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How to Become a Physiatrist (Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation) in 2023

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by Loyd Mokaya in Residency

Do you want to know how to become a physiatrist? Are you interested in a medical career that provides patient care and research opportunities in a field that expects a faster growth rate in job openings than most others?

If so, a career in physiatry may be a good fit for you. In this blog post, I will explain what a physiatrist does and how to become one, even if you’re only in high school.


  • Physiatrists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions affecting the nervous, musculoskeletal, and cardiovascular systems.
  • Physiatrists must complete a transitional year followed by a three-year residency in physiatry, with the option of fellowship training afterward.
  • Going to a top medical school may help a bit. However, how you do on your USMLEs (Board) scores and in your med school class ranking will matter more
  • Non-PhD degrees like MBAs and MPHs appear to have no advantage to becoming a physiatrist (and maybe a slight disadvantage)

Table of Contents

What Are Physiatrists?

Physiatrists are often misunderstood in the medical field. Many think of them as therapists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Physiatrists play a remarkable role in helping patients regain their mobility and independence after an injury or illness. They have a deep understanding of the dynamics of how the body moves and the mechanics of how muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons work together. Physiatrists use their knowledge and expertise to relieve pain, improve the range of motion, and restore strength and mobility to the affected area.

Physiatrists do not perform surgery. They focus on non-surgical treatment methods to treat joints, muscles, bones, nerves, tendons, and ligaments. However, physiatrists may consult with orthopedic surgeons or other specialists if a patient’s condition requires surgery.

Is a Physiatrist a Doctor?

Are physiatrists doctors? This question often comes up as people confuse physiatrists with physical therapists. The answer to this question is yes; physiatrists are doctors.

A physiatrist is a specialized physician who has completed medical school, usually followed by a transitional year and a three-year residency in physiatry. During residency, physiatrists train to diagnose and treat musculoskeletal and neurological disorders. They also learn the use of rehabilitative and physical therapies and medication in the treatment of patients.

Physiatrists vs. Physical Therapists: What’s the Difference?

Physiatrists and physical therapists treat patients with the same types of conditions. Most people have a misconception that physiatrists are the ones who perform physical therapies; however, physiatrists specialize in medical diagnosis and the development of physical therapies that a physical therapist will subsequently perform.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Physiatrist?

Becoming a physiatrist is no easy feat and requires considerable energy and dedication. But if you’re up to the challenge, the results are gratifying.

At a minimum, it takes a minimum of 12 years after high school to become a physiatrist. That includes four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school, and four years of physical medicine residency. Along the way, you’ll have to take various standardized exams, including the SAT, the MCAT, and the USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK.

Undergraduate (4 Years)

The first step to becoming a physiatrist is entering and completing an undergraduate program. This means taking the SATs and doing well enough to be accepted into a college or university. Once accepted into an undergraduate program, you’ll have to complete a minimum of four years of academic coursework. This includes classes in biology, chemistry, physics, English, and other general education courses

Medical School (4 Years)

The next step is to take the MCAT, a standardized exam that measures your knowledge and skills in biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology. You’ll need to score well on the MCAT for med school acceptance.

You’ll have to complete four years of academic and clinical training during medical school. This includes classes in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, and other medical topics. You’ll also have to complete clinical rotations at hospitals and other healthcare facilities to gain hands-on experience

Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Residency (4 Years)

After you’ve completed medical school, you’ll have to match for a PM&R residency. To do this, you’ll have to take the USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK exams. These exams measure your knowledge and skills in the areas of clinical medicine. Once you’ve passed these exams, you’ll be eligible to apply for residency.

Once you’ve matched into a physical medicine residency, you’ll have to complete four years of clinical training to become a physiatrist. The first year of residency in internal medicine is a preparatory year, followed by a three-year residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation. During residency, you’ll learn all about pain management and physical therapy modalities. You will also get hands-on experience managing musculoskeletal injuries, neurological disorders, and sports injuries.

Fellowship (Optional; Usually 1 Year)

After completing your PM&R residency, you may pursue further training in a specialized area of physiatry. Physiatry fellowships allow physicians to gain subspecialty expertise. Fellowship choices include sports medicine, pain medicine, and traumatic brain injury. Most PM&R fellowships are one year in length, allowing physicians to gain additional experience and hone their skills in a specific area of physiatry. Pain medicine is the most competitive subspecialty and takes two years. Physicians specializing in pain medicine have higher compensation compared to the rest.

After PM&R Residency: Licensing + Board Certification

After PM&R residency you are ready to practice and can now apply for your medical license. To become board-certified, you’ll need to pass the ABPMR Exams. While passing the PM&R boards is voluntary, many employers see this as necessary.

Becoming a physiatrist takes at least 12 years after high school. It’s a long and arduous process, but if you’re dedicated and passionate about becoming a physiatrist, the rewards are worth it.

How Competitive Is It to Become a Physiatrist?

Physiatry is a moderately competitive specialty in matching into a residency program. Each year, thousands of medical school graduates apply for a limited number of positions in their preferred specialty. The Match system, run by the National Resident Match Program (NRMP), pairs applicants with training programs based on their preferences.

But how competitive is physiatry in the US? To answer this question, it is pertinent to look at the unmatched rates of US seniors by specialty. The unmatched rate refers to the percentage of US Seniors who did not match into a residency program in a specialty they applied for. It considers each applicant’s first-choice specialty. So, if you applied to a different specialty as a “backup” but matched your first choice, this wouldn’t count. To learn more about how to maximize your chances at a dream residency through “The Match,” see this article.

In the 2022 Match, graduating US medical school seniors attending MD schools had a 13.9% unmatched rate to physiatry. This makes it one of the more competitive specialties, although not of the same competitiveness as specialties like plastic surgery (unmatched % 37.3%), orthopedic surgery (34.2%), or otolaryngology (sometimes called “ENT” for ear-nose-throat; 30.8%).

For more on the competitiveness of physiatry relative to other medical specialties, see this article.

Physiatrists Annual Compensation

Physiatrists have an average annual salary of $322,000. This can vary based on practice setting, specialty training, and experience level.

Physiatrist Annual Salary

Physiatrists make $322,000 per year on average

How Much Do Physiatrists Make an Hour?

You may also be wondering how much physiatrists make per hour. And how is the balance between time inside vs. outside the hospital for the specialty?

While there aren’t definitive data, we’ve compiled data on hours/weeks worked and annual salary for various specialties, including physiatry.

Here are the data:

Average Annual SalaryAverage Hourly SalaryOn-Call ScheduleHours/WeekAvg Weeks Worked/Year
Critical Care$369,000.00$114.9166.9
Diagnostic Radiology$437,000.00$170.46Low5844.2
Emergency Medicine$373,000.00$169.59Medium46.447.4
Family Medicine$255,000.00$101.85Medium52.647.6
General Surgery$402,000.00$141.88High59.447.7
Infectious Diseases$260,000.00$101.44High53.4
Internal Medicine$264,000.00$100.81Medium54.947.7
Interventional Radiology$437,000.00
Neurological Surgery (Assistant Prof. Median)$600,500.00$214.96Medium58.2
Obstetrics and Gynecology$336,000.00$123.26Medium5847
Orthopaedic Surgery$557,000.00$207.91Medium5747
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation$322,000.00$147.7645.4
Plastic Surgery$576,000.00$230.77Medium52
Pulmonary Med$353,000.00$119.77Medium61.4
Radiation Oncology (Assistant Prof. Median)$393,734.00$158.36Low51.8
Total Average$381,233.35$147.4453.9

And the estimated physician salary per hour by specialty (physiatry highlighted in red):

Physiatrist Hourly Salary

Physiatrists make $147 an hour on average

Note: When data were unavailable for weeks worked per year, 48 weeks was the estimate in calculating the estimated hourly salary.

