Becoming a doctor isn’t as straightforward as deciding to attend medical school. As a future physician, there are 5 important decisions you’ll need to make that will shape your experience, future options, and even your happiness. Here’s how to navigate them.
Which Medical School to Attend
If you search how to decide which medical school to attend, most blogs and forums like Reddit or SDN will tell you to just go to the cheapest medical school. They argue that any increased cost of attending a more expensive school will surely not be worth the added loan burden, as the quality of education across medical schools, at least in the United States, is more or less the same.
The issue with this oversimplification is that it completely removes important and valid nuance from the discussion.
On average, higher-ranked and larger institutions will open up more doors to you professionally than lower-ranked and smaller institutions. For example, say you want to pursue neurosurgery for residency. Unfortunately for you, neurosurgery is one of the top 5 most competitive specialties, and if your school doesn’t have a neurosurgery residency program, then you’ll be at a substantial disadvantage for multiple reasons.
Without a neurosurgery program, your exposure to the field will be limited, as will your ability to secure letters of recommendation and neurosurgeon mentors who can bat for you when it’s residency application time. For smaller specialties like neurosurgery, ENT, plastic surgery, cardiothoracic surgery, and many others, who you know and who is willing to vouch for you is massively important in your residency match outcome. Additionally, these smaller specialties have fewer residency programs across the nation, primarily academic in nature rather than community. And some academic institutions, particularly old school elite programs, tend to care more about your “pedigree”, which is a silly way of saying they care about how elite and impressive your medical school is. After all, they want to maintain their elite and superior aura, which is silly but is a reality of the situation.
The other important consideration in choosing a medical school to attend is the location. Where you attend medical school is often in the same region in which you’ll attend residency, which is often in the same location you’ll practice as an attending physician. This is of course not a hard and fast rule, as there are many exceptions, but it is a strong trend. For this reason, I urge students to choose a school in a location where they will be happy. I prioritized UC San Diego over some other top 5 medical school acceptances because I love San Diego and it is a phenomenal program. Even after doing my medical training there and having associated stressful memories or challenging times, it’s still a magical place I love to visit.
If you’d like to be a physician in the US, it’s much easier to do so if you attend medical school in the US. While Caribbean and other international options are much much much easier to gain admission into, they also make it far more difficult to match successfully into a desirable residency program.
Friends & Relationship Partners
The next decision relates to who you associate with most. Just ask around or even view the comments to my videos, and you’ll see that the medical school experience can vary greatly for different people.
From my perspective, medical school is a grind, requiring immense dedication. Someone else may have a very valid opinion on the other end of the spectrum, stating their medical school experience was more relaxed than college, and they had plenty of time for relaxing, working out, and spending time with friends. If both could be true, why is there such a discrepancy?
It comes down to your medical school and residency goals, which shapes how you need to allocate your time and energy.
If you want to either attend a top-tier institution for residency or hopefully match into one of the hypercompetitive fields of dermatology or plastic surgery, then you’ll have to work much harder than if you are happy matching to a community program in family medicine. One isn’t better than the other, but one will require far more dedication and work ethic. By aiming to score at the top of your class or hit the 260’s for USMLE, your approach and experience of medical school will be in stark contrast to your classmate who is content simply passing class exams while scoring 220 on USMLE.
While your goals should ultimately be set by you, it’s shocking how much our behaviors and routines are influenced by others. If your friends say you study too much and should relax more, you’ll probably find yourself studying less than if you were surrounded by friends with similar goals.
Relationships are a mixed bag, and I’m not for or against them during medical school. I was in a relationship and it was a good experience and I grew a lot from it, but keep in mind relationships can be a distraction and add complication to your life if they’re unhealthy.
If you’re dating another medical student, you’ll both understand each other’s professional demands, but if your partner isn’t in healthcare, it’s highly likely there will be some tension over your lack of time.
Choosing a Specialty
Your specialty choice is arguably the most important decision you’ll make in your medical training. After all, this single decision will dictate your future career as a physician, including your work-life balance, compensation, risk of burnout, and day-to-day reality as a medical professional.
