It’s important to understand that while becoming a neurologist or a neurosurgeon is a fulfilling career choice, it’s not easy to get there. Having a high level of interest is necessary. You must also enjoy interacting with people and listening carefully to what they have to say. In some ways diagnosing a neurological disorder is detective work. Anything a patient tells you may be substantial.
Other essential skills involve outstanding communication and leadership. You will have to be good at problem-solving and have great amounts of patience, dexterity and physical stamina. As for any medical doctor, compassion and empathy are necessary since you will be interacting with people who are ill and very worried about their health and longevity.
Because the field of neurology is so detailed, the amount of education you need is extensive. Here are the basic steps you’ll take:
Step 1: Obtain an Undergraduate Degree
Post-secondary education is a must. Research colleges and find the ones you are most interested in attending. Look for universities with excellent reputations and outstanding pre-medical curriculum. There is no doubt you will choose a major in one of the sciences like chemistry or biology. Focusing on advanced biological sciences is a good option. Pre-requisite medical courses should include microbiology, biochemistry and human anatomy. [suggest inserting inbound link to the previous article on science/pre-med curriculum].
The objective of your undergraduate degree is to prepare you for medical school, which is the next step. Besides attending a well-respected university with an excellent science curriculum, maintaining a grade point average of 3.5 or higher is critical if you want to optimize your potential acceptance into a U.S. medical school.
By incorporating one, or all of the following activities in your undergraduate career, you may improve your chances of getting into medical school:
Job shadowing – Most colleges and universities can help you find opportunities to follow, or shadow a neurologist, or neurosurgeon throughout a workday. Doing so gives you a good perspective on what to anticipate in these careers. It also provides some practical experience you can include on your medical school applications.
Volunteer – Doing well in school and having a high-grade point average may not be quite enough to get into medical school. So being active in your community on a volunteer basis could give you an edge.
Learn a foreign language – Including 3-4 years of a foreign language while in college is helpful. Neurosurgeons and neurologists work with many patients who do not speak English. Learning a second language, especially Spanish, will help you stand out against other medical school candidates.
Step 2: Take the MCAT and Apply to Medical Schools
All medical schools require potential students to take an admissions exam known as the MCAT® (Medical College Admission Test). You’ll take this standardized exam during your junior year of college. The results of this test give medical schools a good idea of the skills you acquired in your undergraduate pre-med program. You will have to obtain a minimum score on this if you want an admissions interview at any medical school. Since admission into these schools is highly competitive, taking a specialized study course to get the best score you can is something to plan on. For information on the MCAT see https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/taking-mcat-exam/register-mcat-exam/. You can also refer to the American Medical Association at www.ama-assn.org or the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine at www.aacom.com.
Step 3: Attend Medical School and Obtain a Medical Degree
Once you’re in medical school, you’ll take four years of medical curriculum. This curriculum is general and consists of medical classes intended to give you an overview of the content. Experiential opportunities exist where you practice what you are learning in the classroom.
In the second half of a traditional four-year program, aspiring neurosurgeons and neurologists can register for courses that include medical diagnostics, disease management and, in the case of neurosurgery, surgical practices. When you get to the point of practical rotations, choose those experiences that allow you to examine and treat patients within what is called a teaching hospital. Interacting with patients under the supervision of qualified neurologists or neurosurgeons exposes you to situations you may encounter in your practice.
For those wanting to be neurosurgeons, you’ll want to be sure you’re doing the same thing; only you’ll be under the supervision of an actual brain surgeon.
Step 4: Complete an Internship or Neurosurgical Residency Program
In addition to passing a medical licensure exam (explained in Step 5), you’ll complete an internship. The internship allows you to apply everything you learned in medical school but under the supervision of a seasoned, qualified medical doctor. This hands-on experience will make you a better physician, and further prepare you for your specialization of neurology.
With your interest in neurology, part of your medical training will include a one-year hospital internship. During this phase, you’ll manage patients and develop some of the skills that will be vital to your future career. Part of your internship will include staying updated with the latest information in the field.
While you’re engaged in your internship, you will search for a residency program unique to the neurologic specialty you selected. Tracks include headache medicine, neuromuscular medicine, strokes, etc. If your desire is to become a neurosurgeon, you’ll involve yourself in a neurosurgical internship.
Upon completion of your internship, you’ll enter your residency program. For the non-surgical neurologist, your residency will be about three years in length. You’ll make hospital rounds with a supervising neurologist and have opportunities to monitor patients and perhaps examine them yourself.
