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Why Study Medicine? Pre-meds not in it for the money, survey says

Created April 24, 2008 by Charles Daniel and Michael O'Brien
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For some, the answer to the question, “Why do you want to study medicine?” is a simple one: to make money.  These individuals, however, are in a shrinking minority, a recent survey has found.  Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions examined the responses of 914 students in its medical and law school preparatory courses to examine their motivations for professional study.  It seems that even as the traditional financial windfalls associated with medicine continue to wane, students’ passion for medical study is as fiery as ever.  In fact, less than half of pre-med respondents indicated their future earning potential “very much” or “somewhat” influenced their decision to study medicine.  But what does this mean?  Pre-professional students are notorious for their exaggerated claims of altruism while the true and ulterior motivation remains the big salary.  …or at least that was the belief. 

So, what’s the primary reason pre-meds gave for wanting to pursue medicine? “We wanted to get a better understanding of why our students chose medicine. We wanted to know what makes them tick,” said Matt Fidler, Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions’ Pre-Health director, “The biggest reason was the desire to help others and make a difference.”  As verboten a response as it is during medical school interviews, Fidler’s survey suggests there may just be a hint of truth in it.  Skeptics have long maintained that “helping others” and “making a difference” are merely lip service made by pre-professional students to get into school so they can earn the big bucks.

The survey by Kaplan found that while only 49% of pre-meds reported being primarily motivated by money, 71% of pre-law students indicated as much (based upon survey results of 453 Kaplan LSAT students in February 2008).  Since law and medicine are both potentially lucrative fields, what could account for the difference?  Of the over 400 pre-medical students surveyed, 89% listed either a desire to help others, a genuine interest in the sciences, or personal exposure to medicine as the impetus for their decision.  “We think it’s great for them to pursue medicine with such passion,” Fidler said.

And passion they must have!  While many individuals may report feeling squeamish at the mere mention of blood, these pre-meds are aware of and feel prepared for what they will face: a mere 12% say that the sight of blood makes them feel dizzy or faint, and only 11% are concerned about working with cadavers.  The survey results further indicate that these iron-stomached students decided to pursue medicine as their career path in large part during adolescence, giving them ample time to prepare academically and emotionally for the road ahead.  While the ability to earn a decent wage is a concern for students in all fields, perhaps it is not the critical factor for pre-meds it was believed to be.

These statistics are based on the responses of 461 Kaplan MCAT students in January 2008.  To what extent these results are generalizable to pre-medical students as a group remains to be seen.  This is the first time Kaplan has asked its students questions of this type, though it does survey its students on other important topics on a regular basis). Fidler indicates they plan to continue to do so in the future.  “We just think students are interested in learning about their peers’ motivations to go to medical school,” he says.  It will be very interesting indeed to see if this trend is observed in future Kaplan courses as well as outside the classroom!

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