctors uniquely qualify them to advise and author public health initiatives and provide community-wide medical advice and education.”

Medical Writing

Medical writers communicate complex scientific and clinical data to diverse audiences. The field includes scientific writers, technical writers, regulatory writers, promotional writers, health care marketers and health care journalists, according to the American Medical Writers Association.

Per AMWA, there’s growing demand for medical writers to produce continuing medical education materials, health care policy documents, scientific and medical journal articles, abstracts for medical conferences, magazine and newspaper articles, medical books, advertising materials, regulatory documents including U.S. Food and Drug Administration submissions, white papers and decision aids for patients.

Other Careers for Doctors

— Clinical informatics specialist

— Pharmacist

— Genetic counselor

— Forensic specialist

— Policy adviser

— Grant writer

— Health care benefits adviser

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

Choosing a Path

While there are many alternate careers for doctors who want to move away from clinical care, Clinchot says medical schools aim to admit students who will ultimately practice medicine — in part because the U.S. faces a serious doctor shortage

that’s expected to worsen as medical students and doctors struggle with debilitating stress, burnout and disruptive changes in health care practice.

The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates the U.S. could face a shortage of up to 86,000 doctors by 2036, and according to a June 2023 survey by Merritt Hawkins for The Physicians Foundation, 28% of doctors who responded said they would like to retire within the next year — up from 21% in 2022.

“Our entire curriculum and our career counseling is all geared towards clinical careers, so we don’t even have a track within the M.D. program for nonclinical-related careers,” Clinchot says. “We have several tracks (including a track) for research that’s a clinician scientist, so you’re doing both clinical work and research. We don’t have a track for students that just all they want to do is nonclinical work.”

Clinchot says most students — even those who choose not to complete a three-year residency — don’t stop at earning their medical degree.

“Most will go on for at least one year,” he says, “because the one year of additional training after your M.D. degree gives you an ability to get a license to practice medicine.”

That extra year is worth it for most, Clinchot says, since they’ve already devoted several years to medical school.

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What Can You Do With a Medical Degree? originally appeared on usnews.com

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