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Chinese medicine careers, degrees, and education

chinese herbs in bowl

November 17, 2021


Written and reported by:

Natural Healers Staff Writers

What is Chinese medicine?

Chinese medicine, also referred to as eastern or oriental medicine, is a broad term for a spectrum of alternative medicinal techniques and studies. Some common forms include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Cupping
  • Herbal medicine
  • Tai Chi
  • Meditation
  • Moxibustion

While western medical science focuses primarily on distinct systems within the body and how they function, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) focuses on the body more holistically—seeking to find imbalances and dissonance that could lead to disease. The primary ideology behind TCM is that when the body is in balance you tend to feel well, and when it isn’t you tend to feel ill.

For instance, a medical doctor might diagnose an illness in much the same way a mechanic might diagnose an issue with a car—by looking at the inputs and outputs of a particular system and systematically ruling out potential issues based on its expected operation. In contrast, a practitioner of Chinese medicine might use the concepts of yin, yang, and Qi to find potential sources of imbalance and work to correct them using one or many of the techniques listed above.

What are Yin, Yang, and Qi?

Qi: Qi translates directly to “air” or “breath”, and is the circular life force found within Chinese medicinal philosophy. In many eastern philosophies, Qi is often considered the binding force of everything within the universe. Acupuncturists often utilize Qi pathways and energy points when choosing where to place their needles.

Yin and Yang: In Chinese philosophy, Yin and Yang are the two opposite, but complementary forces whose aspects and interactions account for all phenomena within the universe. Yin accounts for all things dark, feminine and passive, while yang accounts for all things bright, masculine and active. TCM practitioners believe dissonance between these two forces within the body cause blockages in the flow of Qi which leads to illness.

Earning a degree in Chinese medicine: Program length and specializations

The type and level of education you choose to pursue can have a large impact on your career prospects within the field of Chinese medicine.

…some programs focus primarily on specific techniques such as acupuncture or herbal medicine, while others focus more broadly on the philosophy of TCM…

For instance, some programs focus primarily on specific techniques such as acupuncture or herbal medicine, while others focus more broadly on the philosophy of TCM while introducing students to the full spectrum of TCM treatment options. Additionally, some schools now focus on how TCM can be used in tandem with other schools of thought such as western medicine, chiropractic medicine, and more.

Depending on your desired career, you should also consider the level of education you wish to pursue. There are a variety of associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees available in addition to trade-specific certificate programs for traditions like acupuncture and Tai Chi.

What you’ll study and how long it will take

Students pursuing an associate or bachelor’s degree in Chinese medicine should expect to spend between two years (for an associate degree) and four years (for a bachelor’s degree) completing their studies. In addition to the general education courses in areas like math and English, both associate and bachelor’s degree will give students foundational knowledge in the following areas:

Specializing within traditional Chinese medicine

Once you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree, you can choose to pursue more advanced study by way of earning a master’s degree or post-graduate certificate. These courses of study tend to take between one and two years, and generally focus on a particular aspect of TCM rather than the broad field.

Potential specializations include:

Acupuncture: According to the Mayo Clinic, acupuncture uses the insertion of thin needles into the skin and strategic points to help treat stress and pain. Acupuncturists believe the practice can help correct imbalances in the body’s natural Qi pathways and aid in overall wellness. While there is little scientific study to corroborate the effectiveness of acupuncture, some scientists postulate that acupuncture points often correspond with nerve endings, connective tissue, and muscles the stimulation of which can boost your body’s natural painkillers.

Students who wish to practice acupuncture must attend a regulated acupuncture or TCM program and earn a master’s degree. Most master’s programs in acupuncture require a minimum of 60 credit hours from an accredited university or college. Doctorate programs are also offered specifically in acupuncture and generally require 90 additional credit hours from an accredited university.

Herbal medicine: In short, Chinese herbal medicine uses herbs to improve overall health. Like other practices within TCM, the goal of herbal medicine is to correct imbalances within one’s body. The way this is accomplished, however, is highly individualized, according to The Cleveland Clinic. For instance, TCM suggests that peppermint and cinnamon have anti-viral properties, but the degree to which they’re effective will depend upon the specific patient and the source of their imbalances.

Nutrition and dietary therapy: Diet therapy views food as a source of healing, and specialized practice offers potential dietary treatments for illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and allergies, as well as treatments that promote greater resistance to illness. Some therapies involve adding more nutrient-rich foods to a diet, while others eliminate certain foods to help a patient heal.

The importance of accreditation

Accreditation is essentially a stamp of approval that the education in a given area offered by a particular school meets specific standards of quality. In addition to offering some level of assurance that students will receive an education that can, in theory, prepare them for careers in a given field, attending accredited institutions allows students to utilize federal student aid and the potential to transfer credits they’ve earned from one accredited school to another.

Agencies responsible for accrediting TCM schools and programs include the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine (ACAHM) and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

Chinese medicine salary

Salaries associated with other practices of Chinese medicine can vary greatly. However, higher earnings in this field depend on self-promotion and marketing and your private practice clientele, or whether you choose to seek employment in an established facility in your local alternative medicine community.

Career Median Annual Salary
Acupuncturists $72,220
Chiropractors $75,380
Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Workers, All Other $60,160
Massage Therapists $49,860

It may be beneficial for someone interested in Chinese medicine as a career path to choose a field of focus.

“If I had to give personal advice to someone who wants to work within Chinese medicine, I might say to choose a specialization and stick to it. Having too broad of an approach can be overwhelming. Choosing a single specialty and becoming studied and good in that specialty is more important than having a small understanding of many different specialties,” said Marlon Bishop, a former Tai Chi practitioner and student of herbology based in Brooklyn, New York.

Critiques and evaluations of TCM

The National Institute of Health (NIH) published research regarding the potential dangers that traditional Chinese medicine carries. Some of the critiques listed by the NIH include:

  • Certain TCM herbal medicines do not have regulatory production standards. This lack of oversight can lead to various contaminations, including heavy metals such as arsenic and lead or pesticides and unsafe sulfites. 
  • “Relatively few complications” have been reported directly from acupuncture use. However, complications may still arise especially concerning sterile usage of needles and improper needle placement. Severe negative side effects from acupuncture may include infection, collapsed lungs, nervous system problems and other ailments.
  • Tai chi and Qi jong “appear to be safe practices.” However, these practices can still lead to muscle strain and can pose dangers to pregnant women. Pregnant women should always consult their practitioner before practicing one of these exercise techniques.

When considering a career in Chinese medicine it is important to read the evaluations that recognized and accredited organizations offer. Studying the critiques of Chinese medicine, herbology, Tai Chi and other associated practices can help you understand the efficacy and safe usage of TCM.

“If someone is unaware of the critiques of eastern practices, they are also unaware of how to combat them. A good practitioner of any art form or medicinal practice should recognize its weaknesses and strengths,” Bishop said.


With professional insight from:
Marlon Bishop
Student of Herbology and Tai Chi