As you look around to your peers and classmates going into the workforce, becoming entrepreneurs, or going to a graduate school that requires far less of a commitment than four years (not including residency training), have you questioned your decision to go to medical school? Have you caught yourself asking whether the effort is worth it? Use this guide to align your passions, aptitudes, and goals in choosing a career in medicine.
Know Your Why
There are a lot of reasons that people decide to go to medical school – personal fulfillment, intellectual stimulation, humanitarian purpose, and financial success. Take some time to think about why you are motivated to become a doctor. If you made this choice when you were young, do your reasons still apply now? Are you second guessing your decision because you are feeling uninspired by your pre-med courses?
Remember: slogging through an organic chemistry lab and advanced physics class are necessary hurdles to your ultimate career choice, but it is unlikely to be a part of your day-to-day once you complete your training. The rigorous pre-med curriculum is more a test of your aptitude and stamina to complete med school than it is a preparation to practice medicine. Keeping your eye on the prize and remembering what lights your fire – whether that’s patient care, clinical research, or academics – can help you make it through the tough parts of getting to your goal.
And if your motivation is financial? The expense of school and the opportunity cost of starting your career four to twelve years later doesn’t always translate to a monetary win. You will almost certainly live a comfortable life once you complete your training, but factor in paying off loans and having a modest lifestyle while working 80-hour weeks and getting paid very little as a resident. If you’re not enjoying the work, the money won’t be worth it. Finally, there are often external reasons that encourage students to pursue medicine.
Familial pressures and community expectations can be burdensome, and if you don’t have the internal drive, it will be much more difficult to achieve success and maintain sanity. Besides that, “because my parents made me do it,” isn’t a great response to an interviewer asking why you want to be a doctor.
Experience it First
During my second year of medical school, we had to practice putting IVs in one another. One of my classmates passed out at the sight of blood, which didn’t really bode well for his upcoming time on the wards. (Don’t worry, he made it through.) Make sure you know before you embark on this journey what it will mean to actually practice medicine.
Again, the job is very different than the schooling you are going through as an undergraduate (and even the pre-clinical years of medicine). Loving and excelling in Biology 101 does not necessarily translate to enjoying performing surgery or doing physical exams. Take some time to really understand the career you’re entering. Talk to practicing and retired physicians about their experiences. Shadow doctors in different specialties and watch some procedures if you can.
Volunteer in a hospital or nursing home. Familiarize yourself with the sights and (real talk) smells of being around sick people. You don’t have to know what speciality you plan to pursue immediately upon starting med school, but it will be immensely helpful to go in with some ideas of what you’re excited and passionate about.
Consider the Alternatives
Is a medical degree required for your career goals? Getting an MD or DO is a very expensive, time-consuming, and mentally challenging way to add a couple of letters after your name. If your ultimate goal does not include clinical work, consider whether you could pursue hospital management, epidemiology, consulting, digital health, or policy with a different graduate degree, an internship, on-the-job training, or even self-learning.
In the same vein, think about whether dentistry, podiatry, pharmacy, or veterinary medicine is a better fit for your passion and talent. If you’re experiencing doubts, seek out people in interesting careers to learn more about what they do, in the same way that you might shadow a physician. Knowing about other jobs in the healthcare space (or outside of it!) will help you to be certain that medicine is really the path for you.
By Sonia Nagda, MD MPH