What I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Doctor

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It felt like yesterday that I was a pre-med in college and eager to begin the journey of becoming a doctor. Now that I have my M.D., I’d like to share with you some realities that you may not be aware of. These are the things I wish I knew before I became a doctor.

 

1 | You Learn a Lot, and Forget a Lot

First, I’ll start by saying medical school is awesome. In some ways, I even enjoyed it more than college.

One of the many rewarding aspects of medical school is the amount of fascinating information you’ll learn about the human body. It’s a lot of information to go through in just four years. You’ll likely hit the peak of your medical knowledge after taking Step 2CK at the end of your third year, after which it’s all downhill. In your fourth year, you’ll begin specializing towards the field you want to pursue. Your knowledge will no longer be broad, but rather will become more specialized to your field of choice. From broad and shallow to narrow and deep. That’s how your knowledge shifts.

 

2 | Nurses Can Be Your Best Friend, or Worst Enemy

I’m lucky in that I never (at least to my knowledge) got on the bad side of any nurses, but I’ve seen multiple colleagues and classmates who have. As a medical student and resident, nurses can be your best friend. While nurses won’t have more medical knowledge than you, they often have much more experience. And when you’re new to clinical rotations or just starting residency, that’s something you lack.

Stay on their good side and you’ll be glad you did — whether that’s helping catch your mistakes or choosing not to page you over silly insignificant matters, they can make your life much easier. On the other hand, if you’re on their bad side, expect to be paged incessantly about trivial matters, and don’t be surprised if they make you look bad.

 

3 | People Skills Are a Must, Including Public Speaking

As it is for many, public speaking was one of my greatest fears. I took comfort in the fact that as a doctor, I wouldn’t have to speak in front of large audiences. Right?

Wrong! Public speaking, and multiple other social skills, are necessary to be a leader of the medical team and an effective physician. If you despise public speaking, don’t worry, I once did too. But I overcame my fear of public speaking, and even grew to enjoy it, during my time in medical school. The details of that journey will be posted in a separate video on my personal YouTube channel. Link in the description below.

After entering the medical field, I’ve spoken in front of hundreds of attending plastic surgeons when presenting my research at conferences. This is arguably the scariest of my public speaking experiences, since surgeon personalities are not the most forgiving. It’s not just research conferences, though. You’ll also have to effectively convey information in group learning situations, among the medical team, which you will lead as a physician, and when teaching colleagues or students during didactic time.

 

4 | Not All Specialties Are Created Equal

One of the beautiful things about medicine is the diversity of the field. You have to go through medical school to become either a plastic surgeon or a pathologist, and everything between. For this reason, medicine is highly flexible and most people can find a specialty they love that is suited to their personality.

Specialty Lifestyle

That being said, some specialties will have significant impacts on your life outside of the hospital. For example, surgical specialties make it difficult to live a balanced life, particularly if you go into something like neurosurgery or trauma. Expect long and unpredictable hours. On the other hand, specialties like emergency medicine have shift work, making your hours clearly defined, and other specialties like primary care have more standard and predictable working hours.

Competitiveness of Residency

Even as a medical student, prior to entering a specialized residency, the specialty you intend to match into will dictate your lifestyle. To have a shot at matching into a solid plastic surgery program, I had to try much harder than my colleagues going into other specialties. That meant I needed to target the top grades in all my rotations, top scores on my Step and shelf exams, and publish as many research articles as possible. Living a balanced life was a challenge.

I had two friends in medical school who were beasts in the gym. They spent 2 hours lifting each day, and both entered and even had podium finishes in bodybuilding competitions. Both were also set on entering orthopedic surgery (big surprise, right?), but their dedication to fitness was difficult to balance with the time and effort required to be a top student. In the end, neither was competitive enough for a field like ortho, and they matched into family medicine and ophthalmology, both of which are substantially less competitive. If you want to know more about which specialties are competitive, check out our analysis here.

 

5 | You’ll Never View Death and Suffering the Same Again

It’s a privilege caring for people in their darkest and most trying hours. A reality of that situation is dealing with death. It will be tough on you, and it will be tough on the families.

There’s a silver lining, though, in your experience dealing with death. Earlier this year in 2019, my grandmother passed. While I was sad, I had a unique perspective as a physician. From experiencing deaths in the hospital, to discussing these issues in my medical school small groups, to reading books like When Breath Becomes Air and Being Mortal, I had a more mature and realistic experience of life and death.

Too many patients die in scary hospital rooms under traumatic conditions in order to extend life at all costs, even at the cost of their quality of life. When my grandmother passed at the age of 89, she was in the comfort of her own home, surrounded by her family and loved ones. She passed peacefully in her sleep, and because she was DNR, there was no CPR, and no broken ribs, and much less suffering. She lived a good life, and she passed in the best way possible. Before becoming a doctor, it would not have been natural for me to have this perspective.

 

6 | You Still Won’t Know the Answer to a Lot of Common Questions

It’s impressive how much knowledge of the human body we have amassed in modern medicine. This ties in to the first point — it’s truly awe inspiring how much you’ll learn in medical school, and yet still realize you’ve only scratched the surface.

At the same time, it’s also amazing how much we don’t know. You’ll receive countless questions from non-medical people that you won’t know the answer to. Contrary to what the public thinks, doctors (and modern medicine) don’t know everything about the human body.

As you’ve seen on my personal channel, I have Crohn’s disease. Even for a question as simple as “what is the best diet for someone with my condition?” we don’t have an answer. I’ve been experimenting with different options, from plant based, to gluten free, to the specific carbohydrate diet, and many more.

Medicine contains much more gray area than black and white. You’ll note that true experts speak in the gray area and acknowledge the limitations of current medical research. Rather, it is the ignorant that speak in absolutes. Take diet for example. There are die hard fans of ketogenic diets, paleo diets, vegan or plant-based diets, and many more. A true expert on nutrition, and someone who has critically examined the literature, will tell you that there’s a great deal of conflicting data, and that the research in nutrition is plagued with problems that obscure the truth. But check out the YouTube comments and you’ll find countless emotionally charged keyboard warriors that claim to know better.

If you enjoyed this post, you should also read two additional blog posts. The first is the Perks of Becoming a Doctor, and the second is Do Not Go to Medical School (If This is You).

If you’re currently a pre-med or a medical student, Med School Insiders has the resources and services that will strengthen your application and maximize your odds of gaining acceptance to a medical school or residency program. We don’t believe in cookie cutter approaches, and that’s why we have over a 99% satisfaction rate. As you all know, I’m a huge proponent of optimizing systems to produce repeatable and desirable results. We’ve painstakingly optimized our own systems over several months of development, and our results speak for themselves. Check out our services to learn more.

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