Premeds fear that taking a gap year before medical school will distract from their career goal to become doctors. I offer that this is the best possible outcome of your gap year.
I am frequently asked about taking gap years. I took four. (Two of those were the result of having to reapply, but my intention was to take time off between undergrad and medical school). Current undergrad premeds want to know, “What happens if I get too comfortable during my year off?”, “What if I lose my momentum?”
There seems to be a deep-seeded fear (from applicants and parents alike) of losing interest in medicine and getting “distracted” by something else – be it a job, a project, or simply adult life (renting an apartment, earning a living, having free evenings and weekends). These “distractions” are actually paths that are worth exploring, and – I believe – really important to experience before deciding on medicine.
Going to medical school should not be a default path. It is a deliberate and relatively binding decision that deserves scrutiny and contemplation. It is an incredible investment in time and money – money being the tuition you pay, which may be upwards of a quarter million dollars, in addition to foregone wages that you would have earned had you worked during your four years of medical school. Time – in the long run – may be the more valuable commodity that you give up when you go to medical school. Add to the cost your personal relationships with friends, family, or significant others if school brings you to a different city, state, or country.
|| Read Weekly Weigh-In: Taking a Gap Year ||
You will have time to get perspective on the career choice and maybe try something you never previously considered. I worked as a consultant in health policy and as a researcher at a scientific start-up. I had been oblivious to the existence of such careers and learned an incredible amount during my years in each field. After enjoying professional success in those arenas as well as a comfortable salary, I still wanted more than anything to go to medical school. The feeling that I had when I finally got accepted was validation that medicine was the right choice for me.
That brings us back to the original concern about losing the drive, momentum, or will to go to medical school after taking time off. If you are still steadfast in your resolve to become a doctor after trying other options, then nothing will keep you from devoting yourself to the process. On the other hand, if a “distraction” becomes a passion after a year or two, then you will be glad that you gave yourself the opportunity to explore.
|| Read A Year Off Before Medical School ||
You might also be worried about falling behind. Some of your peers will go straight through, and you – used to being in lock step or ahead of those chumps – will find yourself several years back in your education. Compared to your 40 plus-year career, a few years of delay in starting your training is minor. It may in the long run actually make you a better doctor and help prevent burnout during your training. You will be better able to relate to patients that are juggling work, finances, and family. Seeming less green, you may also allay patients’ concerns about being taken care of by a kid. Your fear of falling behind should be replaced by confidence that comes from life experience that will add to your readiness to take on the profession once your first two “preclinical” or classroom years are over.
Being out of school gave me important growth opportunities. I had to deal with difficult personalities on different teams, navigate corporate hierarchy, and work on my bosses’ timelines. My schedule was opposite to the one I had been used to in school – my time was not my own, and I was accountable to higher-ups. The transition was difficult and I struggled at first. Now, going into my third year of medical school, which takes place in the clinics rather than in the classroom, I am thankful that I already went through the painful transition of being on someone else’s clock. Having to be somewhere early every morning, professionally dressed, and ready to work is not new to me, and I can focus my energies on the work itself.
|| Read Emily’s Path Part I ||
The work itself is perhaps the most important point. Do not be afraid to find your passion in something other than medicine. The goal, of course, is to be passionate about your work, whatever it may be. If you discover that you love laboratory research, acting, entrepreneurship or anything else during your planned time off, then maybe you should consider sticking with that other course. In the long run your would-be patients will be better off with a doctor that isn’t daydreaming about another career, and you will be happier and make a bigger contribution doing what you love.