How To Become A Dermatologist: A Step-by-Step Guide

How To Become A Dermatologist: A Step-by-Step Guide
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Do you have a passion for skincare? Or do you want to help people fight illnesses like skin cancer? Then learning how to become a dermatologist might be the secret to your future career. Dermatology is often overlooked by those thinking of pursuing their medical degree. But dermatologists are just as important to the health care field as any other physician.

However, understanding the process of how to become a dermatologist can seem overwhelming. Since dermatologists are medical professionals, they require years of schooling before they can actually enter the job market. So, is becoming a dermatologist right for you? Or are the potential job prospects really worth the investment?

What Is A Dermatologist?

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Most people know that a dermatologist diagnoses and treats skin conditions. But some don't realize that a dermatologist is actually a fully licensed medical doctor. Just like a cardiologist, pediatrician, or any other doctor, a dermatologist must complete medical school and become licensed through their local medical board. And just like a cardiologist specializes in the heart and a pediatrician handles children's health care, a dermatologist is a doctor who specializes in the skin.

When defining what a dermatologist is and how to become a dermatologist, it's important to understand that estheticians and cosmetologists are not dermatologists. These professionals do handle concerns with appearance and the skin. But they don't hold medical degrees and are not licensed to prescribe medication. Estheticians and cosmetologists only offer solutions to improve your skin's appearance; they don't actually treat disease or underlying medical issues.

Dermatologists treat conditions ranging from cosmetic to potentially life-threatening. If you struggle with acne, rosacea, or another common skin concern, you'll probably see a dermatologist for treatment. But dermatologists also handle medical issues like skin cancer and infections of the skin.

You might be picturing someone in a lab coat carefully inspecting a patient's skin. However, a dermatologist's job can entail much more. Some dermatologists perform surgeries, inspect skin biopsies in a lab, and perform other medical tasks.

How To Become A Dermatologist: Schooling

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​The first step to learning how to become a dermatologist is understanding the type and sheer amount of schooling involved. Just like any other medical doctor, a prospective dermatologist must go through undergrad, medical school, and, finally, residency to obtain their medical license.

If medical school is not something you are interested in, a career as a dermatology nurse practitioner might appeal to you. Nurse practitioners still need to obtain a Bachelor's in Nursing and complete a two- or four-year nursing practitioner program. But many people considering how to become a dermatologist ultimately find their calling in this career path.


​Technically, as long as your chosen undergrad program comes from an accredited institution, most degree holders can continue on to medical school. But preparing yourself with a relevant undergrad degree is an extremely important step if you're seriously considering how to become a dermatologist. Of course, your grades and performance will also play a significant role in whether or not you gain acceptance.

When looking at undergrad programs to prepare yourself for medical school, the best choices will have a heavy focus on science. Biology, Organic Chemistry, and Physiology are all popular degree options for pre-med students. No matter what program you ultimately choose during your undergrad career, you will need to meet a minimum number of course hours in subjects like biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry. Without these courses on your transcript, most medical school admissions won't even give you the time of day.

Medical School

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​Before entering medical school, you'll need to complete the MCAT exam. This exam is like the SAT or ACT but focuses more on subjects like biology and human behavior. For those seriously considering how to become a dermatologist, most accepted medical students score 509 out of 528 on this exam.

Most medical programs, in theory, last four years (excluding your residency). But you won't actually decide on a specialty until your third year. Even if you go into medical school knowing 100 percent that you want to become a dermatologist, you'll work with a wide range of medical topics and disciplines throughout your education.


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​Your licensed medical doctor is when you finally leave school and begin practicing in a clinic or hospital. Most residencies for dermatologists last three years. Some people refer to the first year of residency as your medical internship, but they are one and the same. While you are technically a licensed medical doctor during most of your residency, you will spend this time under an advisor who will continue to train and teach you.

When it comes to how to become a dermatologist, your residency is when you get to really dive into your specialty. Medical school teaches a wide breadth of knowledge covering all facets of health care. But your residency is when you will begin working under an experienced dermatologist and really honing your skills in this field.