For a neurosurgeon, the residency is six to eight years. You will work with licensed neurosurgeons learning the skills and techniques required in a daily surgical practice. At some point in your residency, you’ll scrub in and assist with surgeries.
Residency programs are long and intense. But they can also be enjoyable because you are practicing in the field of your choice. In addition to working with patients, you’ll also attend lectures and have opportunities to discuss scenarios involving actual case studies.
Step 5: Get Board Certified and State Licensed
Your journey is not yet over. There are licensure and certification tests you must take, and pass. They have both oral and written components. These exams assess your ability to apply the knowledge, principles, and concepts you have learned in school to actual practice. By the conclusion of them, you will have independent verification that you can practice safe and effective patient care. These tests are rigorous, and as with the MCAT, it is strongly recommended that you take the time to participate in a review course before attempting any, or all of the exams.
To become licensed as a medical doctor, you must become fully state licensed and board certified. The first step in this process is applying to take the test. You’ll do this through the United States Medical Licensing Examination organization. This begins a three-step process sponsored by the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME). The following website provides guidelines for these exams www.usmle.org. Additional information can also be found through the American Medical Association (AMA) www.ama-assn.org/education/obtaining-medical-license.
The American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, Inc. is a member of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). The ABMS administers the neurology certification exam. Details on this exam can be found on their website at www.abpn.com.
The American Board of Neurological Surgery is also a member of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) and facilitates the certification exam for neurosurgeons. Their website lists the training requirements and the components of the exam as well as exam deadlines and testing dates. For details on becoming a certified as a neurosurgeon, see their website: http://www.abns.org/
You may wonder why there are so many exams. You are interacting and working with human beings. In some cases, their lives may depend upon your skills and abilities. So the medical profession polices itself. By doing so, it does its very best to ensure doctors and surgeons are well qualified to extend patient care.
Step 6: Continuing Education
In spite of all the education required for becoming a neurologist or neurosurgeon, continuing education is necessary to renew your state license and board certification. Both of these have to be periodically updated for you to keep practicing.
Continuing education can be completed through fellowships for both neurologists and neurosurgeons. You can choose to focus on oncology or pediatrics or other subspecialties within the field of neurology, surgical or non-surgical. If you select this option, several more years of education is required. The length varies depending upon your subspecialty. For example, a vascular neurology fellowship may take only a year, but a child neurology fellowship could be three years.
In the alternative, you can attend classes and seminars offered by various medical associations and schools. There are local, state, and national medical organizations all over the country. Some are general while others are very specific. Some even accept student members. A web search can turn up ones in your geographic area.
No matter what option you choose, the objective of continuing education is to ensure you remain current on new procedures, techniques, and breakthroughs in the field of neurology.
Some things you can do right now
Although you may still be in high school, or younger, there are some things you can do right now to learn more about neurology and becoming a neurologist or neurosurgeon.
One is attending a summer internship program designed for high school students. There are a few specific to neurology. Others focus on alternative medical specialties. A number of them exist for further explorations into science which is helpful for students interested in science or medicine but aren’t sure what field to pursue.
Two programs specific to neurology
The first is the Summer Student Program offered by the University of Wisconsin Medicine Department of Neurological Surgery. It gives students an opportunity to explore basic and clinical neurosciences. For summer lab placement details, see https://depts.washington.edu/nsssp/.
The second one is facilitated by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland. Their Summer Program in the Neurological Sciences focuses on research in neurological science. Information on their program is found on their website at www.ninds.nih.gov/.
Information on other summer internship programs can be found here [create inbound link to list; have it contain outbound links to those programs]
If you are still not old enough to attend one of these, or the one you’re interested in is too expensive, or too far away, you have a much more convenient, less costly option.
Become an online neurologist/neurosurgeon apprentice!
Before college educations were available, on-ground or online, people apprenticed to masters to learn various trades like plumbing, or bricklaying. You may have heard the phrase “apprenticed to a master plumber” (or electrician or construction worker). It took years to become a master, and there were levels between an apprentice and master, such as journeyman. Apprenticeships were often unpaid.
Some trades still offer apprenticeships. Professional occupations in medicine do not. However, the Internet allows you an option to be an apprentice in neurology. Regardless of your age, you can start learning with the help of The Apprentice Doctor.
They offer an online neurology program you can start today. In addition to fact and theory, the course also provides opportunities to practice some of the skills neurologists, and neurosurgeons perform. In essence, you become an apprentice neurologist. See: The Apprentice Doctor for more information.
If you missed any article in our neurology series and would like to go back and catch up, click on the following links: