What is a Residency Program?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 April 2019
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A residency program is a period of study common to the medical profession, in which a qualified physician spends several months or years practicing medicine under the guidance and supervision of more experienced professionals. Residencies may involve clinical work, research, and periodic examinations to keep physicians up to practice standards. Some doctors spend several years doing a general residency program, which may cover a variety of fields, before moving on to specialize in a particular area of medicine.

Although a person is officially considered a doctor upon graduating from medical school, very few immediately begin practicing on their own immediately after graduation. Since medical knowledge is a constantly growing and changing body, it is considered extremely important to have newly-graduated doctors spend time learning the practice on a largely practical, but heavily supervised, basis. A residency program helps prepare doctors for the way things work in the real world of medicine, training them in everything from administrative procedures to advanced medical techniques.

Doctors are matched with residencies through an interview and application process that usually occurs while they are still medical students. Many regions now use complicated computer ranking systems to match students up with available space in programs, but the process remains highly competitive. Generally, students from the highest ranked schools with the best grades will have a better choice of residency options.


Depending on the area of specialization, a residency program usually lasts between 3-5 years. Surgical residencies tend to last the longest and may include several additional years of fellowships and training programs to learn a particular surgical sub-specialty, such as neurosurgery, oncology, or reconstructive surgery. Altogether with medical school and undergraduate work, a fully qualified doctor may complete well over a decade of training before finally moving onto a completely independent career.

Each year in a residency program, a doctor may have access to more and more knowledge and freedom to perform more advanced tasks. In the first year, sometimes known as the intern, the doctors spend most of their time learning the ropes of the hospital or medical practice they are working in. They may learn how to prepare notes and charts, assist supervising physicians with procedures, and fill any needed gaps throughout the facility. Each subsequent year, doctors are trusted with more and more responsibility, including eventually managing interns of their own.

A residency program is hard, grueling work. Though technically not permitted to work more than 80 hours a week in many regions, longer hours are not uncommon in cases of under-staffing or facility-wide emergencies. Doctors may have to catch catnaps whenever possible, and may be on-call for 24 hours or more at a time. Though a residency is a paid position, it is almost always paid by salary and not by hours, meaning that excess work doesn't usually result in excess pay or overtime.



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