If you’re not sure where to start, the easiest place is to first decide whether you want to be surgical or non-surgical, since the two are so different. If you’re stuck between one surgical and one non-surgical field, it’s likely because you haven’t gotten enough exposure to each. And as many surgeons will tell you, only do surgery if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else – the reason being it’s extremely demanding.
After that, it’s common to focus on things like work-life balance, bread and butter, and the patient population. But don’t forget often overlooked considerations, such as the long-term viability of the specialty. After all, you’ll likely be practicing for at least a few decades. Some questions to ponder include whether or not there is a high likelihood that the demand for that type of specialist will decrease in the future based on new technologies. Are dynamics changing due to midlevel scope creep, thus reducing the need for physicians in that specialty? Is it already saturated and is the job market highly competitive? These are concerns very much impacting several specialties today.
Your specialty decision will also determine how hardcore you need to be in medical school, which ties in with the previous point. If you want to become a plastic surgeon or orthopedic surgeon, your experience of medical school will be completely different than if you were trying to match into anesthesiology or family medicine, or emergency medicine.
Everyone needs a mentor to most effectively navigate through the gauntlet that is medical school. Mentors will shape your approach to medical school and your future career as a physician. They’ll tell you what to prioritize, and what not to waste time on. They’ll offer useful guidance, and if you have a few different mentors, great, as they can provide various perspectives, allowing you to make well-informed decisions.
Ideally, you want that mentor to be in your intended specialty, but it doesn’t always have to be the case. One of my mentors was in internal medicine and I found tremendous value in that relationship, even though I went into plastic surgery. I simply had additional mentors within plastic surgery who could speak to the specifics of the field.
There’s no single way to find a mentor, but it generally requires a bit of work and a bit of luck. For many, their research principal investigators become mentors. Or perhaps it’s the clinical preceptor that you rotate with. Maybe you’ve befriended some upperclassmen who can offer guidance in navigating your specific medical school, rotations, and hospitals. In extracurriculars, like Free Clinic, you may take a particular liking to one of the doctors there and begin a mentor-mentee relationship.
There’s no right or wrong, but always respect your mentor’s time, maintain integrity, and keep your word.
Inputs & Resources
Finally, be careful with regards to the inputs and resources you choose in medical school. If you’re constantly reading SDN, a place riddled with neuroses and anxieties, then don’t be surprised if you find neurotic and anxious tendencies in yourself. If you frequent political news sources, which tend to be biased one way or the other, you’ll likely find yourself more angry, self-righteous, and intolerant of opposing viewpoints.
Based on where you are in life, there are certain resources and inputs you want to prioritize and invest in. Back in residency, I remember deciding between buying the new iPhone to replace my aging one or enrolling in a similarly priced course. I ultimately chose the course, and I’m glad I did, as it taught me many important life lessons and introduced me to lifelong friends. Even as a premed and medical student, I was much more willing to pinch pennies in most domains of my life, such as tech, going out, traveling, and even food, as long as it wasn’t junk food. But I always prioritized my professional life and academic success, and that paid off in big ways.
When someone tells you they don’t have time to exercise, it’s actually that they don’t prioritize it over other activities in their life. Oftentimes when someone says they cannot afford to eat healthily or buy a study tool, it’s again simply a matter of prioritization.
As a premed, you shouldn’t take your MCAT prep lightly, and you should invest your time, energy, and money in the resources that have the greatest odds of helping you achieve your MCAT score goals. In July of 2021, as I record this video, I would point you to these three resources: AAMC official practice materials, UWorld for practice questions, and Memm for content review and memorization.
When applying to medical school, you similarly want help from trusted experts who can elevate your application, help you get into your dream school, and even make it possible to earn merit-based scholarships to reduce your loan burden. That alone saved me six figures in student loans. As you look at resources and companies to work with, seek out those who are actual MD physicians, not PhDs or other types of doctors that didn’t go to medical school. Look for those who have achieved stellar results themselves, a track record of success with positive ratings from customers, and a systematic approach so you know you’ll always receive high-quality service. If you decide on Med School Insiders, we’d love to be a part of your journey in becoming a future physician.