How to Become a Rheumatologist

Updated on January 15, 2024


Rheumatology is a competitive medical specialty focusing on autoimmune and musculoskeletal diseases. If you want a career treating conditions like arthritis, lupus, and osteoporosis, becoming a rheumatologist may be a good path for you. First and foremost, you must complete medical school. After earning your MD, you must complete a multi-year residency program in internal medicine. Subsequently, you can apply for a rheumatology fellowship, which provides advanced clinical training under the supervision of experienced rheumatologists. The road is long, usually taking over ten years after college. However, if you have a passion for helping patients manage complex autoimmune and musculoskeletal conditions, find the process deeply rewarding. A rheumatology career offers opportunities to make a difference through patient care, education, research, and more.

What is a Rheumatologist?

A rheumatologist is a medical doctor specializing in diagnosing and treating rheumatic diseases and musculoskeletal conditions. Rheumatic diseases primarily cause inflammation, swelling, and pain in joints, muscles, bones, and surrounding tissues. Some common rheumatic diseases that rheumatologists treat include:

Additionally, rheumatologists treat other connective tissue diseases, autoimmune conditions, and issues related to pain or inflammation in joints, muscles, and bones. They have expert knowledge on using medications, physical therapy, exercise, joint injections, and even surgery when needed to help patients manage their condition.

Rheumatologists complete four years of medical school, one year as an internal medicine intern, and two to three years in a rheumatology fellowship program to specialize in this field. During their specialized training, they gain extensive experience in recognizing patterns of symptoms, ordering diagnostic tests, interpreting lab results, and determining effective treatment approaches specifically for rheumatic and musculoskeletal disorders.

What do Rheumatologists do?

So, what exactly does a rheumatologist do on a daily basis? Here are some of the key tasks and duties:

The day-to-day work of a rheumatologist involves investigating symptoms, confirming diagnoses, providing treatments, and supporting patients struggling with often debilitating immune and joint diseases. Their specialized expertise helps patients lead fuller, less painful lives.

Educational Requirements

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step toward becoming a rheumatologist is earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. Some common majors for aspiring rheumatologists include biology, chemistry, biochemistry, or pre-med. However, any major is acceptable if you complete the prerequisite courses for medical school. These typically include biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, math, and English. Maintaining a high GPA and participating in extracurriculars like research and healthcare-related volunteering are also important.

Attend Medical School

After earning a bachelor’s 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 and graduating with strong grades. While in medical school, it can be beneficial to pursue rotations, electives, or research related to rheumatology to gain more exposure to the field. It’s also a good idea to take the USMLE exams, score well on them, and receive strong letters of recommendation from medical school faculty.

Complete a Residency

Following medical school, aspiring rheumatologists must complete an accredited internal medicine residency that lasts three years. This provides supervised training in diagnosing and treating diseases in adult patients. Residents rotate through various specialties and progressively take on more clinical responsibilities. In the second half of the residency, some programs allow you to focus more on rheumatology through elective rotations.

Pursue a Rheumatology Fellowship

After completing the internal medicine residency, the next requirement is a rheumatology fellowship, which generally lasts two years. This advanced training allows you to acquire specialized skills in arthritis, autoimmune diseases, musculoskeletal conditions, and more under the supervision of experienced rheumatologists. This is what ultimately qualifies you to become certified as a rheumatologist.

Earn Board Certification

Finally, to practice as a licensed rheumatologist, you must earn board certification by passing exams administered by the American Board of Internal Medicine. After initial certification lasts ten years, rheumatologists must complete a maintenance certification program to demonstrate ongoing expertise. Many also choose to become board-certified in internal medicine as well.

Postgraduate Training for Rheumatologist

Becoming a rheumatologist requires an extensive amount of postgraduate training after finishing medical school. Here are the key steps:

With diligent study and practice, the many years dedicated to postgraduate training prepare rheumatologists to diagnose and care for patients with complex autoimmune and musculoskeletal conditions. Resources like the American College of Rheumatology provide ongoing learning for practicing rheumatologists.

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Rheumatologist

Becoming a successful rheumatologist requires developing several important skills and embodying certain key qualities. Excellent diagnostic skills are essential, as rheumatologists must accurately identify and assess complex autoimmune and musculoskeletal conditions. They rely on physical examination techniques and tests like imaging and bloodwork to thoroughly evaluate patients.

Strong communication abilities are also vital. Rheumatologists must compassionately explain complex diagnoses and treatment plans in ways patients can easily understand. They collaborate with other healthcare professionals to coordinate optimal care and educate patients.

In addition, rheumatologists need analytical thinking and attention to detail to interpret tests, analyze symptoms, and detect subtle early signs of disease. Research skills enable them to stay current on the latest advancements in rapidly evolving fields like biologics and genetics.

Several personal qualities contribute to success as well. Patience and listening skills help rheumatologists address patient concerns thoroughly. Determination fuels them to solve ambiguous diagnostic puzzles. Finally, a passion for lifelong learning ensures rheumatologists continuously expand their medical knowledge.

