What is a Medical Residency?

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  • Written By: Margo Steele
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 March 2020
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A medical residency is a post-graduate stage of medical training. Successful completion of medical school is required for entry into a residency program, the purpose of which is to provide training in a specialized area such as surgery, radiology, pathology and others. Medical school gives doctors a broad range of knowledge and the basic skills necessary to practice medicine. Residency programs allow them to concentrate on the areas that interest them most. Board certification for all medical and surgical specialties is granted only to doctors who have completed residency training through an accredited residency program.

Doctors from other countries must go through a medical residency in this country even if they have practiced for years in their own country. While they can become licensed to practice medicine in the US, they cannot become board certified. Most hospitals and medical facilities in the US will not grant privileges to a doctor who is not board certified.

A medical school graduate can choose a medical residency in any field of interest. Whatever the specialty, there is a residency program devoted to it somewhere. The more common specialties, such as internal medicine and pediatrics, naturally have more residencies available than the less populated fields of psychiatry and neurosurgery.


Getting into a medical residency program is like getting into medical school — it is very competitive. Personal interviews, letters of reference and possibly an essay are required in addition to the formal application. Unlike medical school, however, residents receive a salary and other benefits as well during the program. Medical residency programs are grueling and may require doctors to work as many as 80 hours a week treating patients, with periodic 24-hour shifts of on-call duty.

Depending on the specialty, a medical residency can last anywhere from three to seven years. Primary care and other general specialties require only three years; general surgery requires five years. Highly complex areas of study, such as neurosurgery and plastic surgery, require an additional three-year fellowship following the residency.

First-year residents may be referred to as interns, but that term is being phased out in favor of first-year residents. Residents who are past their first year of medical residency, but who are less than halfway through their chosen program, are called junior residents. Doctors in the final year of their residencies, regardless of the length of the residency, are called senior residents. The chief resident is one who has completed his residency and who has been invited to stay on an extra year to supervise residents still in training.



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