Finding Your Purpose as a Health Professional

Last Updated on June 11, 2024 by Laura Turner

In the 2004 Tony-award-winning musical Avenue Q, Princeton, a recent college graduate (with an English degree from a prestigious university), searches to find a “purpose.” As he transitions between jobs with cheerful orchestration and backup singers, he enthusiastically participates in various activities, hoping his purpose will be revealed soon.

People with a purpose enjoy how they positively impact others, with goals they strive to achieve, and a direction towards a happier and fulfilling life. A purpose affirms one’s place in the world, even while completing quotidian tasks. This feeling of one’s worth further helps one’s mental health and life outlook

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Why Teenagers and Young Adults Seem Unfulfilled

Twenty years later, “Purpose” (the song from Avenue Q) still resonates with teenagers and young college graduates. Recently, the Harvard Graduate School of Education discussed struggles current teenagers and young adults have disclosed in the 2023 survey report On Edge. Many have struggled with their mental health with each daunting challenge they face. More young adults (aged 18 to 25) reported having anxiety or depression in a higher proportion than teenage respondents. The survey authors were surprised at the prevalence of loneliness and the nihilism toward accomplishing something. Other surveys show that about half of all college students express severe signs of depression (Damon, The Path to Purpose, 2009).

Prehealth students are not immune to such feelings. While prehealth and professional students may find some meaning in a career that “helps others,” many feel they are checking off boxes to get an acceptance from their dream program. Moreover, many seek affirmation with a busy interview calendar and a flood of offers.

Interconnectedness from social media ironically has made young adults more lonely. The On Edge survey shows almost half expressing they do not feel like they matter to others unless they elicit attention or likes. Negative news gives young adults a sense that everything is “falling apart,” as evidenced by the prevalence of gun violence, climate change, or corrupt or incompetent political leadership. While teenagers and young adults may be more emotionally self-aware or open about maintaining proper mental wellness, many embrace a nihilistic worldview (like in Everything Everywhere All at Once). 

Top drivers of young adults’ mental health challenges

  1. A lack of meaning, purpose, and direction
  2. Financial worries and achievement pressure
  3. A perception that the world is unraveling
  4. Relationship deficits
  5. Social and political issues

Mitigation or Prevention Strategies

  1. Cultivating meaning and purpose, including engaging them in caring for others and service
  2. Supporting young people in developing gratifying and durable relationships
  3. Helping young people experience their lives as more than the sum of their achievements

Source: On Edge: Understanding and Preventing Young Adults’ Mental Health Challenges — Making Caring Common, Harvard Graduate School of Education Making Caring Common Project, October 2023.

Patiently Finding a Purpose

In William Damon’s book The Path to Purpose (2009), he wanted to find similarities between adolescents and young adults who lived at home, were unsuccessful with consistent employment, or were unable to become independent. His research showed that only one-fifth of young adults (at that time) had a clear sense of their purpose developed through engaging in activities they enjoyed. Meanwhile, about one-fourth lacked any direction to change their lives, paralyzed by confusion, cynicism, apathy, or anxiety as events changed their circumstances. Many “dabbled” with possibilities without investing much mental or emotional effort, while others “dreamed” of their goals without guidance to put in any effort and energy needed to achieve them. Do these characteristics remind you of your student peers?

While individuals may turn to their favorite activities or engage in risky behaviors to experience temporary happiness, more lasting happiness comes with a sense of self-worth from recognizing one’s value and accomplishments towards a goal or sense of morality. One can succeed towards a purpose by investing emotionally into solving shorter-term problems, just as baseball players deliberately practice to hit singles consistently rather than go for home runs. The patient process of meeting goals through perfecting fundamental skills or competencies allows one to set new, more challenging goals; this process builds one’s confidence to find value in meeting milestones toward a greater purpose. Having supportive family members, mentors, and champions further nurtures a spirit to persevere.

By not having a purpose, young adults are vulnerable to more significant health problems, and student affairs professionals and administrators have worked diligently to find ways to mitigate these challenges. Applicants should carefully notice the strategies each program employs to help students/residents strengthen their professional purpose, from early clinical exposure to supporting socio-professional affinity/mentoring programs (such as “scholarly houses” or “interest groups”). Some schools tout accelerated 3-year tracks to help students become primary care providers.

Attributes of a Purposeful Applicant

  • Strategic vision that produces positive progress to address grand challenges by leveraging one’s and others’ talents, experiences, values, and training.
  • Commitment to Learning and Growth from successes, challenges, and mistakes while tackling shorter-term problems and opportunities.
  • Empathy, compassion for, and connection with local and global communities, guided by expert champions, role models, and mentors who advocate for those needing help.
  • Courage that is grounded in ethical responsibility to self and others.
  • Patience, resilience, and adaptability to achieve results that fulfill one’s purpose.

The “Purpose” Theme

While having a purpose is not a requirement, applicants feel pressure to develop a “purpose” in an application for employment, program admission, or residency to avoid appearing aimless or unmotivated. Many psychologists show that those with a sense of purpose have more resiliency, recover from negative experiences more quickly, and live healthier lives. For example, people with a greater sense of purpose were more willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, even factoring in demographics or political affiliation.

Young adults can examine their connections with social groups to reveal a roadmap for a fulfilling life. As the Making Caring Project suggests, strategies include reflecting on meaningful activities where one is committed to caring for others, primarily if one supports those who are directly in need. Working with partners or teams, one can emotionally invest in relationships with peers or mentors who share a common goal. Individuals can see how their purpose has additional value when their impact on others can be amplified and reciprocated. 

