Should I Become a Doctor or a Nurse? Going to Nursing School vs. Medical School

Should I Become a Doctor or a Nurse? Going to Nursing School vs. Medical School

Many people pursue careers with the goal of helping others. In many cases, this means going into the medical field. Though there are multiple positions in the healthcare field that all contribute to the greater good of humanity, choosing between becoming a nurse or doctor tends to be a common conundrum.


Doctors and nurses team work
Kate Johnson


July 7, 2023

As someone who has had to decide between these two routes myself, I can attest that it is not an easy decision. If you are asking yourself “Should I become a nurse or doctor,” don’t fret! 

Let’s talk about the information you’ll need to answer this question for yourself. Below I’ll go over the differences between nursing school vs. medical school, the differences in the professional practice of a nurse vs. a doctor, the benefits of each profession, how I made my choice, and give you a few tips on making the best decision for you.  

Differences Between Nursing School vs. Medical School 

There are some distinct, objective differences between going to nursing school vs. medical school. These differences are important to know as they play a big part in having all of the information to make the best decision for you. 

Classes & care models

One of the biggest differences between nursing school and medical school is the curriculum.

Though you would assume that anatomy is anatomy, nursing school and medical school teach and cover very different things, even when talking about the same subject. Medical school teaches a medical care model whereas nursing school follows a holistic care model. 

The medical care model centers everything around diagnosing and addressing current symptoms based on a learned standard. In contrast, the holistic model taught in nursing school focuses on caring for the patient as a whole including emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being.

Of course, the difference in the foundational care models means that the classes are different as well. 

In nursing school, students cover the natural sciences and patient care across general and unique populations. Classes in medical school focus much more on a cellular level and the pathways that cause various symptoms and diseases in the beginning. Then, medical students are taught clinical practice, which gives them the knowledge they need for diagnosing and treating patients. 

Program length

The program length of nursing school vs. medical school is also different. Nursing school can be completed in one to six years in the United States depending on the level of education, program layout, and one’s previous background. Typically, in standard nursing programs, you can achieve an Associate’s degree in 2 years, a bachelor’s degree in 4 years, and a master’s degree in 6 years. 

Medical school itself is four years, though, for the most part, students must continue on with a paid residency that provides more hands-on training under other physicians. Residencies on average take about 3 years, though there are residency programs lasting between 1 and 5 years. For medical students who want further specialization, a one to three-year fellowship can be required after residency as well. 

So, for nursing school, you are looking at a maximum of about 6 years on average for the highest level of education, while medical school is a bare minimum of 4 years, though it’s more like 8 years for most. 

Requirements & Admissions

Due to the core curriculum being so different, the requirements and admissions process for nursing school vs. medical school is a big contrast. 

Prerequisite classes for nursing school include classes such as anatomy, physiology, human development, statistics, and psychology. Medical school prerequisite classes include organic chemistry, physics, high-level biology classes, and high-level chemistry classes among others. 

Both routes have unique entrance exams and application processes as well with much more variation in nursing schools. 


Though every school varies in cost, overall, medical school is more expensive across the board. Medical students also cannot work for the most part while in school, whereas with most nursing programs, students have the option to work, even if it is difficult to do both. 

This means that medical students often end up using student loans to support themselves while in medical school. Nursing schools not only cost less overall but offer many options to work around the financial hurdle. 

Benefits of Nursing School

Going to nursing school has several benefits that going to medical school doesn’t offer.

Career versatility

After graduating from nursing school, there are exponentially more versatile career opportunities than for medical school graduates. Both doctors and nurses can work in numerous specialties in several patient care settings and have work-from-home choices, though there are far more alternative nursing careers than there are alternative options for physicians. 

Less investment

Opting for nursing school vs. medical school requires less investment of time and money. Nursing students can enter the workforce faster and for less financial investment, which is a big benefit for a lot of students deciding between becoming a nurse or a doctor. 

Greater number of programs

There are accelerated nursing programs, part-time nursing programs, and hybrid nursing programs– the list goes on. Medical school programs vary in their setup but are less flexible in length than nursing schools.  

The number of available nursing programs is exponentially higher than medical programs. In fact, there are around 2,400 more nursing programs than medical school programs, which makes it easier to gain admission to nursing school vs. medical school as well. 

Increased patient interaction

Nurses have a lot more direct patient interaction than physicians. Though this might not be a huge benefit for some, it is a priority for others. The level of patient interaction is starkly different between nurses and doctors in the current American healthcare system. 

Benefits of Medical School

On the other hand, there are some benefits of going to medical school that cannot be offered by nursing school. 

Higher earning potential

Right out of the gate and for the entirety of their career, medical school graduates have a higher earning potential than nurses. Not only do they have the potential for more advanced senior positions with extensive compensation packages, but even starting salaries tend to be more than or equal to experienced nurses. 

Greater authority

Because doctors are the highest level of care providers, it comes with greater authority. Patients overall tend to give more respect and place a higher weight on the advice and opinions of doctors compared to nurses. Many times physicians are the final decision-maker as well, so the level of authority they possess is significant.

Broader specialization options

Though nurses can specialize, going to medical school offers the opportunity to specialize even further. Physicians who go as far as sub-specialization are leaders in their field and are called upon in the most challenging and perplexing situations. 

