Hello students! My name is Monica, and I’m about to talk to you about Medicine as a career choice. I graduated from Stanford University with undergraduate degrees in Biology and Economics, and then I attended Harvard Medical School. I am currently a Pulmonary/Critical Care physician, which is a branch of Internal Medicine.
How did I decide to become a doctor? Well, like many of you, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be When I Grow Up. I entered college thinking I would be an economist or public policy wonk, crafting proposals for education or welfare reform. I even interned at a “think tank” in Washington, D.C. While I found this type of work intellectually engaging, something was missing: actual people! I knew that sitting in a cubicle all day in front of a computer probably wasn’t for me. I began to think about careers in which I could make some kind of positive difference in the world, directly engage with people, and use science/logic on a daily basis. It became clear to me that the world of medicine had a lot of offer, and I finished off my pre-med requirements by the end of senior year.
Medicine has changed a lot over the past decade, and it will change even more in the years to come. But how might you – a person interested in health care -- know if the pre-medicine track is right for you? I would ask myself the following key questions:
1. Am I comfortable with science and math? Contrary to popular belief, a lot of medicine revolves around logic (especially Internal Medicine/Pediatrics/Neurology). My science classes were invaluable to developing such skills. You will need to piece together an overwhelming amount of information to arrive at a tentative diagnosis and treatment plan for your patients. Moreover, you will need to know a lot about probability, chemical interactions, and statistics (to evaluate the medical literature). Being capable in these areas is important.
2. Do I enjoy interacting and talking with people? With the exception of a few sub-specialties (such as Radiology), being a doctor involves a lot of listening and talking (though we need to do more of the former!). We need to be able to express empathy, glean relevant facts, and gain the trust of our patients in an ever-shortening amount of time. It’s hard, but these skills can be learned. Do you find high-volume communication draining, or invigorating? If it’s the latter, Medicine might be a good fit.
3. Am I a “hands-on” person? Most specialties in Medicine require some kind of “procedure” – whether it is drawing blood, examining people with ultrasound, or operating on their abdomens. With a few exceptions, when you choose a medical career, you’re choosing to have your hands in the thick of things. Not everyone is comfortable with that. If you’re not sure, volunteer in your local Emergency Room. You’ll see in no time how physical the job can be. If you’re really interested in providing health care but are not so “hands-on,” there are some other options, such as Clinical Psychology or medical research.
4. Am I OK with putting others’ needs ahead of my own? Not to sound corny, but there are a few “noble” professions left in America: teaching, military, and medicine are some of them. These are jobs where people have to tolerate deferred gratification (long years of training/servitude) and be inspired by a sense of duty or service to the community. In a medical career, the patient always comes first. You may not sleep or eat or see your loved ones as much as your friend who’s a computer programmer (unless you’re a dermatologist!). During residency, you often work 80 hours or more per week. But there are different rewards; for me, there’s nothing more fulfilling than helping someone with an end-stage disease feel a bit better, and experiencing their gratitude.
5. Do I accept that the financial compensation for my job may be variable, and it will likely decline? You won’t starve if you’re a physician, and you’ll have a globally relevant set of skills that can be used just about anywhere. But practicing medicine is not the monetary free-for-all that it was in the 1980s. As technologies have expanded, costs have soared, and reimbursements to physicians are being progressively cut. Again, a few specialties (such as Neurosurgery) are known for their high income potential. But most physicians are working really hard for an above-average (though not spectacular) income. If you choose this demanding career, it shouldn’t be for the money. There are easier ways to achieve that.
6. Is flexibility in a career really important to me? For me, this is one of the best things about completing medical school: lots of different options. I have friends who are academic researchers, full-time practitioners, pharmaceutical industry medical directors, Clinton Foundation employees, and even a novelist!
7. Am I willing to be a life-long learner? Medicine advances and expands at an alarming rate. You have to like studying, and re-studying, all the diseases you thought you understood. And you have to be comfortable with not knowing a lot about the human body, as there is so much we still don’t understand.
In summary, an M.D. is a powerful degree that can open a lot of doors -- if you’re willing to be a bit creative. It’s rigorous training that challenges you, body and soul. But if you answered “yes” to a few of the questions above, this is a career track you should seriously consider. Best of luck!