There are over 130 U.S. medical schools that award the MD to graduates. These schools train students in allopathic medicine. (A smaller number of schools train students in osteopathic medicine and award the DO to graduates). Allopathic schools train tomorrow's MDs with a common (and rigorous!) core curriculum. But beyond that core, no two schools are exactly alike. Each offers its own unique academic focus, teaching methods and research opportunities.
The first two years of medical school are a mixture of classroom and lab time. Students take classes in basic sciences, such as anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, pathology and pharmacology. They also learn the basics of interviewing and examining a patient
Traditionally, students take four or five courses in various disciplines at the same time. However, some schools focus on a single subject for a shorter block of time—say, three or four weeks—then move on to another. Other schools take an interdisciplinary approach to pre-clinical coursework, in which each class focuses on a single organ, examining all the anatomy, pharmacology, pathology and behavior relevant to that system.
In the third and fourth years, medical students do rotations at hospitals and clinics affiliated with their school. Students doing rotations assist residents in a particular specialty such as surgery, pediatrics, internal medicine or psychiatry. During this time, you'll probably feel like a cross between a mindless grunt and a skilled apprentice. You'll interact with patients and perform basic medical procedures along with any tasks the resident doesn't want to do.
While some rotations, such as Internal Medicine, are required at all programs, others have more unique clerkship requirements. The length of time you spend in a rotation depends on the hospital's focus or strength. At some schools, the surgery rotation is three weeks long; at others, it is three months. The character of the hospital will also color your experience. If the setting is urban, you can expect increased experience with trauma, emergency medicine, or infectious disease, as well as exposure to a diverse patient population.
Clinical rotations will not give you enough expertise to practice in any specialty (that's what a residency is for). They will give you a breadth of knowledge and help you consider potential career paths.
You can train to be a primary care doctor at any medical school. But programs that emphasize primary care tend to include more patient contact, coursework in patient handling, and longer clinical rotations in general fields. Many are actively involved in the surrounding communities, offering volunteer opportunities in the clinical care of indigent populations.
If you're looking to pursue a career in academic medicine or biomedical research, you should look for schools with strong research programs. You will not have the same opportunities, facilities, mentors or funding at a school focused on training primary care physicians. .
If you want to complement your MD with advanced coursework in another discipline, some schools—especially those affiliated with a larger university—allow students to register for classes in other departments. Many also offer combined degree programs.
Med students who make it through all four years (and don't worry, most do) will be the proud owner of an MD. But your education doesn't end there. You still need to pass the board exam and spend between three and seven years as a resident in a teaching hospital.