Every now and then, I get email from pre-med types who are having a lot of trouble deciding whether to go to medical school.
Dear Dr. Signout*,
I was supposed to start medical school last week, but [I've deferred for a year to figure things out.]
I guess the thing is, I like living so much, and medicine seems both incredibly in line and at odds with that–you give up everything you’ve ever been passionate about to live, to the extreme, one particular passion.
I know that what-ifs are horrible exercises of futility, and that denial and self-rationalization are crucial elements of happiness, but I was wondering anyway: would you do it over again knowing what you know now?
*This email has been edited to preserve the writer’s anonymity and enforce the use of Standard English.
For starters, “what I know now” is merely medical school and residency. I haven’t even tasted independent medical practice yet, so that limits my perspective. I’ve asked for some more experienced practitioners to add their thoughts in the comments section.
I had a hard time choosing to do medicine. The idea was never mine to begin with–it came from my parents, along with a lot of pressure to quit dreaming and do something. In part to get away from that, I took a substantial amount of time off in between my undergraduate time and medical school. By the time I started medical school, it seemed that my exhaustion from prolonged directionlessness had landed me there as much as anything else had.
A few things kept me from being really enthused about medicine, among them my lack of talent for science and my preference for creative efforts over academic ones. I desperately wanted to make one of those creative efforts into a career, and did some work in different sectors, but there was something that routinely needled me: every time I encountered someone disabled, dysmorphic, homeless, or otherwise disadvantaged, I felt impotent. My impulse was to face those people, talk to them, and give them comfort, and I had very little context in which I could do that appropriately and constructively. I ultimately didn’t feel I’d satisfy that impulse in any of the creative fields, so I started to look elsewhere.
After applying to medical school and getting in, I had the same problems with what-ifs that you do. The unsuitability of other career paths did not make medicine feel like a better fit. Once made, the decision did not settle easily: I spent most of my first year of medical school pretty depressed, and felt a great sense of loss that took a long, long time to go away.
What makes it OK now, eight years later, is the mix. I am fundamentally the same person: I still need to have creative outlets and people in my life, and I still have an impulse to offer something to disadvantaged people. When I’m able to satisfy both desires in one day, that’s a good day. Happily, I’ve also discovered a real joy and fulfillment in things I never thought I’d like much, like teaching and research. This only expands the list of things I can do when I’m done with my training (not to mention, while I’m in it).
As I mentioned already, I haven’t reached my own career nirvana yet. There are definitely times when I feel that medicine has taken over my life, but as I work my way slowly upward, some of the things that were squeezed out are getting squeezed back in. The symbiosis of my medical practice and my writing is one that I’m not sure would’ve evolved out of any other career choice, which helps make me feel pretty good about things. My point is, although there are parts of the training where medicine certainly dominates, it’s not that way forever, and the variety in your life depends largely on you.
There’s still a part of me that wonders how things could’ve been if I’d had more faith in my ability to make another career path work, but that’s the kind of person I am–I look back. Still, one thing I know for sure is that if I were doing anything but this, I’d still feel a catch in my throat every time I saw someone in need. It’s nice not to have that any more.
I’m not a huge fan of inspirational quotes, but I like this one from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”