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Choosing a Career in Medicine: Are You Destined for Beautiful Days of Saving Lives?

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About Rachel

Rachel Perkins is currently a student at Furman University, where she is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences with a minor in Medicine, Health & Culture. She hopes to work in Pediatrics and continue public health advocacy. Outside of the classroom, Rachel is a member of Kappa Delta sorority. She enjoys traveling, watching Spanish television on Netflix, and eating at local restaurants in Greenville with her friends.

Choosing to pursue a career in medicine presents a substantial time and financial commitment. Here’s what you should consider to determine if it is the right career for you.

Is medicine what you always imagined?

A quick Google search of popular television shows reveals a number of dramas about the day-to-day lives of doctors and the not-always-realistic cases they see. Grey’s Anatomy, House and The Good Doctor top the list, although there are certainly many others. With the realities of medicine clouded by the haze of the media’s interpretation, it is unsurprising that prospective medical students are sometimes caught off guard by the realities of the career path.

Becoming a doctor is not always as glorious as it is made out to be – with four years of undergraduate college, four years of medical school, and three to eight years of residency, the path requires substantial time and financial commitments. There is plenty of stress and sacrifice that goes along with being a pre-med and eventual medical student. However, if being a doctor is truly the right path for you, such substantial commitments will pay off in time with the joy that comes from improving your patients’ quality of life.

People pursue medicine for unique reasons; there is not one single determinant. Below are some quotes from individuals similar in age explaining their motivations:

“My father and mother both have autoimmune diseases which further motivated me to pursue a career in medicine so that people in the future don’t have to go through the same difficulties and hardships I have watched my parents endure. I am not sure there was a specific time where I “knew” I wanted to go into medicine, but I knew from a young age that I wanted to help people and medicine would be a great career path for me to utilize my passions for science, human relationships, and helping others.”

“My mom has always been a role model of mine and seeing how much she loves her job, her patients and being able to help people in a new and different way on a daily basis ultimately lead me to want to follow in her footsteps. Deciding to pursue medicine wasn’t a choice anyone else could make for me, it had to be my own. And since I made that choice for myself, I haven’t looked back.”

“A lot of people say they want to become a doctor to help people, and while that is a definite draw to the profession, I would say my main reason for wanting to become a doctor is becoming something that is larger than myself. I’ll get the opportunity to work with colleagues to decide diagnoses, plans of actions, as well as hopefully inspire my patients to choose lifestyles that are healthy and fulfilling. I decided that this path was for me after years of going to my own Pediatrician; I really looked up to how she carried herself as a professional, a mother, and someone who cared about my future.”

Being a doctor is personal.

As a doctor, you may be responsible for patients of all walks of life, although their ages and health concerns may vary depending on the specialty you decide to pursue. Regardless, you will be responsible for physical examinations, diagnoses, treatment plans, and knowledge of patient histories. You will not only keep track of a patient’s allergies or recent medical issues, but also stay updated on their school or work life, family vacations, and relationships.

Beyond that, you might have the opportunity to conduct research on more efficient and effective treatments that will advance the medical field. Despite the numerous years of formal schooling you will undergo, learning does not stop once you become a doctor; rather, it continues throughout your career. You will learn from newly published literature, from colleagues, and especially from patients that will challenge and inspire you.

No matter what inspires you, an important factor to consider when deciding to pursue a career in medicine is what you want your future to look like. A career in medicine involves caring for others, constantly learning and improving, numerous challenges, and improving others’ quality of life – who wouldn’t want to be a doctor? On the flipside, the hours can be long and variable, and the liability of quite literally having someone’s life in your hands is quite pricey, not to mention scary for some.

This being said, a doctor’s life is not for everyone. Be honest with yourself when you are thinking about whether a career in medicine is something you will be excited about and truly dedicated to for the rest of your working life.

Is medicine right for you?

Before jumping into the journey that is being a Pre-Med student, there are many resources and opportunities to help you determine if the career path is for you:

  1. Consulting pre-med advisors at your university can help you plan out a reasonable schedule for completing your pre-requisite classes and preparing for the MCAT before your desired application cycle begins. Your pre-med advisor will also help you make sure your undergraduate grades and extracurriculars are competitive enough for the medical schools to which you plan to apply.

