It’s interview season. You’ve spent at least the past six months writing, writing, writing to convince admissions committees that medicine is the only possible career for you, the one that will allow you to fulfill your personal and professional goals, the one your passions have driven you towards. So what should you make of this common interview question?
First, don’t panic.
You don’t have to disavow everything you’ve said up to this point. It isn’t a trick question, either - the interviewer is just trying to get a better sense of you as a person and is probably genuinely curious about how you’d fulfill your mission and passions if medicine wasn’t an option. Since this question can feel like it’s coming from left field, it helps to have thought through it beforehand. Ideally, you’ll be able to accomplish these key goals in your answer:
- Highlight a side of your interests or background that hasn’t gotten much play in your application up to this point. Maybe it’s your saxophone talent from high-school jazz band, or your childhood dream of becoming a writer that's now manifested in casual blogging. You’re adding more personal depth to the stack of papers your interviewer has seen from you up to this point!
- Show that the fascinations and personal traits you’ve demonstrated in your application apply to you regardless of whether or not you become a doctor - these traits are really who you are in medicine and beyond.
- Tell a story about an experience that could fit into either medicine or this alternative career.
Let’s expand on those last two goals.
Goal #2: Personal Traits
Sometimes, applicants get caught up in “donning the trappings of medicine” and stamping their persona with that of the “Every Doctor.” It’s a trap that leads people to talk about how much they love science and people and healing. Of course, inclinations to all of these aspects of medicine are important, but you’re unique, and no other applicants, let alone medical students, share your combination of experiences, interests, and talents. These are the nuggets that really define you, and it’s important your interviewer gets to see them - you’ll be much more authentic and memorable!
So, take a look at your experiences and personal characteristics, especially those that are familiar to the interviewer from your application: which of these could come together to guide you into a different profession? Even if most of your experiences have been medicine-focused, that doesn’t mean you have to pick some other healthcare career: think about the non-medicine aspects of those endeavors. Would your delight in children lead you to become a primary school teacher? Would the reward of relieving others’ stress and connecting with people drive you to become an actor? Maybe the allure of detective work and solving puzzles would make you a great archaeologist or journalist! Your choice shouldn’t be random - it should make sense with the person you are today and the person you’ve painted a picture of in your application and interview so far.
Lastly, like every question in the interview, this is also an opportunity to show how you’re a great fit for medicine.
What? Isn’t that the opposite of the point of this question?
Well, just because you’re talking about another career doesn’t mean the way you talk about it can’t draw parallels to aspects of medicine. When you describe what in your portfolio might drive you to become a teacher, an experience that speaks to the reward of empowering your pupil or the challenge of drawing up lesson plans according to their needs creates a link in the interviewer’s mind to something they’ve experienced in their own career, such as educating a patient or creating a unique treatment plan.
You don’t need to be explicit about drawing these connections (the words “just like in medicine” shouldn’t cross your lips). Instead, it’s most helpful if you simply curate an experience or two that helps the interviewer come to that conclusion on their own.
This takes some thought, and it may help to practice telling that story ahead of the interview. What about medicine is also found in this other career that you’re interested in? Advocacy or the pursuit of justice? Human connection? Investigation? Mentorship and education? Healing of some other kind? Be strategic: when you describe why you would pick your alternative path, describe an experience that makes sense for that career… and also for one in medicine.
To sum up, let your interests choose your alternative career, and practice describing how that alternative career draws on your knowledge of what it takes to be a doctor. The best answers to this interview question will add depth to your character, fill out the picture of you as a person, and reinforce why a career in medicine makes sense for you!