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How to Become a Rheumatologist in 2023

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Do you want to know how to become a rheumatologist? Are you interested in a medical career that provides not only patient care but is also an exciting and rapidly evolving medical specialty?

If so, a rheumatology career may be the perfect choice for you. In this blog post, I will explain what a rheumatologist does and how to become one, even if you’re only in high school.


  • Rheumatologists are medical doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating disorders that affect the joints, muscles, and bones.
  • Rheumatology is a sub-specialty of internal medicine. Internal medicine residency training is three years, in addition to 2 more years in rheumatology fellowship
  • 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 rheumatology (and maybe a slight disadvantage)

Table of Contents

What Are Rheumatologists?

Rheumatologists are medical doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating disorders that affect the joints, muscles, and bones. They treat conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and other rheumatic diseases. They also treat a group of diseases called systemic autoimmune diseases.

Rheumatologists have specialized training and expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system. They work closely with other healthcare professionals, like orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists, to provide comprehensive care for their patients.

Some common procedures that rheumatologists may perform include joint injections and synovial fluid analysis. They may also prescribe medications and work with patients to develop personalized treatment plans that may involve lifestyle modifications, such as exercise and diet changes.

Is a Rheumatologist a Doctor?

Are rheumatologists doctors? The answer to this question is yes; rheumatologists are doctors.

A rheumatologist is a specialized physician who has completed medical school, usually followed by a three-year residency in either internal medicine or pediatrics and a two-year fellowship in rheumatology. During this time, rheumatologists train to care for and manage patients with conditions involving the musculoskeletal system.

Rheumatologists Vs. Orthopedists: What’s the Difference?

Rheumatologists and orthopedists are both medical doctors who specialize in treating conditions related to the musculoskeletal system, but they have different areas of expertise and focus.

They specialize in diagnosing and treating conditions that affect the joints, muscles, and bones, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. They often work with patients who have chronic conditions that need long-term management, and they focus on treating the underlying disease rather than just the symptoms.

Orthopedists specialize in diagnosing and treating conditions related to the musculoskeletal systems as well, such as fractures, dislocation, and other injuries. They often perform surgery and other invasive procedures to repair injuries and correct deformities.

In summary, orthopedists and rheumatologists often collaborate on musculoskeletal issues. Orthopedist mainly deals with surgical interventions for musculoskeletal conditions such as fractures, joint replacements, and trauma, while rheumatologists focus on non-surgical treatments for conditions like arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and inflammatory disorders that affect the joints.

How Long Does It Take To Become a Rheumatologist?

Becoming a rheumatologist is no easy feat and requires considerable time and energy. But if you’re up to the challenge, the results can be gratifying.

It takes a minimum of 13 years after high school to become a rheumatologist. That includes four years of undergraduate education and four years of medical school. This is then followed by three years of pediatrics or internal medicine residency and two years of fellowship training in rheumatology. 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 rheumatologist 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.

Internal Medicine or Pediatrics Residency (3 Years)

After you’ve completed medical school, you’ll have to match into a 3-year residency training in either internal medicine or pediatrics. 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 been matched into internal medicine or pediatrics, you’ll have to complete three years of clinical training to become qualified. During this training period and before specializing in rheumatology, you’ll learn how to evaluate and manage several types of general medical conditions.

Rheumatology Fellowship (2 Years)

After completing your internal medicine or pediatrics residency, you may pursue further training in a specialized area of rheumatology. Rheumatology fellowships allow physicians to gain subspecialty expertise in evaluating and managing patients with various rheumatic diseases. Most rheumatology fellowships are two years in length, allowing physicians to gain additional experience and hone their skills in a specific area of rheumatology.

After Rheumatology Fellowship: Licensing + Board Certification

After completing your training, you are eligible to become board-certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in the subspecialty of rheumatology. While passing the rheumatology boards is voluntary, many employers will see this as important – or even necessary – for you to be employed as a rheumatologist.

Becoming a rheumatologist takes a minimum of 13 years after high school. It’s a long and arduous process, but if you’re dedicated and passionate about becoming a rheumatologist, the rewards are worth it.

How Competitive is it to Become a Rheumatologist?

Internal medicine or pediatrics is one of the less competitive specialties in matching into a residency program. Each year, thousands of hopeful 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 are the required specialties in the US? To answer this question, it is important to look at the unmatched rates of US seniors by specialty. The unmatched rate refers to the percentage of US seniors who applied for a residency program in that specialty but did not get matched. It considers each applicant’s first-choice specialty. So, if you applied to a different specialty as a “backup” but didn’t match because you matched in your first choice, this wouldn’t be included. 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 1.6% and 2.0% unmatched rate to pediatrics and internal medicine, respectively. These are among the less competitive specialties, especially compared to specialties like plastic surgery (37.3%), orthopedic surgery (34.2%), or otolaryngology (sometimes called “ENT” for ear-nose-throat; 30.8%).

For more on the competitiveness of pediatrics and internal medicine relative to other medical specialties, see this article.

Rheumatologist Annual Compensation

Rheumatologists have an average annual salary of $289,000. However, this can vary dramatically based on practice setting, specialty training, and experience level.

Rheumatologist Annual Salary

Rheumatologists make $289,000 per year on average

How Much Do Rheumatologists Make an Hour?

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

While there isn’t perfect data, we’ve compiled data regarding hours/weeks worked and annual salary for various specialties, including rheumatology.

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

The estimated physician salary per hour by specialty (rheumatology highlighted in red):

Rheumatologist Hourly Salary

Rheumatologists make $112 an hour on average

Note: when data were unavailable for weeks worked per year, 48 weeks was used as an estimate to calculate the estimated hourly salary.

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

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 particularly 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 1% and 2%(pediatrics and internal medicine, respectively)  greater than that of US seniors without AOA membership in pediatrics and internal medicine, respectively. In other words, AOA membership provided a modest advantage to matching into these residency programs.

AOA Membership Advantage for Internal Medicine 2022

AOA membership correlated with a 2% match rate advantage for Internal Medicine 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 Rheumatology?

When pursuing a career in rheumatology, attending a top medical school can make a difference in matching into 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 3.8 out of 5.

Moreover, graduating from a school in the top 40 for NIH funding is associated with a 1% increase in the likelihood of matching into both pediatrics and internal medicine as a field. This is potentially 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 Internal Medicine match 2022

Graduating from a medical school ranked in the top 40 by NIH funding correlated with a 1% match rate advantage for Internal Medicine in the 2022 Match

Does an MPH or MBA Help You Become a Rheumatologist?

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 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 additional 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. For the residencies required to become a rheumatologist, pediatrics and internal medicine, the match rate advantage was -2% and 0%, respectively, 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 these residencies and may even hurt them (slightly).

Internal Medicine other degree MBA MPH advantage 2022

Having another degree like an MBA or MPH correlated with a 0% match rate disadvantage for Internal Medicine in the 2022 Match

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

Becoming a rheumatologist is a challenging but rewarding career path. It is perfect for those who love physiology, problem-solving, and working as part of a team in intense situations. With hard work, dedication, and a desire to help others, rheumatologists can make a real difference in the world of healthcare.

Looking for a Residency Advisor?

Looking for a 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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Cardiology is key for impressive USMLE scores. Master cardiology from a Harvard-trained anesthesiologist who scored USMLE 270 with these 130+ high-yield flash cards. You’ll be begging for cardio questions - even if vitals make you queasy.