  2. Talking with doctors can provide valuable insights and different perspectives on the pre-med path. Although they are now practicing physicians, don’t forget that doctors once went through the same things you are preparing to go through – the tough classes, long hours, medical school interviews, etc..

  3. Shadowing, volunteering, or working as a scribe or EMT can give you crucial first-hand experiences in clinical settings and interacting with an array of patients. Like any other profession, hands-on experience in a clinical setting is vital in ensuring that medicine is the path for you. Also, engaging in a combination of these activities and learning from them will help you stand out as a dedicated, well-rounded applicant during the application process. It doesn’t hurt to have an idea of what type of medicine you wish to pursue, especially if you have prior experience and a personal connection with that specialty.

Although no one expects you to know what type of doctor you want to be prior to entering medical school, it might be a helpful tool to consider what you want your future to look like. You will have the option to be a general provider or a specialized provider – both offer variety and variability in their respective ways. When considering whether you want to specialize, it is important to consider the population of patients you want to serve and the type of work environment you want to experience.

If you like working with children, perhaps the pediatric population is suited for you. If you like working with adults or an elderly population, consider primary care or geriatrics. If you like both populations equally, a family medicine specialty might suit you. Consider the type of relationship you wish to have with your patients as well – do you desire to know them personally throughout their lifespan and see them yearly for check-ups? Or do you wish to simply manage health concerns as needed?

When thinking about a work environment, how quickly do you want to see tangible results for your patients? Do you wish to see immediate results, or do you understand that some results will take time, patience and potentially multiple treatment options? It is important to also consider your comfort level with quick decision-making. Can you make decisions in a fast-paced, high pressure environment – like the emergency room or operating room?

Or, do you prefer to discuss all the possible options, sometimes with a group of providers, before coming to a decision? Think about the physical building you want to be in as well – does the hustle and bustle of the hospital or the more organized environment of an office more strongly appeal to you? Make no mistake, regardless of the building in which they work, all doctors will find themselves on call – it’s part of the job.

Part of thinking about your future means thinking about your personal goals as well. How will your career as doctor play into these? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions as long as they are the honest ones; being honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses will only serve to help you on your road to becoming a doctor. With over 120 specialties and sub-specialties to choose from, take the time to understand yourself and explore which areas of medicine will best suit your talents.

Again, you do not need to know what type of doctor you want to be prior to entering medical school. You do not even need to know what type of doctor you want to be during your first year of medical school; simply focus on mastering the material and building relationships with doctors within your school. Observing specialties and speaking to physicians in the field can help you explore specialties that interest you. Likewise, it is important to be well-informed and make sure that you put yourself in a position to be competitive for the specialties you may pursue.

Although finances can be an intimidating topic, it is also important to consider the cost of medical school and salaries during residency. The average cost of attending medical school will vary based on state-residency status and whether the medical school is public or private.

On average, private schools cost more than public schools, and out-of-state schools cost more than in-state. Considering these factors, the average cost of medical school can range from $150,620 to $236,304 – but keep in mind this is merely the average and does not include cost of living. Just as it was in undergrad, there are ways to help make medical school more affordable. You will earn a salary once you are in residency. The 2018 average salary for residents was $59,300, although this fluctuates depending on the specialty and year of residency.

Some residents receive other benefits such as health insurance, paid time off, and liability coverage. While this may appear disheartening now, remember that as a future doctor, your salary will place you in the top 5 percent of U.S. household incomes, regardless of the specialty you choose. Currently, the average physician’s wage in the United States is $299,000, although many in the field will agree that they do not pursue this line of work for the money.

Choosing a career in medicine is not an easy decision, nor should the decision be taken lightly. Becoming a doctor requires years of schooling and a lifetime dedicated to learning in order to better care for patients. But for all its stress and grueling hours, as accurately depicted in television dramas, pursuing medicine gives you the unique opportunity and responsibility to care for others and achieve better health. If you are still unsure about pursuing a career in medicine, don’t hesitate to speak with an advisor at your school or even some of your own doctors – they are excellent resources to help you be realistic about your career and get you started on the path to success.

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Cover of the Medical School Admissions Guide.
Two Atlantis alumni admitted to Top 5 MD programs wrote our widely read medical school admissions guidebook — download yours.