6 Things No One Tells You About Being a Doctor

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White coats, behemoth salaries, saving children by day, and reclining on your yacht by night. Ah, the sweet life of a doctor. Or is it? Here’s what they don’t tell you about being a doctor.

These are the six false perceptions that outsiders, premeds, and even some med students have about being a doctor but are ultimately far from reality.

 

1 | You Don’t Have to Be Smart to Be a Doctor

First, most people think you need to be smart to become a doctor, but it’s actually more about your work ethic. If you’re incredibly brilliant but don’t know how to study effectively, you will not succeed.

I knew a brilliant guy who went to an Ivy League school but ended up in the bottom third of his class. And it’s not just because he was at an Ivy League medical school—he simply didn’t have the work ethic and his USMLE and shelf scores reflected that. He skated by in high school and college purely on his smarts, but medical school doesn’t challenge your critical thinking as much as it challenges your memorization, and that requires putting in the reps for everyone.

Med school isn’t difficult because of what you’re learning; it’s difficult because of how much information you have to retain. It’s not nearly as intellectually challenging as something like engineering or physics. Med school requires a great deal more rote memorization than many people realize. You can’t simply rely on critical thinking like you can in high school or college to work through a difficult math problem. If you don’t put in the work, you won’t be successful.

So while a strong intellect certainly helps, what matters most is developing a rock-solid work ethic, healthy habits, and effective study strategies you can stick to.

Graphic - Work Ethic, Healthy Habits, Study Strategies

Studying smarter, not harder, is how medical students and residents succeed. Our study strategies category contains everything you need to know.

 

2 | What You’re Taught Will Be Wrong

The next thing people don’t discuss about being a doctor is that half of what you learn in medical school will become wrong in five to ten years. The difficult part is you don’t know which half will be wrong when you’re learning it.

The entire landscape of medicine is constantly evolving. That being said, the foundation of what you learn is extremely valuable in understanding the basics and why the rules are evolving.

So much of what we used to teach about cholesterol we now know to be wrong. Avoiding foods that contain cholesterol was once thought to be the most important factor to lower blood cholesterol, when in fact, foods high in dietary cholesterol have little effect on the blood cholesterol levels of the majority of people.

If we go further back through medical history, cigarettes were once thought to relieve asthma symptoms, and cocaine was seen as a wonder drug for anything from hay fever to toothaches to impotence.

Since technology and medical knowledge are advancing at a faster pace than ever before, what we consider common practice today might be completely different a decade from now.

Doctors must be adaptable, lifelong learners, as the field of medicine is always in motion.

 

3 | The Heartfelt Moments Never Get Old

Third, the heartfelt moments of being a doctor never get old.

Saving someone’s life, no matter how many times it’s happened before, feels incredibly rewarding. For many of us, this is why we went into medicine in the first place—to help people and save lives. Getting to actually do that is an amazing feeling.

Looking into the relieved and grateful eyes of a patient’s loved ones is something that really can’t be put into words. Whether it’s easing someone’s pain, reassuring family members with good news, or bringing someone back from the brink of death, these are the moments that keep physicians going—and they never get old.

 

4 | The Financial Upside Is Not as Great as You Think

Fourth, the financial upside is not as great as you think.

This can be tough for people to wrap their heads around, as doctors are some of the highest paid professionals out there. It’s the only profession where if you work hard, you’re pretty much guaranteed to make an average of low-to-mid six figures. That said, it takes a great deal of time and a huge opportunity cost to get there. It requires about a decade of schooling after college and tens of thousands of dollars in tuition to become a doctor.

If you want to work in primary care, it takes four years of college as a premed and four years of medical school. You’ll graduate medical school with around $200,000 of debt, and then you will face three to four years of residency. After that, your starting salary will be about $255,000.

Becoming a specialist takes even longer. Since specialties like plastic surgery are highly competitive, most students take an extra year for research, followed by five to seven years of residency and a fellowship. Specialists will certainly make more money than primary care physicians, with a starting salary often over $300,000, but it will be a long time before those figures come rolling in.