Related to the benefits above, these highly specialized doctors garner even greater authority and have the highest earning potential. 

Direct control over patient treatment plans

There are many people who strive to be in control as much as possible. In that case, going to medical school offers the benefit of having direct control over patient treatment plans. This means within reason, doctors have the control to offer alternative treatment options and provide patients with more customized care management. 

Summary of the benefits of medical school vs the benefits of nursing school

Benefits of medical schoolBenefits of nursing school
Higher earning potentialLess investment
Greater authorityGreater number of programs
Wide specialization optionsGreater career versatility
Direct control over patients’ treatmentIncreased patient interaction
Table: The benefits of nursing school vs medical school

Scope of Practice: Nurses vs. Doctors

Whether you become a nurse or doctor, professional practice is dissimilar to school, because schooling teaches things in a “perfect world”, while in professional practice, there’s almost never an ideal scenario. 

However, as you might have guessed, the scope of practice for a nurse and a doctor is also individually unique. 

Physicians can prescribe medications, order therapies and diagnostic efforts, perform procedures, and more depending on the specialty. Nurses have a more limited scope of practice as a vast majority of care tasks must be ordered by the physician prior to nurses being permitted to complete them. Nurses cannot diagnose, prescribe, or perform most procedures unless they have completed the education and licensure to be an advanced practice nurse. 

The role of the nurse and the doctor in professional practice are separate even though they work together. 

Who Is a Better Fit For Nursing Care vs. Medical Practice

Because the professional roles of the nurse and the physician are two individual paths, those interested in the healthcare field frequently fit better into one role or the other. For instance, people who have a strong interest in surgery would fit much better into the physician role. Those who want to build strong relationships with their patients and be involved in every aspect of their care would better align with the nurse’s role. 

However, the reason you may be reading this today is that you could see yourself in both positions. In this case, the logistics like cost, time investment, geographical location, admission rates, etc. tend to influence the decision. 

How I Decided on Nursing School vs. Medical School

Like many of you, I had to make the hard decision between going to nursing school vs. medical school. Spoiler alert! I ended up choosing to go to nursing school. 

Why? Well, actually, I had been intent on going to medical school since childhood. I made every decision in my education with the goal of going to medical school in mind. I even completed an undergraduate degree in Biology, all of the pre-requisite classes, admissions exams, and letters of recommendation required to apply to medical school programs. 

Right before applications were due, I realized that nursing school was a better fit. I completely pivoted and had to complete separate pre-requisite classes, admissions exams, and applications to go to nursing school instead. 

There were three key things that led me to this extreme, inconvenient (and expensive!) last-minute decision– hands-on experience, deep self-reflection, and asking questions of the right people. 

1) Hands-on experience

Toward the end of my undergraduate degree, I began working in the Intensive Care Unit at my local hospital as a nursing assistant where I was able to see the roles of the physician and nurse in action. Over time, I could see myself having more interest in nursing tasks than what was happening in patient-physician interactions.

2) Self-reflection

Secondly, I had a lot of pressure from those around me to go to medical school, so I felt conflicted about what I truly wanted. In order to find out, I had to do some deep self-reflection as to my priorities, goals, visions, and values. The result was a strong pull toward the nursing profession.

3) Asking questions

Finally, as I was leaning toward throwing away my hard work, I began asking a lot of questions to anyone with information to get all the knowledge I could about both professions to make an informed decision.

Currently, I am one year away from graduating from nursing school with my Bachelor of Science in Nursing and have not regretted my decision once despite “taking the long way around”. 

Answering “Should I Become a Doctor or a Nurse?”

As you can see, by not carefully considering nursing school vs. medical school, I had to jump extra hurdles in order to switch directions midway through. To avoid that yourself, if you are considering both paths, I recommend doing a few things. 

  1. First, think hard about your goals, what you want your day-to-day life to look like after school, and what elements are priorities in your ideal career. 
  2. Then, you should also try to see both roles firsthand. Visit nursing and medical programs, shadow a nurse or doctor in your community, pay attention and ask questions when you see your family doctor, etc. There are many ways to get an up-close look at these professions. 
  3. Finally, you should look at the logistics. Do you have the ability to go to school for 4-8 years? Are you willing to move? What programs are local to you? Which option makes more sense financially? The logistics may be a big deciding factor for you.

Bottom Line

Doctors and nurses have very different roles and education requirements, though they work as a team to make a difference in people’s lives. Both career paths can be beneficial and provide a fulfilling professional life, though due to their individual differences, one is often a better fit depending on the person. 

Ultimately, if there is any last piece of advice I can offer it is to not let anyone else influence your decision. Whether you become a nurse or doctor or something else entirely, you always have to do what makes sense for you. 

We've been there.
We get it.

Don’t have a clue what to expect in nursing school? Terrified of clinical?

Nurse Liz has spent years troubleshooting the challenges of nursing school for her social media community. Get her proven strategies and inside tips for every step of nursing school. 

Lecturio's Anatomy Course with Prof. Pickering

Further Reading

Nurses are routinely listed as one of the United States’ “most trusted professions” because of the tenderness and care that ...
Switching careers after the age of 30 is often seen as an unorthodox choice. Yet, it is a surprisingly common ...
As someone who has completed both a B.A. and a full-time nursing program, I won’t hesitate to say it: being ...

User Reviews