How To Become A Dermatologist: Subspecialties

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Learning how to become a dermatologist doesn't just involve deciding that you want to diagnose and treat patients' skin. Within dermatology itself are several subspecialties that you can choose to focus on.

After your residency is complete, you may choose to pursue one of these subspecialties under the dermatology umbrella. Most of these subspecialties require additional training, but this extra training is a great avenue for career advancement and personal growth. Some of the most popular dermatology subspecialties include:

Cosmetic Dermatology

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When you think of dermatology, the image that comes to mind is probably that of a cosmetic dermatologist. These are the doctors who treat cosmetic skin concerns like acne, wrinkles, and other surface issues. Many people who wonder how to become a dermatologist start their education with this subspecialty as their goal.

Cosmetic dermatology also provides services like Botox injections, dermabrasion, liposuction, and laser treatments. If you have a passion for making people look and feel their best in their skin, then this may be a career path for you to consider.

Pediatric Dermatology

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​Pediatric dermatology focuses on the treatment of skin conditions in children and adolescents. Most pediatric dermatologists treat patients from infancy to 18 or 19 years old. Dermatologists in this subspecialty treat pretty much all skin conditions seen in children, including rashes, nodules, and birthmarks.

This area of dermatology requires extensive patient care and communication with parents. If you're interested in how to become a dermatologist with a focus on bedside manner, pediatric dermatology might be an excellent option.


​Dermatopathology focuses specifically on diagnosing disorders of the skin. Instead of working face to face with patients, most dermatopathologists spend the vast majority of their working time inside of a biopsy lab. A doctor trained in either dermatology or general pathology can choose to pursue dermatopathology.

For those wondering how to become a dermatologist who have a passion for the scientific side of the medical field, dermatopathology can be a fulfilling pursuit. While many cases seen by these doctors are routine, they also have countless opportunities to encounter rare and challenging cases that continue to develop their professional skills.

Mohs Surgery

​One of the biggest challenges a dermatologist can take on is the diagnosing and treatment of skin cancer. Mohs surgery is one of the most common techniques for treating instances of suspected skin cancer. Since this surgery is quick, easy, and non-invasive, it is often the first course of action against this disease.

During Mohs surgery, the surgeon removes the visible growth or tumor plus a small perimeter of visibly normal skin. They then exam this tissue for signs of cancer. If this lab work finds cancerous tissue, the surgeon goes back and removes any remaining cancerous tissue. For those interested in how to become a dermatologist who have a passion for surgery, specializing in Mohs surgery is a common choice.

How To Become A Dermatologist: Entering The Job Field

​Finding a job after the grueling years of medical school might seem like a breeze. But it is surprisingly hard for medical students to enter dermatology. Residencies in dermatology are far less common than other medical specialties and are therefore much more competitive. In fact, the United States only has around 420 open residencies in dermatology per year.

Fortunately, though, obtaining a residency is the hard part. Once you've completed your medical degree and residency, there are plenty of opportunities for a career in dermatology. The type of career and workplace you find yourself in will largely depend on your chosen subspecialty. You might work in another doctor's existing practice, take a position as an attending physician at a local hospital, or open your own independent office.

The median income for US dermatologists is around $200,000 per year. Experts also project that dermatology will continue to grow in the coming years and increase in demand. So, if you can land a quality residency after medical school, your career is pretty much set for life.

So You Want To Become A Dermatologist

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​Now that you know how to become a dermatologist, is it still a career path you want to pursue? If so, the sooner you start on your education, the better. If you don't yet have your undergraduate degree, then finding a reputable pre-med program is the first step to starting your dermatology career. But if you already have your undergrad degree in something unrelated to science, then you might need to return to college before applying for medical school.

Medical school is a long and expensive process. So if you aren't 100 percent sure that dermatology is right for you, you might want to reconsider. However, there are plenty of dermatology-adjacent careers, such as nursing or becoming an esthetician, that might fulfill your career goals in a different way. Dermatologists are an important part of beauty and skin health. However, they are not the only professionals who work in the field.

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