Getting AOA (Med School Honors) Helps in Becoming a Physiatrists

Medical school is one of the most challenging aspects of becoming a doctor. Many medical schools have established Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) branches to recognize top students’ hard work and dedication.

Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) is the medical school honors society for students who excel in their studies and demonstrate an exemplary commitment to professionalism and leadership. Each medical school may elect up to 20% of their graduating class to be inducted into AOA.

Induction into AOA is a prestigious honor that carries with it a variety of benefits. AOA members may be eligible for special scholarships and fellowships and can often receive priority consideration for residency positions.

The AOA advantage is notable for the most competitive fields and/or residency programs. The 2022 Match data showed that the match rate for US medical school seniors with AOA membership was 15% greater than that of US seniors without AOA membership in physiatry. In other words, AOA membership provided a moderate advantage to matching into a physiatry residency.

AOA Membership Advantage for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 2022

AOA membership correlated with a 15% match rate advantage for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the 2022 Match

See this article for more on AOA medical schools and the importance of class rank for matching.

Do You Need to Attend a Top School to Become a Physiatrist?

When pursuing a career in physiatry, attending a top medical school can make a difference in matching your desired specialty. According to a survey of program directors, over half of those surveyed reported considering applicants’ med school reputation when considering whom to interview, giving it an importance score of 3.4 out of 5.

Moreover, graduating from a school in the top 40 for NIH funding is associated with a 15% increase in the likelihood of matching into physiatry as a field. This is because top medical schools have more resources and access to clinical experience, which can help prepare students for the rigors of the specialty.

That said, it is important to remember that the name of the school alone does not guarantee success in any field. While attending a top medical school may have advantages, it is ultimately up to the individual to make the most of the opportunities presented. And while there is an advantage to being from a more prestigious institution, one’s record at the school will matter much more, including things like USMLE scores, class rank, and letters of recommendation.

Top 40 med school Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation match 2022

Graduating from a medical school ranked in the top 40 by NIH funding correlated with a 15% match rate advantage for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the 2022 Match

Does an MPH or MBA Help You Become a Physiatrist?

Medical training is long and arduous. Remarkably, many students consider completing other degrees before, after, or even while pursuing their medical studies. Degrees such as Master of Public Health (MPH) and Master of Business Administration (MBA) may seem attractive to potential dermatology residents due to their additional qualifications. But do these additional degrees give applicants an edge in the residency application process?

The truth is that having an extra degree may not matter as much as one thinks. We crunched the numbers on the match rate for graduating students from MD schools for those with non-PhD other degrees vs. those that did not have a second degree. In physiatry, the match rate was 8% lower for those with degrees like an MPH or MBA. This implies that having a second degree that isn’t a Ph.D. doesn’t appear to help your chances of matching into physiatry and may even hurt them.

Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation other degree MBA MPH advantage 2022

Having another degree like an MBA or MPH correlated with a -8% match rate disadvantage for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the 2022 Match

It’s important to note that this study only looked at the match rates of medical students with another degree. The data doesn’t look at the type of degree, the school, and the quality of the applicant’s experience and credentials.

Having a second degree could open up some career opportunities. For instance, having an MPH or MBA may prove beneficial for those looking to get into healthcare administration or research.

Concluding Thoughts

Becoming a physiatrist is a challenging but rewarding career path. It is perfect for those who love anatomy, have outstanding hand-eye coordination, and enjoy working as part of a team. With diligent work, dedication, and a desire to help others, physiatrists can make a real difference in healthcare.

Looking for a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Residency Advisor?

Looking for a physiatry residency advisor? Want help writing your personal statement? Need effective strategies for interviewing? Do you have things on your application – e.g., low USMLE scores, failed USMLEs, no research, IMG status, or others – you need help overcoming?

Be sure to check out our Residency Advisor service.








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