How to Become a Pulmonologist

Updated on January 15, 2024


Pulmonology is a medical specialty focusing on the health of the respiratory system, including the lungs and diseases affecting breathing. If you are interested in becoming a pulmonologist and caring for patients with conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer, there are several steps you need to take after finishing your undergraduate degree. First, you must complete four years of medical school and obtain your MD or DO degree. Subsequently, you must finish a residency program in internal medicine, which provides broad training in adult diseases. Then, you can enter a two to three-year fellowship in pulmonology to focus your knowledge and skills on pulmonary medicine. After becoming board-certified in the specialty, you can begin practicing as a licensed pulmonologist.

What is a Pulmonologist?

A pulmonologist is a medical doctor who specializes in treating diseases of the respiratory system. The respiratory system includes the lungs, bronchial tubes, trachea, and muscles used for breathing, like the diaphragm.

On a day-to-day basis, pulmonologists see patients suffering from conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, pneumonia, and other disorders of the lungs and respiratory system. They take medical histories, order diagnostic tests, make diagnoses, and provide treatment, including prescribing medication, therapy, medical equipment, or surgery when needed. Many pulmonologists also research lung health and respiratory diseases. Their in-depth understanding of lung function makes them experts at promoting respiratory wellness.

What do Pulmonologist do?

Pulmonologists are medical doctors who specialize in treating diseases and conditions of the respiratory system. Their main responsibilities include:

In summary, pulmonologists have expertise in all types of respiratory diseases, from infections to chronic conditions to cancer. Their role covers diagnosing, treating, and managing care for many patients with lung health issues.

Educational Requirements for Becoming a

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step to becoming a pulmonologist is earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. While any major is acceptable, common choices include biology, chemistry, biochemistry, or another science-related field. Make sure to maintain a high GPA and get involved in research opportunities or internships to strengthen your application to medical school. Learn more about medical school preparation at the Association of American Medical Colleges website.

Complete Medical School

After obtaining an undergraduate degree, the next educational requirement is to earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. This involves completing four years of medical school, where students take courses in areas like anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, medical ethics, and laws related to medicine. They also rotate through various specialties during their third and fourth years. Check out this guide on the medical school application process from the AAMC.

Finish a Residency

Following medical school, prospective pulmonologists must complete an internal medicine residency which lasts approximately three years. This intensive, hands-on training prepares residents to care for adult patients across various conditions. After finishing the internal medicine residency, doctors wishing to subspecialize in pulmonology must complete a pulmonary disease and critical care medicine fellowship, generally lasting 2-3 additional years. This article outlines the typical resident schedule and responsibilities in detail.

Obtain State Licensure and Certification

Before being able to practice independently, pulmonologists must obtain their state medical license and become board-certified in pulmonary disease by passing exams from the American Board of Internal Medicine. Additionally, they may also seek board certification in critical care medicine. Doctors must enroll in continuing education and maintenance of certification programs throughout their careers to stay up-to-date on the latest advancements in lung health.

Postgraduate Training for Pulmonologists

Becoming a pulmonologist requires an extensive amount of postgraduate training after finishing medical school. Here are the typical next steps:

The journey includes 4+ years of postgraduate training beyond medical school – from an internal medicine residency to a pulmonary fellowship to passing board certification exams. Gaining this rigorous preparation allows pulmonologists to accurately diagnose and compassionately care for patients with respiratory conditions.

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Pulmonologist

Becoming a successful pulmonologist requires specialized medical knowledge as well as certain skills and personal qualities. Here are some of the key abilities and traits that the best pulmonologists possess:

Expert Medical Knowledge

It goes without saying that comprehensive medical expertise is essential for pulmonologists. They must complete four years of medical school to understand human anatomy, physiology, pathologies, and treatments. Extensive clinical rotations during medical training also provide exposure to lung disorders. After medical school, aspiring pulmonologists must then complete a three-year internal medicine residency followed by a two to three-year pulmonary and critical care medicine fellowship. This advanced specialty training equips them to accurately diagnose and develop treatment plans for all types of respiratory illnesses.

Communication and Interpersonal Skills

Pulmonologists don’t just treat medical issues – they treat patients. Listening attentively, explaining conditions and procedures in understandable language, and providing compassionate care is vital. Building rapport and trust with patients enables pulmonologists to gather complete medical histories and adhere to treatment plans. Strong communication also allows effective collaboration with nurses, therapists, and fellow physicians on the healthcare team.

Analytical Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills

Interpreting test results, recognizing disease presentations, and determining optimal treatments involve complex critical thinking. Pulmonologists synthesize patient information to generate differential diagnoses and identify the most likely condition. They use logic and analysis to troubleshoot comorbidities and complications that may affect the lungs. As new research and therapies emerge, they must also integrate innovations into their clinical practice.

Attention to Detail

A pulmonologist’s work demands meticulous precision. Subtle symptom variations can indicate different respiratory illnesses. Slight anomalies in imaging scans or lab reports can reveal underlying issues. Missing a small detail could lead to misdiagnosis. Close attention at all stages, from physical exams to chest tube placements, is imperative for patient safety.


Pulmonology practice is fast-paced and physically taxing. Pulmonologists often need to make quick decisions during lengthy surgeries and emergency interventions. They work long shifts in the intensive care unit, closely monitoring critically ill patients. The ability to concentrate intensely while standing for extended periods is crucial. Beyond mental acuity, pulmonology requires considerable strength and stamina.

