Medicine is a great field, but I’m obviously biased. While I do love medicine, it is not something I would recommend for everyone. It is very important that you are aware of the pros and cons and carefully decide if it is the right profession for you.
The Path to Becoming a Doctor
- First, you complete 4 years of college. You can have any major, but must complete 2 years of pre-reqs which are mostly science courses. For this reason most students choose a life science major, but again you study anything from mechanical engineering to english to political science. After college you go to medical school, which is another 4 years. After medical school you go to residency which is at least 3 years, but can be up to 7. Fellowship allows you to specialize further, which can be one or more years in addition to residency.
- Assuming you don’t take any years off in between all of that, you’ll be around your late twenties to early thirties when you finish training. Lots of people take time off, though, so it is not uncommon to be a few years older than that
- Financial aspects: The average debt for graduating medical students is currently $180,000. In residency, you will make about $50k/year, so you will barely make a dent in your debt and interest will accrue to a value much larger than $180,000. Your salary will rise after finishing training to a comfortable 6 figure income, but that varies depending on your specialty.
These are reasons you should NOT pursue a career in medicine. Be as honest with yourself as possible – do any of these apply to you?
- Going into medicine for the money is not a good idea. While you will be making well into the six figures after finishing training, you will be significantly behind the curve due to debt and opportunity cost. If money is your main concern, look elsewhere. If this doesn’t sound so bad to you, consider opportunity cost. If you started working after college and didn’t have to take on the additional debt of medical school (where you are not earning any money), you would be in a much better situation financially.
- If you hate school and hate learning, again look elsewhere. I’m not saying you need to love every subject or love the annoying parts of being a student. But if you don’t enjoy science or learning about the human body, then a career in medicine will be significantly more challenging for you. A big part of being a physician is being a life long learner. This means you have to continually educate yourself even after finishing training to stay up to date.
- If you don’t like working with people, I again urge you to look elsewhere. There are certain specialties that have limited contact with patients such as radiology or pathology. However, you still need to regularly communicate with your colleagues. For example in radiology you’ll be reading scans for surgeons, emergency physicians, hospitalists, etc. and pathology is similar.
It’s easier to tell you the reasons you should not go into medicine than the reasons you should go into medicine, as those reasons vary wildly from person to person. One thing I hear commonly from premeds and med students is the desire to help people. That’s a noble cause that I fully support and think should almost be a requirement to pursue a career as a physician. At the same time, that’s not enough. You can help people in a variety of professions. Why not be a nurse instead? Firefighters help people, as do paramedics, etc.. so there needs to be something else there.
Qualities of a Physician
- First, they are leaders of the healthcare team. You don’t have to be a leader already as it is a skill you can develop – but is it something that is appealing to you?
- Second, being a physician is a very intellectually challenging profession. Do you have an inquisitive mind? Do you like problem solving? Or would you rather be following protocols and not having to think too hard?
- Do you like working with your hands? There’s a broad range of specialties. Some have little or no procedures, like psychiatry, and others are very heavy on procedures like orthopedic surgery.
- Are you a hard worker? This is one of the most important factors to being successful as a physician. I believe that most soon-to-be physicians, current physicians, and most of the public believe that physicians are much smarter than they really are. While you definitely have to be intelligent to be a physician, its much more important that you are a hard worker. Diligence, discipline, and persistence will overpower smarts.
I have a friend who went to a top college and was known at my high school for being a genius. He never studied, often fell asleep in class, and still crushed all his tests. He went to college and did more of the same. But when he went to medical school, he struggled. From being in the top 5% of his class, he was now in the lower third. And it’s because he never developed the proper study skills and habits. The medical profession requires some critical thinking and understanding of complex concepts, but its mostly memorizing vast quantities of information. That’s why hard work trumps intelligence.
Shadowing and Gaining Exposure
One of the most important things for you to do before starting medical school is shadow. Don’t just shadow one doctor, either. Check out different specialties in different settings. Learn what it means to be a primary care physician in the community clinic, check out the operating room at an academic center, and get some exposure to inpatient medicine in the hospital. Medicine is an incredibly diverse field and you will likely gravitate towards only a few select specialties within it that are suited to your personality and interests.
Before starting medical school, I was in love with the idea of being a Gastroenterologist, motivated by a family history of GI illnesses. I thought it would be a great fit because I loved nutrition and the science behind it, wanted continuity with my patients (meaning building a relationship with them over time), and have always found satisfaction from working with my hands, and the specialty has multiple procedures. But once I got exposure to GI during my second year of medical school, I realized that it was not the field for me. While I love procedures, I didn’t find the procedure types stimulating or challenging enough. While I loved learning about certain diseases and pathologies of GI, there was much of it that didn’t excite me. (See a video of me explaining this journey in depth here)
Luckily, after gaining exposure to multiple specialties, I found plastic surgery as a perfect fit for my personality and interests. I consider myself very lucky for finding something that was such a good fit. In hindsight, I wish I would have started shadowing and getting exposure before medical school started. I did do volunteer research in the emergency department, worked with some neurologists, and did some basic science research, but that only gave me a tiny glimpse of what it meant to be a physician.
Knowing your areas of interest sooner than later will only help you in the long run. At the same time, don’t feel the pressure to decide early, but be sure to gain exposure and understand the different parts of medicine.