With a commitment to honing expertise, skill, and empathy, rheumatologists make a profound difference in the lives of those with rheumatic diseases. Their diligence and devotion enable patients to receive prompt, comprehensive treatment, ultimately allowing many to achieve remission and improved quality of life.

Rheumatologist Salary

Years Experience Average Salary
0-5 years $150,000-$180,000
5-10 years $200,000-$250,000
10-20 years $250,000-$300,000
20+ years $300,000+

Career Opportunities and Advancement

Career Opportunities and Advancement

Rheumatologists have a wide range of career opportunities open to them. After completing medical training and a rheumatology fellowship, many rheumatologists enter private practice or join medical groups where they diagnose and treat patients with arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and other musculoskeletal conditions. Private practice allows for a flexible schedule, higher earning potential, and more control over the types of patients you see.

Other rheumatologists work in hospitals, either practicing general inpatient medicine focusing on rheumatology issues or specializing in consultative rheumatology. Working in a hospital provides a steady salary and regular hours but less flexibility. Over time, rheumatologists in hospitals may advance to lead their rheumatology departments or take on administrative roles.

Academic medicine is another popular career path for rheumatologists. Those working in universities or medical schools divide their time between caring for patients, teaching medical students or residents, and conducting research. Publishing research is critical for career advancement in academics. Rheumatologists who pursue academics have opportunities over time to advance from instructor to assistant professor to associate professor to full professor.

Government organizations like the CDC and NIH hire rheumatologists to serve as subject matter experts in public health initiatives, clinical guidelines development, and investigative research around arthritis and related conditions. Leadership roles are available for those who demonstrate strong expertise.

Throughout their careers, many rheumatologists develop subspecialty interests such as pediatric rheumatology, which requires an additional year of training. Others take on leadership positions in professional medical societies like the American College of Rheumatology or patient advocacy groups like the Arthritis Foundation. These activities provide professional visibility and influence. Government relations, publishing, and consulting offer alternative advancement routes for those interested.


In summary, becoming a rheumatologist requires many years of education and training, but it is a rewarding career helping patients manage complex autoimmune and musculoskeletal conditions. The first step is completing a bachelor’s degree, preferably with coursework in biology and chemistry, to prepare for medical school. After earning a medical degree and becoming licensed, aspiring rheumatologists must complete a multi-year residency in internal medicine followed by a 2-3-year fellowship in rheumatology. Throughout this journey, they gain specialized expertise in the intricate workings of joints, muscles, and immune function. With a projected workforce shortage in this field, those willing to undertake the long road to certification will find ample job opportunities ahead. For more on the rheumatologist career path, the American College of Rheumatology provides excellent guidance.

Additional Resources

Resource Link Description
American College of Rheumatology
  • Professional organization for rheumatologists with info on training, fellowships, practice guidelines, and patient resources
  • Details on board certification process and requirements.
Association of American Medical Colleges
  • Overview of rheumatology career including nature of work, training pathway, lifestyle, salary information
  • Insights on competitiveness and number of positions available.
Rheumatology Research Foundation
  • Non-profit funding research and training for rheumatology professionals
  • Lists fellowship and other training opportunities in rheumatology.
Rheumatology Advisor
  • News, conference coverage, and peer perspectives on


What is a rheumatologist?
A rheumatologist is a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases and disorders that affect the joints, muscles, bones, and tendons. Rheumatologists focus on conditions like arthritis, autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, and gout. They use both medications and lifestyle recommendations to manage patients’ symptoms and improve their quality of life.

What degree do you need to become a rheumatologist?
Becoming a rheumatologist requires an extensive amount of training. After completing a 4-year bachelor’s degree, aspiring rheumatologists must attend four years of medical school to earn their MD or DO. Subsequently, they must complete a 3-year internal medicine residency program and a 2-3-year rheumatology fellowship. So, the total training time is typically 13-14 years beyond a bachelor’s degree.

What skills are required to be a good rheumatologist?
Some important skills for rheumatologists include analytical thinking, attention to detail, communication skills, compassion for working with patients with chronic pain, manual dexterity for performing joint exams and injections, stamina to complete extensive training, and collaboration with other specialists. Staying up-to-date on the latest advancements in diagnostic tests and treatments for rheumatic diseases is also critical.

How competitive is it to get into a rheumatology fellowship?
Gaining admission to a rheumatology fellowship program is very competitive. There are fewer available fellowship positions than there are interested applicants each year. Applicants typically need excellent recommendations from their internal medicine residency and high board exam scores. Completing research or gaining additional clinical experience in rheumatology can also make an applicant more competitive. The acceptance rate is estimated to be between 30-50% for those who apply for rheumatology fellowships.

What is the salary outlook for a rheumatologist?
Rheumatologists earn one of the highest salaries among physicians in the U.S. According to PayScale, the average salary for a rheumatologist is $237,136 per year. Those working in academic medicine or research may earn somewhat less, while rheumatologists in private practice can earn over $300,000 annually in some cases. Given the extensive training and specialty expertise, rheumatology is considered one of the most lucrative internal medicine subspecialties.