Passion for Pulmonary Medicine

Exceptional pulmonologists are driven by a genuine passion for treating lung disease. They pursue specialty training out of a profound interest in helping people breathe better. An innate curiosity about lung functioning and genuine care for patient well-being provide daily motivation. The healthcare field offers myriad specialties, but pulmonology provides uniquely fulfilling work for those dedicated to the lungs.

The road to becoming a pulmonologist is long but rewarding for those willing to undertake years of training. Mastering medical expertise is essential – but cultivating the additional skills and traits of strong communicators, analytical thinkers, attentive detail-oriented providers, passionate leaders, and tireless caregivers is what separates the good from the great. With dedication and diligence, pulmonologists can enjoy gratifying careers helping patients breathe easier.

Pulmonologist Salary

Years of Experience Average Yearly Salary
0-5 years $225,000
6-10 years $275,000
11-20 years $325,000
20+ years $350,000+

Career Opportunities and Advancement

Becoming a pulmonologist opens up various career opportunities and room for advancement. After completing medical school and a residency in internal medicine, aspiring pulmonologists can choose to work in a few key settings:


Pulmonologists often work in hospitals, caring for patients with conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, pneumonia, and more. They may work normal business hours or be on call to assist other physicians and consult on complex cases. Senior pulmonologists may take on leadership roles in their hospital’s pulmonary department or serve as medical directors of respiratory therapy departments.

Private Practice

Many pulmonologists open their outpatient clinics or join a group practice with other physicians. In private practice settings, they diagnose and create treatment plans for patients referred to them. Over time, pulmonologists in private practice can grow their patient base and even add additional clinic locations. Some may provide in-home services for patients with limited mobility.

Academia and Research

For pulmonologists who want to teach the next generation of doctors, academic medicine provides rewarding career opportunities. Aspiring academics can seek faculty appointments at medical schools and teaching hospitals, allowing them to instruct trainees, conduct research, and provide patient care. Seasoned pulmonologists may take on senior faculty and administrative roles to shape academic pulmonary medicine programs.

Government Agencies

Some pulmonologists use their expertise to inform health policies and regulations for government organizations like the CDC and FDA. They may conduct public health research, advise agencies on respiratory illness prevention and treatment, or help implement safety standards around issues like air quality and smoking.

Overall, pulmonologists have diverse career paths they can pursue over time. Many find the ability to prevent, diagnose, and treat complex lung conditions highly rewarding. Some may want to narrow their focus or develop subspecialty expertise in areas like sleep medicine, critical care, pediatric pulmonology, and more. With ongoing research unveiling new lung disease insights and treatments, it promises to remain an exciting and evolving specialty.


In conclusion, becoming a pulmonologist requires dedication through several years of specialized education and training. It’s a long journey that starts with a strong foundation in biology and chemistry during undergraduate studies. After earning a medical degree and becoming licensed, you still need to complete a competitive residency program in internal or pediatric medicine before you can enter a 2-3-year fellowship in the pulmonary disease subspecialty. However, if you are passionate about helping patients with lung conditions, the hard work can pay off in a rewarding career. The American Lung Association notes that pulmonologists can make a real difference through patient care, research, and advocacy. With drive and perseverance, you can develop expertise in this growing field.

Additional Resources

Resource Link Description
American Thoracic Society
  • Professional medical society for pulmonary disease, critical care, and sleep medicine specialists
  • Information on pulmonary careers, training programs, fellowships, and more.
American College of Chest Physicians
  • The professional medical society representing chest medicine specialists
  • Practice resources and guidelines for pulmonology.
  • Annual meetings and networking opportunities.
Association of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Program Directors
  • Information on accredited U.S. pulmonary/critical care training programs
  • Mentorship opportunities
  • Advice for applicants on preparing competitive applications.
Pulmonary Education and Research Foundation
  • Research funding opportunities for trainees
  • Travel scholarships for conferences
  • Online webinars and pulmonary education.


What is a pulmonologist?
A pulmonologist is a medical doctor who specializes in treating respiratory system diseases, including the lungs. Pulmonologists diagnose and treat conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, pneumonia, and sleep disorders.

What degree do you need to become a pulmonologist?
Becoming a pulmonologist requires an extensive amount of training. You must first complete a 4-year bachelor’s degree, then finish four years of medical school to earn your MD or DO. After this, you must complete a 3-year internal medicine residency program and a 2-3-year pulmonary and critical care medicine fellowship. See this example on medical school requirements.

What is the salary range for a pulmonologist?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for pulmonologists is around $300,000. However, salaries can range from $200,000 for those just starting to over $400,000 for experienced pulmonologists. Those working in academic medicine tend to make less than those in private practice. See this salary data.

How competitive is it to get into pulmonology fellowships?
Pulmonology fellowships are very competitive, even more so than residency programs in internal medicine. Applicants generally need excellent grades in medical school, strong letters of recommendation, research experience, and excellent scores on their medical licensing exams to be considered. The number of applicants tends to exceed the numbers of fellowship positions available.

What professional experience is required to become a pulmonologist?
Aspiring pulmonologists must first complete medical school, followed by at least three years in an internal medicine residency program. This provides essential hands-on experience in diagnosing and developing treatment plans for patients. After residency training, 2-3 years in a pulmonology fellowship provides specialized training in lung conditions, critical care, and procedures like bronchoscopies. Most pursue board certification after completing their fellowship.