The decision to pursue medicine is not one to be taken lightly. It’s a long, arduous path, not only with a tremendous financial cost, but also sacrifices to work-life balance, opportunity cost, and countless other compromises. Do you ever wonder if maybe the field of medicine is overhyped? Let’s set the record straight.
We all have biases, and I like to think I do a good job of being aware and mindful of my own. As a physician myself who was specializing in reconstructive plastic surgery, who then changed gears and now builds medical technology and medical education companies, I obviously have biases. So I’ll start with this to quell some of those concerns: yes, becoming a doctor is, in fact, overhyped, and I believe that a large number of people pursue medicine for the wrong reasons. But I also think that becoming a doctor can be a tremendously rewarding and gratifying experience.
How to Navigate the Conflicting Advice
If you’ve ever asked someone what they think of becoming a physician, chances are they had a highly polarized response. On one hand, if you asked your parents, for example, they may have gushed about how it’s the most important thing for you to do to be successful and be deemed worthy in their eyes. But if you asked a physician in the middle of his or her residency, they likely told you to run as far away as possible.
Then you have the armchair experts who aren’t even close to having any expertise. These are self-proclaimed career experts, bloggers, or YouTube gurus who never went to medical school, know nothing about what it’s like to be a doctor, but somehow feel qualified to tell you about the true, secret, unfiltered and uncut reality of medicine. They’re incentivized to be polarizing to garner more clicks, but as I like to say, the truth to most things is somewhere in the middle. The only reason you should listen to these people is to learn what snake-oil salesmen look like and how to avoid falling for their tricks.
Is Being a Doctor Overhyped?
I’d argue that becoming a physician is overhyped for the simple reason that the expectations and popular stereotypes of doctors aren’t all that accurate. The sexy allure of calling yourself a doctor often leads to a large number of students entering the field for the wrong reasons.
1 | Status & Respect
Will you earn status and respect for all the hard work you put in to become a physician? Absolutely. While PA’s, nurses, and other healthcare professionals all work hard, none of these paths come close to the rigor of doing 4 years of medical school plus 3-7 years of residency. You’ve definitely deserved the status and respect that comes with being a physician. If you’re a nurse, physician assistant, or other healthcare workers, I’m not downplaying the hard work you have put in, or the value you provide to the healthcare team, which is tremendous. I am, however, pointing to the fact that becoming a physician is a far more rigorous training process. That’s why physicians have the greatest responsibility and provide oversight in the healthcare team.
But don’t expect the status and respect to actually mean much. In your day to day life, it won’t contribute to any meaningful difference in your happiness. Sure, you’ll have some patients express extreme gratitude, but don’t be surprised when you come across entitled or even disrespectful patients. Being a physician doesn’t make you immune to being treated poorly by patients, hospital administrators, and sometimes even your senior colleagues. Plus, the popular narrative in the media is that physicians are greedy and make too much money and that we’re to blame for the ballooning costs of healthcare. Spoiler alert: physician salaries are not the reason for the exorbitant costs of healthcare, but rather rapidly growing administrative costs, pharmaceutical and equipment costs, and the mess that is health insurance.
2 | Money & Wealth
When it comes to the salary physicians pull in, let’s be real — it’s one of few the professions that can safely guarantee a mid-six-figure income. Can you make more as a CEO or startup founder? Of course, but the chances of you actually becoming CEO of a megacorp or a successful startup founder are infinitely smaller. As a physician, if you work hard and follow the path laid ahead of you, you’ll be making $200,000 to $800,000 per year on average, depending on your specialty. Primary care will be closer to $200k, and surgical subspecialties like neurosurgery, orthopedic surgery, and plastic surgery will be on the higher end.
But this doesn’t come without significant cost, notably opportunity cost. While most of your college friends will graduate and start working with a meaningful salary, you’ll be doing 4 years of medical school and taking out loans. That means while their net worth increases, yours decreases. Then you’ll do 3-7 years of residency where you’ll only be making around $55,000 per year. The average medical school graduate has $190,000 in student loans. So while you make a much larger salary by the time you’re in your 30’s, you’ll be starting off far behind your peers who have been working and saving for the last 10 years.
As I’ve outlined in a previous analysis, it won’t be until your 40’s that you catch up to your engineering colleagues. There’s good and bad to the situation. The good news is that in your late 30’s and onward, you’ll be very comfortable financially. The bad news is that in your 20’s and early 30’s, you’ll feel quite strapped for cash. Can you say “delayed gratification”?
Be mindful that sensationalists have tried to argue that the salaries are far worse than the averages suggest because of malpractice insurance. Understand that the majority of physicians, who work for larger practices, groups, and medical centers, have malpractice insurance already included. It’s the private practice physicians who would pay for their own malpractice out of pocket, but they also generally pull in much higher average incomes than their salaried colleagues.
3 | Desire to Help Others
When it comes to career satisfaction, the data doesn’t lie — if you want to be selfish and maximize your own happiness, you should help others. The issue I’ve noticed is that too many premeds point to their desire in helping others as a primary driver in drawing them to the field of medicine. They usually also add that they like math and science, particularly biology.