Applicants can holistically address “Why healthcare?” by revealing their purpose through their activities and accomplishments. By focusing on meaningful activities, relationships, competencies, and impacts, applicants affirm their potential to grow into a fulfilling healthcare career and understand the specific experiences and guidance they need to discern their purpose and talents more effectively. The programs they want can help applicants leverage their experiences as motivation to be effective learners and inspiring role models. 

Popular American society seems to prioritize having a career-oriented purpose, but other cultures focus on a purpose with a family, community, or global focus. Activities, mentors, and learning opportunities help applicants gain additional insights about historically marginalized communities’ needs beyond access to quality education or health. Some schools prefer applicants who have immersed themselves to become effective advocates through their engagement with these communities.

Can You Articulate Your Purpose?

Take The Purpose Quiz

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley has a 20-question quiz to measure how strongly you can articulate your life purpose. 

A good “purpose statement” is more specific than “I want to help people when they are ill.” For example, applicants can start with this example: “I feel fulfilled when patients can manage their chronic pain after our therapy sessions.” 

Why Us? Reviewing Applications With a Purpose-Oriented Lens

For other graduate programs, applicants are asked to submit an “academic statement of purpose” to demonstrate the skills, opportunities, and accomplishments for a strong fit with a specific research lab, department, or school. Often, this statement includes evidence that you have made efforts to include experiences that expose you to more diverse communities or perspectives. Such two-page statements answer the simple question: “Why are you applying to our program?”

What resonates with application screeners is the appreciation of the diligent pursuit of their interest in a health professional career. Through acquiring competency in various skills that positively impact others, application reviewers can discern the applicant’s motivation to further upgrade their talents as trainees over the next decade. Applicants who can discuss how each experience and significant problem helped shape their purpose more easily signal their program fit worthy of admission or a hiring offer.

In health professions admissions, applicants get fewer characters to answer the same question on secondary essays or interviews. The best answers identify key opportunities a program offers that complement or address the candidate’s meaningful experiences toward their professional purpose. By identifying a scholarly track or graduate degree whose projects address problems that align with one’s professional motivation, an applicant can articulate their affinity to attend and graduate from the program.

Here are some brief examples of “purpose”

Reflections for Your Journal: Questions On How Purposeful Your Career Decision Is

  • Which activities show you are a “dabbler,” a “dreamer,” or apathetic?
  • Why have you changed your behaviors to manifest your purpose? What sacrifices have honed your focus on your purpose? How is this reflected in your application profile?
  • Are you healthier or happier when working with activities that are aligned with your purpose? What would interest you in a different purpose?
  • What barriers prevent you from pursuing a purposeful life? Why do they remain barriers?
  • What problems (that you have tackled post-high school) steered you towards finding your purpose in helping others as a healthcare professional?
  • Why is it so important to your community that you have a health professional role? Why does this matter to you now?
  • Why does your purpose inspire others to support you? How do you share your purpose with others in your community? Are you surrounded by coaches, mentors, peers, and champions who challenge you to reach higher goals and expectations?
  • Is your support family and community nurturing your purpose despite any criticisms or reservations?

What If I Haven’t Found My Purpose?

Most psychologists and counselors know that as one begins to assume more responsibilities, one’s purpose may change or be replaced by another “calling.” Personal or family circumstances may affect one’s enjoyment of those activities that can make one happy or fulfilled as new interests emerge. Failing an exam or being dismissed from a program derails one’s dreams of manifesting their career dreams. Becoming open to other options from experiences in the field is a natural part of life and maturation. Letting go of past “purposes” (such as becoming a doctor) should not be perceived as a failure if one finds another more personally fulfilling purpose. Consider these options before an academic failure or personal health forces you to take a different course.

The practice of healthcare is subject to technological and informational changes that may leave many dissatisfied. Owning a solo practice (as was common in veterinary medicine, dentistry, optometry, or pharmacy) has become more challenging as small-group, hospital-owned, or corporate-run practices become normalized. Family considerations may shape decisions that could affect a choice of specialty, geographic location for practice, or work-life flexibility, even temporarily. Your social groups may change as your interests or availability changes.

Medical students further face a paralyzing decision for a specialty that leverages talents, life experience, workforce needs, and community impact balanced against their accomplishments and evaluations in medical school; in short, their “purpose” as medical school applicants is still immature. Declaring one’s purpose to be an orthopedist to professional athletes requires mentoring, support, and resources to excel, and expressing appropriate humility to seek such support to achieve one’s purpose should include the overall mission of the partnering school and community.

If you haven’t found a concise way to express your purpose, start by talking about what makes you happy to work with others who value your help or expertise. What activities drive you to raise your standards, connect with rivals and coaches, or seek new approaches and ideas? How you have spent your time reflects the purpose you have prioritized and balanced in your life. Your application should point this out when we evaluate your resume or work/activities inventory in your essays and your interview responses.

Purpose makes a doctor get up at 3 am for 6 am rounds. Purpose drives doctors to open their practice doors by 8 am every morning with a smile, to expand their footprint by opening an additional location, or to participate in pro bono charity clinics. Purpose grounds us to make a difference in others’ lives towards their successes, no matter how intractable the difficulties may be. Purpose will fuel your happiness, wellness, and resilience for the next decade or so to come. 

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