10 Popular Medical Majors for a Career in Health Care

Written by Coursera • Updated on

From foreign language to psychology, there are many undergraduate majors that will help you become a more competitive med school applicant and prepare you to be a doctor.

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If you’re interested in a career in the medical field, you'll typically need a college degree. But there isn’t a specific degree you should earn or any conventional path you need to take. You have plenty of options if you want to become a doctor, nurse, physician's assistant, nurse practitioner, dentist, pharmacist, physical therapist, or something else that requires medical training.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nearly half of undergraduates who become physicians and surgeons study biology in college [1]. But some study other sciences or math, and some even study topics like business, English, or fine arts.

Take a look at these popular medical majors that can prepare you for a career in health care.  

Is "pre-med" a major?

Many schools offer a pre-med program designed to prepare you for a medical career. Pre-med is not a major but a track that ensures you're taking the courses and labs required for entrance to medical school as a part of your undergraduate degree. You can choose your major within the pre-med program. A pre-med track is a good way to prepare for the MCAT exam.

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Biology

Biology is one of the most common majors for those who want to pursue a medical career, especially aspiring physicians and surgeons. According to the BLS, 48.7 percent of all physicians and surgeons employed in 2015 chose biology as their undergraduate major [1]. The Association of American Medical Colleges reports that over half of all 2021-2022 medical school applicants majored in biology or biological sciences for their undergraduate degrees [2].  

Majoring in biology is one way to ensure you take the prerequisite science courses and labs required by many medical schools. You'll study topics like human biology, anatomy, physiology, and genetics.

However, if you choose this major, be sure you get a well-rounded education by taking several non-science courses. Every program is different, but some typical courses you'll take as a biology major include:

  • Anatomy and physiology

  • Biochemistry

  • Biology I 

  • Biology II 

  • Biology labs

  • Calculus

  • Evolutionary biology  

  • Genetics 

  • Organic chemistry

Biochemistry

Like a biology major, biochemistry majors study living organisms as well as chemistry and how it affects those living organisms. This is also a common choice for those who want to attend medical school.

As you can imagine, you'll take many science courses as labs, particularly in biology and chemistry. However, you'll end up taking more math and physics than a biology major might. An average course load for a biochemistry major may include: 

  • Organic chemistry

  • Inorganic chemistry

  • Biology I

  • Biology II

  • Biology and chemistry labs 

  • Microbiology

  • Calculus

  • Physics 

  • Molecular biology 

  • Genetics 

Biomedical engineering

A major in biomedical engineering includes many science courses while adding a technology aspect to your education. You'll learn how technology and engineering can help improve medical care.

Many people who choose this major go on to become biomedical engineers who do everything from creating and improving upon devices like heart monitors and diagnostic machines to working toward the creation of artificial organs for transplants. However, this major can also prepare you for medical school and improve your knowledge about the tools you might use as a physician or other medical professional. Your courses might include:  

  • Biology

  • Chemistry

  • Physics

  • Anatomy and Physiology 

  • Biomolecular engineering

  • Medical diagnostics

  • Biomechanics

  • Bioelectrics 

Nursing

Earning an undergraduate degree in nursing can help you become a registered nurse and even lead to you seeking more advanced careers in nursing, such as becoming a nurse practitioner. It can also be a great pathway to medical school.

Many nursing programs include some prerequisite courses for medical school, though you may need to take extra courses. Your nursing degree will also likely require you to complete internships in a hospital or clinical setting, giving you some hands-on experience for the future and helping you develop your bedside manner.  

Earning your nursing degree also gives you a backup. Perhaps you decide to take some time off before going to medical school—you can work as a registered nurse during that time. If you choose to advance your medical career, you'll have clinical experience under your belt. Courses you may encounter as a nursing student include:  

  • Biology

  • Chemistry

  • Physics

  • Anatomy and physiology

  • Nursing ethics

  • Health assessment 

  • Clinical theory

  • Pharmacology

  • Patient care practices 

  • Sociology

  • Psychology

Read more: How Hard Is Nursing School? Tips for Success

Psychology

Social Science majors like psychology aren't just great undergraduate degrees for future physicians. They can be an asset and are sometimes even preferred by medical schools.

You can set yourself apart from the biology and chemistry students and add diversity to your graduating class by majoring in psychology. You'll also gain the workplace skills required to take a humanistic approach to a medical career, like empathy, communication, critical thinking, and resilience. According to the BLS, about 6.6 percent of employed doctors and surgeons have psychology degrees [1].  

Many schools will allow you to choose a specialization within their psychology programs, and some even offer a pre-med track that ensures you take the science, math, and English classes you need for medical school. In general, you'll take courses like:  

  • General psychology 

  • Statistics 

  • Psychiatry

  • Developmental psychology 

  • Clinical psychology 

  • Neuroscience 

  • Social psychology 

  • Cognitive psychology 

  • Educational psychology 

  • Psychological disorders  

Public health 

A public health major focuses more on the health of an entire community or population rather than a specific patient. You'll focus on preventative measures, health trends and statistics, and promoting good health.