Graphic medical specialist career path

Doctors don’t make significant money for about ten years. It’s a major investment, especially considering the fact that many engineers can begin their careers immediately after college and earn a starting salary of close to or even over $100,000. So although a specialist’s starting salary is three times or more than that of an engineer’s, the engineer will have earned a six-figure salary for almost ten years while the specialist was taking on student loans with compounding interest.

The truth is doctors only surpass engineers in lifetime earnings at the age of 43. We broke down the financial differences between doctors and engineers in a previous video. Link in the description.

While there are some physicians who are insanely rich, generally speaking, they got there by building a practice and hiring other physicians under them. They used leverage. After ten years, they cash out and sell the business. I’ve also known physicians who simply invested wisely early on, and it’s their investments that have made them filthy rich.

While doctors are certainly high earners, being a physician is not as lucrative as most people think. And given the intensity of training, difficult hours, and emotional toll, pursuing a career in medicine for the money alone will lead to disappointment.

Graphic - intensity of training, difficult hours, and emotional toll

 

5 | Practicing Medicine Is Only One Career Path

Third, practicing medicine is only one of the career paths you can take after you get your MD. You can use your MD in entrepreneurship. You could design medical devices, start your own health tech company, or, like me, get into education consulting for premeds and medical students.

Becoming a doctor enables you to start your own side hustle, thanks to your high income. Let’s say you’re an anesthesiologist or emergency medicine physician. You can work a reasonable, set amount of part-time hours. Sure, you’ll take a pay cut, but you’re still making $200K, which is more than enough to support yourself and your family, and you can use your extra time to start your business.

On the other hand, let’s say you make $60K a year and are responsible for supporting your young family. In order to find the extra time to start your passion project, you need to cut back to $40K a year. You’re going to feel that financial strain, and so will your family. But if you’re making $200K, you’re still golden. You and your family will be taken care of even if your side hustle doesn’t make money initially.

Earning your MD doesn’t mean you’re locked into one specific career for life. Becoming a medical doctor opens a number of different doors, and not all of them have to lead to the hospital or clinic.

 

6 | Stereotypes Are Real

Lastly, while stereotypes aren’t always fair or accurate, they can be useful.

Don’t allow stereotypes to define you, but understand they’re there for a reason. Neurosurgeons are typically workaholics. Not all of them, but the specialty is so demanding that you’re going to need to work very hard. If you’re passionate about work-life balance, you’re not going to find much happiness in this career path.

Another stereotype is that pediatricians are patient people. While some doctors will defy the norm, pediatricians do need to be patient, as they work with children and their parents.

In medical school, I thought I wanted to go into pediatric gastroenterology because I was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease at 18. It was incredibly challenging for me to adjust as a young adult, so I couldn’t imagine how challenging it would be for a child. Even though I’m not the most patient person, I wasn’t worried because my passion ran deep.

But when I worked on the rotation, I quickly found out it was not the path for me. Being a pediatrician was about much more than dealing with children—it’s the parents who are the most difficult. It takes tremendous grace and composure to deal with what are essentially 2 sets of patients—the child and the parent.

In medicine, stereotypes often exist for a reason.

Your personality and communication preferences matter. Is work-life balance important to you, or do you put your career first? Do you like speaking to coworkers and interacting with patients, or would you prefer to be alone with X-rays or your research? Are you looking for excitement and adventure in your work?

An outgoing, adventure-seeking extravert will likely be pretty bored as a radiologist looking at X-rays alone all day. On the other hand, someone who wants stability and calm in their day-to-day work will likely find trauma surgery or emergency medicine stressful and draining.

While far from scientific, personality tests can provide key insight into what medical specialties you’re most naturally suited to. Check out our Myers-Briggs personality breakdown and check out 6 Things They Don’t Tell You About Medical School.

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