What Is a Medical Fellowship?

While physicians can officially begin practicing independently after completing their residency, some of them opt to complete additional specialized training via a fellowship. A fellowship isn’t the right decision for everyone, but for many it’s extremely beneficial and helps launch them on their chosen medical career path. Don’t pick up that stethoscope quite yet! Here’s everything you need to know about medical fellowships:

physicians receiving training via medical fellowship

What is a medical fellowship?

A medical fellowship is an additional training program for physicians that lasts one to three years and is offered after they complete their residency. A medical fellowship is an opportunity to master a particular aspect of medicine or surgery that might not have been available for in-depth training during internship and residency. Many residents try to first complete a rotation related to their potential fellowship field in order to confirm that they want to pursue the additional training.

How do you enter a medical fellowship?

There are many steps that medical practitioners must complete before they can begin to think about a medical residency. First, they must earn a four-year bachelor’s degree, pass the MCAT® exam and be accepted into medical school. They complete an additional four years of medical school and earn their MD degrees. At this point, they are referred to as physicians, but they still have more training to do. All medical students must complete a one year supervised internship. Then, they enter a residency in their chosen field of practice, which can last anywhere from three to seven years. Once they have completed their residency, physicians may choose to pursue additional training via a medical fellowship, or they may choose to enter practice as an attending physician.

doctors working together during medical fellowship

Are medical fellows considered doctors?

Yes, medical fellows are considered doctors. In fact, anyone who earns a doctorate level degree, whether that’s a PhD or an MD, technically becomes a doctor upon earning their diplomas, so all physicians are doctors, but not vice versa. Interns, residents and medical fellows are all doctors despite their different levels of training.

It’s important to keep in mind that medical fellows have completed all their requirements and are 100 percent qualified to act as an independent attending physician. However, they have voluntarily chosen to pursue a fellowship in their chosen subspecialty in order to gain more experience in that particular area. Being a medical fellow is a fantastic sign that they are committed to learning everything there is to know about their field and providing the most advanced care possible.

Why pursue a medical fellowship?

There are many benefits to pursuing a medical fellowship. While medical fellows do get paid less initially than attending physicians who go straight from residency to practice, physicians who complete fellowships often earn higher salaries later on, thanks to their specialization. Physicians who are passionate about specific aspects of medicine (as opposed to general practice) often need a fellowship to get the targeted training they need in order to pursue that field. While a fellowship does present some tradeoffs, many physicians find it worth the sacrifices in order to pursue a fellowship.

doctors looking at patient results

Should I do a medical fellowship?

Pursuing a medical fellowship is a personal decision. You do need to consider how much school debt you’ve already incurred and how doing a residency will impact your ability to pay that back. You also need to weigh whether or not you’re willing to give up a more generalized practice or certain components of the field in order to concentrate in the specific areas you’re passionate about. In addition, you should consider what you want your lifestyle and career to look like down the road—not only what field of medicine you want to practice, but also how much flexibility you want in your hours and where you want to live (rural areas don’t always have a large enough population to support a niche specialist). If you do decide to go for a fellowship, you should also be prepared for a more intense experience than a residency.

Doing a medical fellowship is a major commitment, but a worthwhile one for many physicians looking to specialize further. Before you commit, talk to physicians working in your intended field and reach out to fellows in medical programs you might be interested in matching with. Do as much research on the front end as possible and you’ll make a wise decision in the end.

Whether you’re a medical student, a fellow or already an attending physician, be sure to check out our selection of affordable scrubs!