A public health undergraduate degree can prepare you for several diverse careers. Like psychology, many schools may offer a pre-med track, making it an excellent first step before applying for medical school. Some of the courses you might take as a public health major include: 

  • Epidemiology

  • Anatomy and physiology 

  • Nutrition

  • Biostatistics 

  • Public health practices

  • Community health practice 

  • Occupational health management

Read more: What Is Public Health? Your Career Guide

Economics

Economics majors and a pre-med program may not seem like it goes hand-in-hand at first glance, but it's more common than you might think. Like psychology, economics is a social science, so you'll learn how to think critically about the world around you and the people in it. 

Majoring in economics could improve your MCAT scores. Once you've finished school and are a practicing medical professional, you'll have a better understanding of how to make your services more affordable for your patients, as well as how to run a private practice and even how to work with insurance companies.  

Economics is a good choice if you like numbers and aren't intimidated by math. Just keep in mind that you may have to take some extra science courses to meet prerequisites for medical school. Typical courses might include: 

  • Economic principles 

  • Statistics

  • Calculus 

  • Microeconomics

  • Macroeconomics

  • Algebra

  • Economic forecasting   

Math and statistics

Math and statistics majors can also be great for preparing you for medical school. It's no secret that math classes can be difficult, but some doctors say that the hard work they put in as an undergrad helped prepare them for the hard work they'd have to put in as a medical school student.

Math courses also helped them prepare to think critically and analytically. Studying math can also help you with the precision you need to become a doctor or surgeon. As a math or statistics major, your courses might include:  

  • Algebra 

  • Calculus 

  • Statistics  

  • Data science 

  • Probability 

  • Geometry

  • Foundations of math 

  • Computer science 

  • Analysis 

Foreign language

Communication is a big part of becoming a medical professional. Communicating with people who speak languages other than English can set you apart from other medical school applicants, especially in the United States. The BLS reported that over 10,000 employed doctors and surgeons in 2015 majored in a foreign language as undergrads [1].

That said, the language you choose can also be important. Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Hindi, and Portuguese are considered the top languages that can help advance your career. 

Just remember that you may have to take extra courses to meet your prerequisites for medical school. Some schools may also offer courses like "Spanish for Healthcare." The types of courses you might expect to take as a foreign language major include:  

  • Conversation in your language 

  • Grammar and composition in your language 

  • Literature in your language 

  • Linguistics 

  • Writing 

  • Cultural studies  

Exercise science 

You might choose an exercise science major if you're interested in a career in sports medicine, physical therapy, sports psychology, athletic training, or rehabilitation. Many schools that offer an exercise science major also offer a pre-med concentration to ensure you take the courses you need to excel on your MCATs and get into medical school. You might take courses like:  

  • Biology 

  • Chemistry

  • Biochemistry

  • Anatomy and physiology

  • Nutrition

  • Foundations of Exercise science 

  • Kinesiology 

Review medical school requirements

If you know for sure that you want to go to medical school, take a look at the requirements of the schools you're interested in before you complete your undergraduate studies to ensure that whatever you major in, you're taking the necessary courses. Staying in touch with your advisor each semester can also help you plan your schedule.

Again, many medical schools require that you take a certain amount of science courses with labs, though math, humanities, and social sciences may also be in the mix.  

Pick a major aligned with your interests and career goals

In addition to choosing a major focused on medical school preparation, it's important to choose one that matches your interests and goals. If the thought of studying biology for four years doesn't excite you, but you really like psychology, don't force yourself to do something that you don’t find interesting.

Remember, over half of all medical school applicants are biological sciences majors. If you come in with a different major yet still manage to prove your dedication to the health care field, you'll set yourself above the competition. 

Your undergraduate major can also help you in your career. Perhaps you want to be a doctor and are specifically interested in helping your community or those who can't afford proper health care. Public health or economics could help prepare you for that role.

Maybe you want to go into sports medicine. Exercise science might be a great major. Most people don't know what kind of medicine they want to practice until they go to medical school, but if you have a general idea, your major can help you achieve those goals.  

The importance of choosing the right medical major

Many people assume they have to select a pre-med major if they want to go to medical school or seek an advanced career in health care, but that’s not true.

Most medical schools probably won't be as concerned with your major as they will be with the courses you took, your grades, your Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores, and other qualifications. Some top-rated medical schools require that you take a certain number of courses in areas like English and the humanities for admission.  

Yes, science coursework is important, but these days, doctors need to be well-rounded. They need to be able to view patients as humans, to have empathy, and sometimes, studying other subjects in addition to science can help with that. 

When choosing your major, you'll want to make sure you are taking the courses you'll need to get into medical school or graduate school, but it's also essential to choose one that you're passionate about. 

Next steps 

If you know you want to enter the medical field but are unsure what you want to do, consider taking courses online to see what interests you.

At Coursera, you'll find courses like Anatomy, Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us, AI for Medicine, and Introduction to the Biology of Cancer, all of which are online and can be learned at your own pace. You'll get a taste of the health care field or even get inspired to advance your current career. Best of all, these courses are offered by some of the top educational institutions in the world.

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “From Premed to Physician: Pursuing a Medical Career, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2017/article/premed.htm." Accessed April 26, 2022.

2. AAMC. “MCAT and GPAs for Applicants and Matriculants to U.S., https://www.aamc.org/media/6061/download." Accessed April 26, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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