How to Become a Dermatologist


By Andrew T. Colucci, MD
Dermatologist with a patient

Dermatologists provide life-changing medical diagnoses and treatments that restore health, prevent illness, improve quality of life, and bring relief for people who suffer from a variety of conditions that often cause severe mental and physical impairment. Dermatologists are physician specialists who diagnose and treat disorders of the skin, hair, nails, and mucous membranes in both adults and children. The extent of services provided is broad, 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, occasionally with the assistance of black light. Some disorders, such as systemic diseases, are treated with prescribed antibiotics or other types of medicine. These professionals also perform several types of minor surgical procedures, including the excision of moles and techniques like Moh's surgery – a specialized procedure that removes skin cancer from sensitive regions (such as the face) with minimal scarring and physical disruption.

Given that the high visibility of skin conditions can greatly impact a patient's quality of life, dermatologists will 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 patients 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. In these ways, a dermatologist is able to alleviate pain and suffering and can vastly improve the lives of those stricken with physical disfigurement and other debilitating conditions of the skin.

Work Environment

While the majority of dermatologists work in outpatient individual or group practice clinics, some choose to work in hospitals or in more academic settings. Generally speaking, dermatologists enjoy a less demanding schedule as compared to many other medical specialties. According to a 2012 Medscape poll of thousands of U.S. dermatologists, the majority of dermatologists 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 hospitalists. Dermatologists who work in research or academia may have additional responsibilities that require longer hours, although occasionally cutting their clinical responsibilities in turn.



Dermatology is one of the most highly competitive medical fields, and requires many 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 general 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 mandatory. Students must also take and perform well on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) in order to be accepted to medical school.

Following acceptance, it remains 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 obtain a dermatology residency, which is the next step in the process (see below). Unfortunately, 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.


Following medical school (“undergraduate medical education”), one must begin the process of completing a dermatology residency (“graduate medical education”). A residency in dermatology involves one year as an intern in either general surgery or internal medicine, followed by three years of clinical residency in dermatology.

After the successful completion of residency, many dermatologists elect to pursue further training through a one- or two-year fellowship in subspecialized 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 medical school and dermatology residency, he or she is eligible to sit for the Dermatology Board Examination, which is administered by the American Board of Dermatology (ABD). Following the candidate’s successful performance, he or she can finally be deemed “board-certified”. Further certification is available for dermatologists who have completed a fellowship and passed the general board examination, and 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 must possess both a strong academic track record and an intrinsic desire 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, as with any physician, due to the rigorous years of education and clinical experience through residencies and fellowships.

Given that many dermatologic conditions manifest as 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 and to obtain critically important clinical information.

As an additional consideration, 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 fine motor skills and the ability to maintain focus during delicate procedures.

Opportunities for Advancement

Dermatologists can obtain greater influence and responsibility within their field by pursuing careers in research or academics. Beyond their clinical responsibilities, these positions also require efforts to secure research funding, publish in scientific journals, present at professional conferences, and teach medical students and residents.

Finally, it should be noted that dermatologists can further advance their career, responsibilities, and income by engaging in subspecialty training and additional training in surgical techniques, thereby making themselves even more uniquely qualified to perform subspecialty procedures.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a dermatologist, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

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Relative to the overall number of hours work, dermatology remains one of the highest paid medical specialties. For example, 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.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the median salary for physicians is $187,000 or greater – a figure that includes all physicians, from internal medicine and pediatrics to much higher paying specialties such as radiology and dermatology.

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 18% for all physicians and surgeons from 2012 to 2022, which exceeds average growth rates for other careers. This is partly due to the fact that the medical field is considered an essential service industry, resulting in a typically steady demand for physicians, even as careers in other sectors decline. As highly trained medical specialists who provide important quality-of-life services, dermatologists in particular are in constant, high demand and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future.

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