Is a career in medicine right for you? Shadow a doctor and ask these 10 questions before you press “submit” on your med school application.
If you’re a pre-med student considering a career in medicine, physician shadowing is a fantastic way to learn what the day-in-the-life-of-a-doctor is like. Perhaps even more importantly, the doctor you’ll shadow is a treasure trove of knowledge, experience, and ideas. The opportunity to pick their brain is invaluable for a would-be medical student.
But it can be daunting to know what to ask. Especially when you’re immersed in the physician’s daily activities and they still have a very important job to complete. How do you know which questions to ask, in a limited amount of time, while remaining respectful and professional?
We’ve collected a list of questions to ask when shadowing a doctor. However, rather than simply asking all of them, look at each question through the lens of your goals and concerns.
For example, if your main drawback for committing to medical school is financing, focus on questions about salary, debt, and loan repayment. Likewise, if your concern hinges on the fulfillment or enjoyability of the career, ask questions that reflect your desire for a rewarding career.
#1 – What is the biggest challenge of being a doctor?
Many people choose a career based on dollar signs. After all, we need money to survive! But keep in mind that every career has its challenges, and some are more troubling than others. Make sure you’ll be able to handle the challenges of a career in medicine.
#2 – Do you enjoy your job?
This may seem like an obvious question, but many physicians work full-time (often over-time), well into their mid-sixties. Having a job that you enjoy will enrich your life as opposed to making your life miserable.
#3 – What qualities does a good doctor need?
Getting the inside scoop on the kind of person that does well in medicine is invaluable. You’ll be able to compare your own qualities, personality traits, and skills to the ones the doctor lists to see if you’re a natural fit.
Many skills and qualities can be developed over time, but knowing if you have a natural aptitude is a great place to start when you’re unsure about your career choice.
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#4 – How did you choose your medical school?
Choosing medical schools to apply to is a critical step in the process of becoming a doctor. You have to look at finances, acceptance rates, location, and so much more — just like when you chose your current college or university. The doctor you’re shadowing can give you insight about their personal journey. If you have the time, these are helpful questions to ask as well:
- How many medical schools did you apply to?
- Do you think you made the right choice? If not, what would you change about your decision?
- What qualities are the most important in a medical school?
- How can I increase my likelihood of getting accepted into medical school?
#5 – How did you choose your specialization?
Maybe you know you want to work as a doctor, but you’re unsure of what segment of medicine to specialize in. Understanding how the doctor you’re shadowing chose their discipline can help you make your own decisions about what discipline is best for you.
If you’re shadowing someone in the discipline you’d like to be in yourself, ask how they feel about that discipline specifically. Also ask about the qualities of a successful in that specific discipline (i.e. what qualities a pediatrician needs versus a cardiologist).
Finally, the percentages of doctors who regret their career choice (as well as those who experience burnout) vary by specialty. According to JAMA research, “32.7% of those training in pathology and 20.6% of those training in anesthesiology said they regretted their career choice. That compared with 7.4% of those training in plastic surgery and 8.9% of those in family medicine who said if they were able to revisit their choice, they would not choose to become a physician again.”
#6 – What is your typical schedule, inside and outside of the hospital?
When you ask this question, keep in mind what your own goals are in terms of hours worked, hobbies you participate in, and how much time you’d like to spend with friends and family.
As an example, an OB/GYN who works primarily in the maternity ward may have erratic hours, because newborn babies don’t follow an orderly, 9 to 5 schedule. You may also want to consider that many doctors like pediatricians and internal medicine physicians may rotate through an on-call schedule within their office — whereas a dermatologist or psychiatrist is rarely called upon for emergencies and can hold fairly standard office hours.
Ask if the doctor you’re shadowing is satisfied with their work/life balance and what is typical within their specialty.
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#7 – What is the hardest part of medical school? What is the most fun/rewarding?
Up to this point, many of the questions have been about being a doctor. However, before you reach that goal, you’ll have to conquer medical school! Getting insight from a physician about what you can expect as a full-fledged medical student can prepare you for the next chapter of your life.
Naturally, medical school is stressful. However, many students who become doctors enjoy their education as well. As you consider a career in medicine, this is a great question to ask anyone who’s been through medical school — current physicians, resident doctors, medical school students, etc.
#8 – What do you wish you knew before you went to medical school? Before residency? Before becoming a doctor?
Even the most thorough research won’t teach us everything we need to know on a subject — especially about a career that lasts decades. However, your doctor shadowing experience can help give you an edge on the things you can’t research.
For example, many students underestimate the importance of soft skills, such as communication and teamwork in being a successful doctor. You have to be able to communicate with patients, certainly, but you’ll also have to work effectively alongside other doctors and nurses, as well as the people who run the hospital or clinic.
If you’re an extreme introvert, you may struggle more than you originally thought in terms of the amount of social interaction required.
#9 – Did you have a “lightbulb moment” where you realized being a doctor was the right choice?
This is a great question for a number of reasons. Obviously, understanding what led someone else to make the decision you’re currently trying to figure out is insightful. However, the best part of this question is the ability to hear a moving story about a life as a doctor, and the motivations behind someone who’s successful at a career you’re considering.
If there wasn’t a lightbulb moment, ask to hear memories about times when the doctor felt truly rewarded and fulfilled. Hearing stories is a great way to wrap your head around the highs and lows of a career in medicine, and it’s also an authentic way to connect with the doctor you’re shadowing.
#10 – If you had to start over as a pre-med student, would you do anything differently?
Finally, this question gets into the nitty-gritty. You’ll learn mistakes your shadow doctor would avoid, and things they should have done but didn’t. And, if the answer is an honest “no,” you’re probably looking at a fantastic example of someone who’s happy and successful in the profession (read: someone you can model your own doctorate journey after).
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Other Tips for Asking Questions While Shadowing a Doctor
That wraps up the 10 best questions to ask the doctor you’re shadowing! Before we go though, here are a few more tips.
- Bring a notebook. Naturally, you’re going to want to take notes! It’ll help you remember the most important bits of dialogue as well as the most interesting events that happen during your experience. Another reason to bring a notebook is, if you think of a question while the doctor is busy, you can write it down to remember for later.
- Try to find your “why.” Simon Sinek is a business and leadership expert, famous for his book and TED talk which both discuss the concept of finding your “why.” Many of the questions above will help lead you to find your own “why,” which is crucial, because your deeper reason for attending medical school and becoming a doctor will carry you through the lowest lows, so you can celebrate your highest highs. Making sure your career matches your purpose is one of the best things you can do to ensure job satisfaction.
- Stay in touch. Obviously, be kind, thoughtful, and respectful while you’re shadowing. More than that, though, networking will be important throughout your education and your career, and this is an excellent opportunity to build a genuine connection with an industry resource — but more importantly, a friend. Naturally, only do this if you seem to both enjoy each other’s company!
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Hopefully you now feel more prepared to have a successful shadowing experience with someone in medicine. If you’re looking for a unique experience outside of a hospital or medical office, check out our virtual shadowing opportunities to help prepare you for in-person experiences.
Ready to get started on your medical school application? MedSchoolCoach offers professional admissions advising services to help you become a strong applicant and increase your chances of acceptance. We’ve helped thousands of students get into medical school and achieve their dreams of becoming a physician.
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