That’s fine, but understand if you enjoy science and want to help people, you could also pursue just about any other career in healthcare, like nurse practitioner, nurse, physician assistant, CRNA, respiratory therapist, and several others. Those paths come with far less debt, far less responsibility and stress, and far less time in school or in training.
Why Being a Doctor is Awesome
But that obviously doesn’t paint the whole picture. If being an NP, PA, or CRNA was better than being a physician, there would be a mass exodus of students from premed to other healthcare tracks. It’s not that being a doctor is better than being a midlevel provider — it’s just different, and what is best for you will be highly dependent on your own individual personality, desires, and priorities.
1 | Autonomy & Intellectual Stimulation
If you’re highly curious, intellectual, and love problem solving and critical thinking, being a doctor will satisfy that need and then some. Innovating in the operating room as a surgeon, working up an obscure and challenging medical case, or even conducting research to further improve medical care are uniquely rewarding aspects of being a physician.
This does come with added responsibility, however, as you’ll be the one who’s butt is on the line if something in the workup or treatment goes wrong. For most of us, that’s not a big issue, and it’s a small price to pay for the added reward and fulfillment you experience when things go well. When you take ownership of treating a patient and are the one actually calling the shots, you’re putting in a larger investment. The downside is that when things go south, and sometimes they do in medicine as we cannot cure everything, the lows can be more challenging too.
As a midlevel, like a PA, you’ll be able to switch specialties, but you’re essentially forever working at the level of a resident. If you’re ok with that, more power to you. I would personally rather stick to one specialty and go deep, rather than be only surface level on multiple different specialties. As a PA in the operating room, that means you’re only ever primary assist, helping retract or suture at the end of the case, but never doing the actual surgery. If you’re in the clinic or in a hospital setting, you’ll always be working under a physician and needing approval on your work. This is highly dependent on one’s personality, and those who appreciate the fulfillment of being a physician are generally not the types who would enjoy the restrictions on practicing as a midlevel.
2 | Job Security & Pay
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Don’t go into medicine for the money. At the same time, the high earning potential, while it shouldn’t be a primary driver, is certainly a strong perk working in its favor. The 2010 study by Kahneman and Deaton is often misquoted as definitive proof that any income beyond $75,000 doesn’t improve your level of happiness. If only that were true.
I made a post exploring scientific literature about wealth and happiness. In short, yes, higher incomes, and more specifically multi-million dollar net worths are associated with statistically significant improvements in lifetime happiness and satisfaction, particularly when they are earned rather than inherited or acquired through a windfall.
3 | Expansive Opportunities
Beyond practicing clinical medicine as a physician, there are countless other opportunities for MD’s and DO’s. These days, there are ever-increasing numbers of doctors with side hustles. Just because I quit plastic surgery residency to focus on my multiple businesses doesn’t mean you have to. It just depends on your specialty and what your outside interests are.
For example, if you choose a specialty with more predictable hours or a better work-life balance, it’s not only possible but actually quite common to have other professional pursuits. That’s why you see so many emergency medicine physicians and anesthesiologists with blogs, real estate businesses, or other income-generating hobbies in addition to their clinical practice.
You can also get involved in basic or clinical scientific research, hospital administration, public health, public policy, consulting, and much more.
How to Cap the Downside and Maximize the Upside
Being a doctor is overrated because of the public perception inaccuracies of what it means to be a physician — not because it isn’t an awesome profession.
That being said, there are some substantial downsides to wary of. Namely, the rigor of premed, medical school, and residency is unlike anything else. And second, the financial costs are substantial, to say the least.
The good news is that you can cap the downside and maximize the upside. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too? Premed, medical school, and residency become far easier and more approachable when you learn to study effectively, efficiently, and master time management. It’s not just about studying hard but studying smart. You don’t have to be burned out and miserable. By implementing the study strategies that I provide here on our blog, you can learn how to become far more effective as a student, meaning less time studying, better grades, and more free time to hang out with friends and lead a balanced life.
The financial concerns are not unfounded either. I paid for my own college and my own medical school, but the good news is that I was able to take minimal loans because I became a stellar student. I wasn’t born the smartest, or the most gifted, or from a privileged background. But I intentionally honed my strategies, studied the system, and ruthlessly experimented, implemented, and optimized my own systems to get a 99.9th percentile MCAT score, nearly perfect GPA, and multiple publications. By the time I applied to medical school, top programs were fighting over me, and I was able to earn a merit-based scholarship covering my full tuition and most of my living expenses to my #1 choice. Who says you can’t learn to do the same?
If you want to learn how to be a top student to cap the downside and maximize the upside, we have a team of over 100 top physicians at Med School Insiders who are on standby, ready to help you achieve your dreams. Our customers love us, and it’s no surprise why — we deliver results.
What do you think — is being a doctor overhyped? I’d love to hear your take in the comments down below. Thank you all so much for reading!