So, you want to be a doctor. Maybe you remember playing with your plastic doctor’s kit when you were little, examining all your stuffed animals’ fuzzy ears. Maybe someone in your family works in a healthcare profession, and you always admired what they could do. Or, maybe in school, you realized that you excelled at science and enjoyed learning about the intricate mechanisms of the human body, but also wanted a career where you could help people in dimensions of both the body and mind.
These are definitely good reasons to become a doctor. However, as a second-year medical student at Harvard, I would like to add an additional perspective that may be helpful to pre-meds or others considering medicine. I’d like to challenge you to be as close to absolutely sure as you can that this is the career that you want, before committing to medicine.
The journey to become a physician is not easy. Furthermore, medicine is challenging, frustrating, at times, even heartbreaking, with the potential to reveal both the best and worst of human nature. What I am advising you to do is to spend time with yourself, think about who you are and what you want to do, and envision the journey ahead, before committing to a career in medicine. If you are able to reflect deep within yourself and emerge with an even stronger conviction to become a physician, then your commitment will certainly carry you far even during the tougher times of your training.
Without further ado, here are 5 questions that pre-meds should ask themselves before committing to a career in medicine:
1) Are you ready to work hard, possibly accumulate years of debt, and spend your 20s or 30s studying and working long hours?
You most likely have already heard that a career in medicine isn’t necessarily a breeze. Have you thought about what this personally means for you?
Imagine: after college, many of your friends will likely be working and starting their “adult lives.” But, you will still be in school, many years away from being a doctor and having a job. Even after 4+ years of medical school, you are still not at the end of your training, and in fact you will face some of the most difficult years ahead. At times, it can seem like your peers are moving ahead, while you’re still stuck on the same treadmill.
I am not trying to paint a bleak image of medical training; after all, the training will pay off and will quite likely lead to a satisfying career. The long years of training are there for a reason: to prepare future physicians for a fulfilling and patient-centered career.
However, my advice is to try to imagine, in as much detail as possible, what this would mean for you. Would the journey of medicine be compatible with your financial, personal, family plans?
Of course, many people make the long journey of medicine compatible with very different life plans and goals. But my word of caution is that your motivations for selecting this career should be clear to you before going into it. If your motivation, for instance, is to make money fast or have a relaxing lifestyle as soon as possible, then medicine is probably not the best fit.
2) Are you ready to see the best and worst of human nature? Are you ready to come into contact with some of the hardest emotions that people experience?
As a doctor and as a medical student, you will work with patients at what could be the best and worst times of their lives. You will guide patients through a terrifying diagnosis or procedure. You will encounter families that uphold each other through these hard times, and others that struggle and fall apart. You will see injuries, emotional and physical, you will see the effects of trauma, and you will see pain. You will witness the direct impact of political and social issues on the lives and health of people in your community.
In most of the specialties in medicine, with some exceptions, you will likely either get to know your patients well over time, or encounter people at some of the most tumultuous and stressful times of their lives. You have to prepare to handle some of the toughest emotions, both your patients’ and your own.
How will you empathize and care for your patients, while remaining professional and delivering the best care, and maintaining appropriate boundaries between patient and caregiver? How will you deal with the impact that these events have on your own health and emotional well-being?
These are tough questions to answer, and there definitely isn’t one right answer, but I believe that it is important to start thinking about these questions early on. A career in medicine is not just about diseases and data, it is about people. People can be complicated—this is not something to forget or take lightly.
3) You want to help people. Why not be a firefighter, researcher, therapist, social worker? Why specifically a doctor?
A common motive for going into medicine is the desire to help people. This makes sense; however, there are many ways to help people, contribute to society, and better a patient’s life outside of being a physician. To give a hypothetical example, the surgeon could take out the patient’s tumor, but what about the social worker who arranges their insurance so they can pay for the procedure, or the researcher who develops a drug so future patients wouldn’t need the surgery in the first place?
What I am trying to illustrate is that a physician is only one part of a team of many, many people who contribute to caring for patients. Are you completely sure that the physician is the role on the team that you want to take?
To bring in a more personal example, in our med school class, last year we took our “Essentials” course focusing on social issues and public health. During one class, we started discussing whether it perhaps made less sense to be a doctor and more to be a public health expert or policymaker—someone who solves issues not just on a patient level, but addresses problems at the root and makes a greater impact. When framed that way, it seems that the profession of a physician is not so significant after all.
Of course, there are many ways to think about this issue. Some of my classmates, for instance, want to both serve as physicians and act as policymakers advocating for change on a larger scale. Some others believe that even if there were different ways that they could have contributed to positive change, perhaps more effective ways, they still think that at the end of the day, medicine is what they are truly passionate about and the area where they can make the greatest impact.
Before committing to medicine, think about what “helping people” means to you. What population of people do you want to help? Why is this important to you? How best do you think you can achieve those goals, whether as a physician or a different team player?
4) Can you imagine yourself in any other career besides medicine?
Again, I would like to bring a personal example into this. Before med school, I spent the majority of my time not on medical or scientific topics, but on music and writing. I was classically trained in music, and outside of music, my passions were fiction writing and journalism. I remember feeling incredibly uncertain about how I would feel to give up these areas of my life, or at the very least significantly compromise the amount of time and energy I spent on them. Was committing to a career in medicine worth this kind of “sacrifice?”
Reflect on what your other passions are—how would you feel pursuing a career in one of those areas instead? Would it be possible that that career could make you happier in the long run, turn out to be more fulfilling, or align better with your life plans? If you did choose medicine, how comfortable would you be with relinquishing your dedication to those other passions?
On the flip side, I will say that medicine is a unique type of career in that many physicians are not just physicians, but also physician-writers, physician-politicians, physician-entrepreneurs, physician-scientists…
So, if you have other interests besides medicine, I do want to provide the encouragement that it is possible to pursue your other interests and remain a well-rounded individual with great passion for your work in different areas, alongside your medical career. Personally, I hope to continue pursuing music and writing, and to even integrate them into patient care, as I believe that the mind and the body are both important to healing.
5) Are you ready to open your own life to those of your patients?
Finally, I think this is the most important question. If the answer is “yes,” then that is a good sign that a medical career would be a strong fit for you.
In medicine, I believe that it always comes back to the patient. What is most important is caring for the person in front of us, being someone that our patients can trust and rely on. It sounds cheesy, but if you feel like you’re able to open your heart to your patients, and be someone who wants to help them through some of the toughest times they will go through, then medicine might be something that is fulfilling to you. It’s not always easy, and sometimes our patients might frustrate or challenge us, but at the end of the day we care about the role that we can play in their healing.
So, to summarize—I think that these are some of the important questions to ask yourself before committing to a career in medicine. It’s pragmatic to ask these questions, to spend time reflecting upon yourself and making sure you know what you want, so that you can pursue the path that is right for you.
If it turns out medicine probably wasn’t right for you after all, that’s awesome—it’s great that you took the time to figure out what you wanted. And, if you have spent time asking these questions, and come out from it strengthened in your resolve to pursue a medical career, that’s awesome too. No matter how challenging the road gets, you know that it will be worth it, and that you’re dedicated to something that will make you happy and fulfilled and allow you to make the contribution that you want to make.