How to Become a Dermatologist
A dermatologist provides life-changing medical treatments that restore health, improve quality of life, and bring relief for people who suffer from a variety of conditions that often cause severe discomfort, both mentally and physically. These medical specialists diagnose and treat disorders of the skin, hair, nails, and associated mucous membranes in adults and children, ranging from acne, infections, genetic disorders, and skin cancer to cosmetic issues such as scars, hair loss, tattoo removal, and aging.
Like most medical doctors, the day-to-day duties of dermatologists are as varied as the patients with whom they work. To diagnose infections or other skin conditions, they perform physical examinations and black light exams. Some disorders, such as systemic diseases, are treated with prescribed antibiotics or other types of medicine. These professionals also perform several types of surgical treatments, from minor procedures such as the excision of moles, to techniques like Moh's surgery, a specialized procedure that removes skin cancer from sensitive regions (such as the face) with minimal scarring and disruption.
Since the high visibility of skin conditions can greatly impact a patient's quality of life, dermatologists often focus on cosmetic issues. Many are trained in techniques like Botox injections, as well as laser therapy to improve the appearance of birthmarks. Some dermatologists also perform vitiligo surgery or skin grafting, which is used to treat burn victims or people with large scars.
Dermatologists also provide education and preventative care for skin and other health-related issues. For example, they perform skin surveys to locate lesions that may be precancerous, especially among patients who are at high risk for skin cancer. A dermatologist is able to alleviate pain and suffering, and vastly improve the lives of those stricken with physical disfigurement and other debilitating conditions of the skin.
Most dermatologists work in outpatient individual or group practice clinics. Some work in hospitals, or in research and academic settings. In general, dermatologists enjoy a less demanding schedule compared to other medical specialties. According to a 2012 Medscape poll of thousands of U.S. dermatologists, the majority of these professionals spend 30 to 40 hours per week treating patients, with one-quarter of dermatologists spending fewer than 30 hours per week.
Office-based dermatologists typically enjoy comfortable working conditions, as they spend less time on their feet than other medical professionals such as surgeons or hospital internists. Dermatologists who work in research or academia may have additional responsibilities that require longer hours.
Dermatology is one of the most highly competitive medical fields, and requires several years of education and training. The first step is an undergraduate degree from a four-year college, including pre-medical courses in biology, organic chemistry, physics, and chemistry. Some candidates must also complete math and biochemistry coursework, depending on the medical school they plan to attend.
Following the undergraduate program, aspiring dermatologists must attend a four-year accredited medical school. Admission to medical school is extremely competitive, so a high undergraduate GPA is advisable. Students must also take and score well on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) in order to be accepted for med school.
It is essential to maintain academic momentum and high performance throughout medical school. During this time, students take Step 1 of the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), and must earn a high score in order to land a dermatology residency, which is the next step in the process.
All medical students must complete a residency after medical school. The competition for securing a dermatology residency is among the most intense of all medical fields, with an estimated one-third of applicants failing to be accepted. A residency in dermatology involves one year as an intern in either surgery or internal medicine, followed by three years of practical residency experience. Part 2 of the USMLE is also administered during this time.
After this, many dermatologists elect to pursue further training through one- or two-year fellowships in specialized fields such as cosmetic surgery, laser medicine, dermatopathology, phototherapy, immunodermatology, or Moh's micrographic surgery.
Licensing and/or Certification
Medical doctors must obtain and keep a current license to practice. Once a candidate has successfully completed pre-med, medical school, and a residency, he is eligible to sit for the Dermatology Board Examination, which is administered by the American Board of Dermatology (ABD), to become licensed and board-certified. Further certification is available for dermatologists who have completed a fellowship and passed the general board examination. They may take the appropriate Subspecialty Board Examination through the ABD.
To maintain board certification, a dermatologist must complete continuing medical education (CME) requirements throughout his career, and must re-take and pass the board examination every ten years.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Because dermatology is such a competitive field, successful dermatologists have a strong academic track record and a drive to succeed. The ability to tolerate long working hours, a lack of sleep, and the stresses of medical training is also essential to becoming a dermatologist, due to the rigorous years of education and experience through residencies and fellowships.
Because many dermatologic conditions are outward signs of an underlying medical illness, a dermatologist must know how to interview patients and obtain a thorough medical history. This requires a firm command of verbal and interpersonal skills in order to communicate effectively with patients and their families.
Certain skin conditions can be unpleasant in appearance. A dermatologist must be comfortable with and able to tolerate discomfort regarding issues that relate to blood and bodily functions. In addition, dermatologists who perform surgery require excellent hand control and the ability to maintain focus during delicate procedures.
Opportunities for Advancement
Dermatologists can gain greater influence and responsibility in their fields by pursuing careers in research or academics. The duties of these positions include securing research funding, publishing in scientific journals, presenting at professional conferences, and teaching medical students and residents.
In addition, a dermatologist can further advance his career, responsibilities, and income by engaging in subspecialty training and additional training in surgical techniques.
Dermatology is one of the highest paid medical specialties. A 2012 Medscape poll reports that the median income for dermatologists in the United States is $283,000, with a range of $100,000 to $500,000.
In general, dermatologists who work in hospitals or academic settings earn less than those working in private practices. The highest paid dermatologists work in Western states such as California and Hawaii, while the lowest paid are those in the south central United States.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth of 24% for physicians and surgeons from 2010 to 2020, which exceeds average growth rates for other careers. Because the medical field is an essential service industry, the demand for physicians typically remains steady, even as careers in other sectors decline.
As highly trained medical specialists who provide important quality-of-life services, dermatologists are in consistently high demand—especially with skin cancer rates on the rise. Dermatologists can increase their career prospects through subspecialty training and training in surgical techniques.
- American Academy of Dermatology
- Society of Investigative Dermatology
- International Academy of Cosmetic Dermatology
- International Committee for Dermatopathology
- International Society of Dermatology
- Women’s Dermatological Society
- American Dermatological Association
- American Society of Dermatopathology
- Association of Professors in Dermatology
- Society for Pediatric Dermatology
- The American Board of Medical Specialties