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Medical Intern vs. Resident: What’s the Difference? 

Intern, resident, or fellow: whether you’re a medical student or not, you’ve probably heard all of these terms at one point or another. However, what these terms mean is not always clear. In this article, we’ll walk through a breakdown of medical internship vs residency, as well as fellowships, what they mean and how you accomplish each one!  

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What is an intern?

Definition of a medical intern 

In the most basic terms, an intern is a medical school graduate who is in their first year of residency training at a clinic or hospital.  

How you get there

The definition of an intern tells you that this is something you do after you have graduated medical school. That  means if you’re applying to undergraduate programs or even medical schools right now, it’s still pretty far in the future for you.  

Being accepted into a residency program won’t just happen automatically. Once you are an upperclassman in medical school, you will begin the application process for residency programs. Some residences may even require that you apply during your third year of med school. 

What you do 

A residency program is essentially the next piece of your training as a doctor after medical school. As a first-year intern, you will be learning a lot, which means things might still feel a lot like medical school. Working under a senior physician, you will study a more general area of medicine involving real patients in a hospital or clinical setting.  

Also see: How to land an internship

What is a resident?

Definition of a medical resident

A resident is any rising doctor who has completed at least one year of their residency training. From now until the end of your residency, you are simply considered a resident, whether it’s year two or year seven.  

How you get there 

Getting here is the same as how you become an intern, except you’re a year further along in the process!  

What you do

During this year, you most likely will be given more responsibility as senior physicians observe your skills and abilities with patients. For some residency programs, this is when you begin to narrow in on your desired specialty.  

For example, cardiology residents may actually spend the first year of their residency studying internal medicine in order to gain a broader understanding of the body. Then, in year two, they may work mainly with cardiology patients.  

It’s during residency that you will study for and take  the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). When passed, the USMLE awards you the proper licensing to legally practice medicine. If you haven’t heard of the USMLE, that’s okay. It’s something you will become very familiar with in medical school when you take steps one and two.  

Also see: How to attend medical school for free guide

What is a fellow?

Definition of a medical fellow

A fellow is a doctor who has completed their residency and opted to complete additional training that is called a fellowship. Fellowships are usually found in highly specialized areas of medicine and last between one and three years.  

How you get there 

In order to become a fellow, you first need to complete a full residency program. Not every specialty will require that you complete a fellowship program; typically, highly specialized areas of medicine may require them.  

Surgeons often complete fellowships in specialties like orthopedics and cardiology. Because they are less common than residency positions, they can be highly competitive to get into. Fellowships usually consist of fellows being taught by some of the top doctors in their field.  

What you do

You will still be learning during a fellowship, but you will also be a fully licensed physician at this point. This means you will be getting paid to do everything that a regular physician would. You may even have some residents under your wing by this point!  

Related: How long is medical school?

How long is residency?  

Now that you know what the term “residency” means and the differences between internships vs residency, you’re probably wondering how long you have to be a resident. The answer varies, but you can be a resident anywhere from three to seven years. Seven years is less common and is reserved for specialties like neuro and cardiac surgeons. Specialties like emergency medicine, family medicine, and pediatrics will take you between three and four years to complete.  

As we mentioned above, you may spend your residency training in more than one area. Starting out in a broad field and then spending the following years on more specialized areas of medicine is common.

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • Intern, resident, and fellow are all terms used to describe how far along someone is in their medical training after graduating medical school 
  • An intern is a resident in their first year of training after medical school 
  • Fellowships can be highly competitive and are designed for highly specialized training in a particular area of medicine
  • The process of going from intern to resident to potentially a fellow is a long process since important training happens here 
Key Takeaways

Frequently asked questions 

Do you get paid during residency?

Do you become a doctor after residency?

Do you have to complete a residency to become a medical doctor?

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