I’m sure this isn’t the most typical or popular of opinions on this forum, but I wanted to discuss some points that as a pre-med student I wish I had considered more, to help you be a little more aware of the medical field as well as yourself before you commit long term to it. This is a LOT, but I hope it can give you some insight that could be helpful.
For starters I’ll give you my background. I was a traditional admit to medical school, and went to a DO program directly after graduating with a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering. I did very well academically in engineering and really enjoyed studying engineering, but I felt I could help more people by becoming a doctor. I had it set in my mind for many years that I would graduate with an engineering degree and go to med school. I did a lot of research projects in undergrad focusing on modeling certain systems of the body as a mechanical engineering design, and I thought I would able to do the same thing as a doctor. In reality, I never really did my homework to understand what I was getting myself into, and didn’t really understand what a doctor does. Once I got into medical school, I struggled a lot with exams and failed to the point where I needed to repeat my first year. I managed to rebound from this and make it through the didactic year 1 and 2 of school, but I still struggled a lot and was in the bottom 5% of my class.
As the curriculum progressed to become more clinically focused, I lost a lot of my passion in medical school because I realized I wasn’t going to be doing the engineering design work that I thought doctors did. I seriously contemplated quitting at the end of second year because I hated studying “clinical” medicine (which is more based on recalling guidelines and specific algorithms for treatment than design of new treatment ideas). However I chose to stay, hoping third year would be different because there is more patient interaction. Unfortunately for me, things did not improve in third year, and I still felt very out of place and unhappy studying the kind of material expected of doctors. I continued to fail exams and perform poorly.
It was a very difficult decision for me, but reflecting on these trends in my life, I chose to resign from medical school with about a month left of my third year and pursue another career. Thankfully, I am HPSP and can repay school tuition with military service. It it would be a lot harder for me to decide to leave school with three years of student loans.
Now that I am out of medical school and working a processing engineering based position with math and physics again (which is significantly more fun for me), I don’t look back on my decision to leave medical school with regret that I should have stayed, but knowing that I should have decided to leave school much earlier than I did. I wanted to share this with you guys, not to encourage you to get out of medicine like I did, but to get to really think hard about what you want to do in life so that you can be happy regardless of your career choice
Here are three questions I think you should ask yourself when decided to be a doctor, or really any career that you’re looking into:
Would I enjoy the work that I would do as a medical doctor?
First, understand that being a doctor requires a lot of mental energy to learn a ton of facts—some intuitive, others not so much—as well as the ability to analyze a vague problem and recall the best, most important information very quickly out of a vast pool of knowledge to solve that vague problem. Patients and their bodies can be extremely difficult to read and are almost never the same, so it requires you to think differently about almost every patient you encounter. Especially if you are in primary care, ER, or another form of outpatient medicine, you really don’t have much time to think through these problems and have to come up with a solution within 15 minutes before the next patient walks in. Now imagine doing this all day. Some people find that kind of thinking and activity very fun and exciting, but it can also be incredibly mentally exhausting and stressful for others. Especially for primary care doctors that do this most days they work, you have to be comfortable as a “people person” talking to and solving problems quickly for people all day.
Additionally, the ability to think and solve problems like that requires many years of training to be skilled enough to make the right decisions. Hence why you go to medical school for four years, and residency for at least another three, depending on your specialty. You will also have to work very long hours as a doctor, thinking and solving problems all day. Because you have so many patients and cases to think through, you don’t really have a lot of time for small talk to get to know patients better. Your job is to be a problem solver for the patient and your medical staff, not to provide the routine, frequent care for an individual that the nurses and their aides typically cover.
As you can imagine, it can be a very grueling and difficult job, so it’s important that you actually enjoy doing it. Otherwise you will be burned out and miserable very quickly. Personally I figured out over time this thought process and lifestyle was not for me, and realized I would not enjoy working as a doctor once I completed all of the training.
Am I willing to make the sacrifices necessary that society demands of doctors?
Similar to what’s mentioned in point #1, this is a very difficult job requiring long hours not only to train to be a doctor but also to BE one once you’ve finished training. You will find it will be difficult to maintain a social life, stay in touch with friends and even visit family as regularly as you would like. You will also find it hard to find downtime for yourself with the long hours spent studying (and eventually in third year balancing both working and studying). You have to be “selfish” and make time for hobbies, etc to keep you mentally sane. Many life plans such as buying a house, starting a family, or even finding a relationship with a partner may have to be put on hold throughout your medical training. And when you graduate med school, you could have over $300k of student loans over your head to pay off too.
As you imagine, this can be very mentally taxing and causes depression and anxiety for a lot of people. I had some friends in med school that struggled with this and used a variety of methods to cope. Many times it was very unhealthy and had a major impact on them. You have to be ready to deal with the mental stress that comes with med school and training to be a doctor, so it’s important to prioritize taking care of yourself.
Personally, I struggled maintaining a good life balance while in med school, and struggled with the concept that when I take time for myself or let up on the amount I’m working, I would be doing a disservice to those I could be treating in the future. While this was misguided thinking in that yes YOU DO need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others, I think it’s important to be truly honest with yourself if you think you have what it takes to balance the life and sacrifices of a doctor. You need to be willing to sacrifice to train academically and mentally to be a doctor in order to take care of others.
Do I have other career options that would satisfy my values of how I want to help society?
I think we all want to help others and have an impact on society, which is why we pursue difficult careers like medicine because we want to make a different in this world greater than just ourselves. But I think it’s paramount to understand that there’s many different ways you can do this. As I mentioned earlier, my primary motivation to go to medical school even though I was good at engineering is because I wanted to help people, and I thought being a doctor was the best way I could do that. But if you think about it, the best way that you can really help people, is not to find the most impactful job, but the job that our skillset can have the most impact towards. For example, an analytical thinker like a physicist with poor empathy might struggle to help someone in a counseling position, but can have a great impact towards society with their ability to calculate complex problems; a person would great empathy who struggles with math and science would be significantly better and more helpful to others as a counselor than a physicist. It’s all about finding skills that we enjoy and doing our best at those, not about conforming to expectations from others or ourselves of what we “should” do to have an impact.
If your situation is similar to mine and your primary desire to go to medical school is to help others, I would encourage you to think about how there are tons of jobs that help others and in a variety of capacities different than what a doctor does. If you have a skillset that you feel would lend itself well to another field that you enjoy, you can still have a great impact on others by working hard and doing the best in that field. Enjoying your job is the best way to balance your life outside of work AND to have the mental and physical energy to take the time to form relationships and help those around you.
Again, I do not write this to try to encourage leaving medical school, but I hope this gives you some insight to think about before you embark on a new career in the field. Regardless of what you decide, this decision is yours, and I hope I can help by challenging you to think about some questions I wish I had thought about more in the past. I wish you all the best of luck with the start of your medical careers and future success as a doctor.
This article was originally posted here in the Pre-Medical DO Forum.