For decades, careers in the medical field have been ranked among the most highly demanded occupations in the country. Anywhere from CNA positions in nursing homes to world-renowned cardiothoracic surgeons at state-of-the-art hospitals, there’s definitely no shortage of career paths to choose from.

Once you’ve narrowed down your interests, navigating the path to get there can be daunting and downright treacherous at times. Most careers in the medical field are in high demand, but if becoming a physician is your top choice, here are some of the most important things you should consider before you start your journey.

Planning Ahead Is Critical

If you’re entering high school or about to go to college and want to become a doctor, you absolutely need to plan ahead. Your best course of action is to make an appointment with your high school guidance counselor or academic advisor on campus. They can provide you with career planning tools such as course guidelines, career maps, and medical college brochures. Every medical college has unique requirements for admissions and planning ahead will give you the best chance for success when you are ready to apply.

Another reason planning ahead is critical is because the path to becoming a physician is intense. Colleges look for high school students who are highly engaged in extracurricular activities, have stellar letters of recommendation, and whose transcripts reflect a rich elective selection. If you want to become a doctor, the sooner you start planning, the fewer hurdles you’ll have to jump over along the way.

It Is Highly Competitive

I’m not talking only about the job market either. Whether you’ve always known you wanted to be a doctor and tailored your high school academics to foster a smooth transition to college, or you are 40 years old and are ready for a change of scenery, entrance into programs that will lead to your doctorate degree in medicine are highly competitive.

You will be measured against thousands of other applicants all vying for a spot in their medical college of choice and the average acceptance rate into such a program is a mere 7%. Keep this in consideration when deciding which schools you want to apply for, too, and it is highly recommended you apply to more than one. In light of the global pandemic, colleges have also seen a significant increase in the number of applicants, which drives acceptance rates down.

The Road Is Long

Your journey to becoming a doctor often begins in high school, but no matter when you decide to take this path, the road is long. On average, it takes 12 years to become a physician. In addition to a four-year degree, you should expect to spend an additional 3-9 years completing coursework to earn your M.D. Some colleges offer BA/MD programs that take anywhere from 6 to 9 years to complete and if you add on a specialty license, your time is extended another couple of years.

Your educational journey will most likely be separated into three distinct sections. First, you will need to complete a bachelor’s degree in a science or health-related field. The second stretch is medical school, where you will spend an additional 3-4 years honing your craft. This stretch is rigorous and demanding, so be sure you have adequate time to dedicate. After you complete medical school, you’ll need to complete a residency or internship. Depending on your specialty, this can last anywhere from 3-7 years. The final step in becoming a doctor is a fellowship. This is the shortest leg of your journey, taking only one or two years to complete.

It’s Expensive But Rewarding

On average, you can expect to spend about $200,000 on tuition alone. This can seem steep, but when you weigh the rewards, it’s worth it. And you can’t put a price on things like improving the quality of life for your patients, feeling a sense that you’re adding value to the world, or having a sense of accomplishment after overcoming a challenging treatment plan. All of these things are what give doctors that feeling of euphoria and remind them why they set out on this path to begin with.

The financial benefit of being a doctor is also significant. Doctors earn a median wage of over $208,000 annually. When stacked up against the initial investment, that doesn’t seem all that bad. There’s also a consistent job flow for physicians as practitioners retire and make room for younger generations.

So, whether you’ve known you wanted to be a doctor from a very young age or you’re looking for a significant career change, knowing what to expect can help you navigate the path mindfully and minimize some stress that you’re bound to encounter along the way.