Curve balls. Bumps in the road. Twists and turns.
You’re just as familiar with each term as you are the unexpected circumstances they describe. Even if you’re a careful planner, you can’t always predict where life will take you.
Just think about how your goal of pursuing a career in medicine kept getting put on hold. Maybe you started a family. Or it could be you needed a break from education to recharge. You’ve certainly never lost your passion for the field, but you wonder if becoming a doctor later in life is still a realistic option. After all...how old is too old for medical school?
While it’s normal to have concerns, plenty of successful physicians began medical school a little later than their colleagues. In fact, student demographics have changed over the years.
The evolution of medical students
There may have been a time when most medical students were 22 years old, but this is not the case anymore. The average age of students matriculating into medical school is 24, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). While certain programs will average younger matriculants, others will feature an older entering class.
Medical schools are also changing their attitudes about candidates’ undergraduate majors. Strong grades in courses like biology, chemistry, and physics are still important for gaining acceptance to a program, but more and more schools are accepting students with nontraditional pre-med majors. For example, nearly nine percent of matriculants beginning medical school during the 2020–2021 school year graduated from college with a social sciences degree.
In fact, the major that a student chooses to be a doctor has evolved; those who opt for alternative degrees may even have an advantage. Some research suggests students with humanities backgrounds perform just as well as their colleagues who chose to study more traditional pre-med fields. They may even possess better communication skills.
Also, it isn’t a given that first-year medical students will be single — some are married. There are also students who need to balance medical school and parenting. Making time for both family life and coursework can be challenging, but students can make it work by relying on a strong support system and taking advantage of any childcare options.
MDs share their motivations for becoming a doctor later in life
Every doctor has a slightly different purpose for pursuing the path they ultimately chose. We asked some physicians to reflect on their reasons for starting their medical education journeys a little later on. Perhaps you’ll find some inspiration in their stories.
To address unmet health care needs
Not everyone realizes they’re destined to be a doctor at a young age. Dr. Margaret Russell, a St. George’s University (SGU) grad and Family Physician, spent more than 20 years teaching. It wasn’t until a neighbor’s young child died of pneumonia in a rural area lacking adequate health care that she decided to change course.
“I thought to myself, ‘I am going to fix this situation. I am going to be a doctor in a rural town that needs me,’” Dr. Russell recalls.
“I thought to myself, ‘I am going to fix this situation.'"
Dr. Russel continues to draw on everything she learned from her first several years practicing rural medicine. Her diverse experiences at SGU and in rural medicine have helped her teach many residents. She’s also developed an acute sense of what individuals need. “I’ve been told I don’t miss much in terms of my evaluation of a patient,” she says.
To be certain it was the right career path
For Dr. Bernard Remakus, an Internist and author of Keystone, taking a four-year break between college and medical school was an opportunity to seek valuable life experiences. He obtained a master’s degree, tried his hand at teaching, and coached a few high school sports before enrolling in medical school.
“Because I was older, my motivation was obvious."
“Because I was older, my motivation was obvious,” Dr. Remakus says. This meant his instructors were happy to help him develop the requisite skills.
Some students worry taking a break between college and medical school will result in a difficult transition, but that doesn’t have to be the case. “I feel I had many advantages attending medical school as an older student,” Dr. Remakus says.
In addition to having a clear direction for his life, Dr. Remakus also mentions he was more comfortable with diverse social interactions, was better prepared financially, and had a greater understanding of patient needs.
"I feel I had many advantages attending medical school as an older student."
That said, some students may find it a bit more difficult to embark on their medical school journey following a significant break from their undergraduate education. Dr. Remakus hopes he can ease the transition for future physicians through his writing. “Keystone deals with the issues of struggling to get into medical school and attending medical school as an older student,” he explains.
To allow time to prepare and mature
Sometimes it’s easy to forget college graduates are still in the early phase of their lives. They may need to grow as adults before they’re ready for medical school. This was certainly true for Dr. Edward Haas, a Psychiatrist and founder of the Institute for Transformative Parenting. Prior to completing his medical school applications, he encountered some struggles while working as an attendant in the ER.
“All seemed well until I found myself passing out while observing or assisting doctors and nurses during certain procedures,” Dr. Haas recalls.
"I felt I was ready to confront my fears and try once again to be a doctor."
In the years that followed, he gained experience as a stock broker, financial analyst, computer programmer and consultant, and an outreach worker helping with HIV prevention. After all that experience, he set his sights on medicine again. “I felt I was ready to confront my fears and try once again to be a doctor,” Dr. Haas says.
Dr. Haas completed a post-baccalaureate program to prepare for the MCAT and applications, completed medical school, and eventually opened up his own psychiatry practice. He believes taking all of those pit stops ended up being an asset.
“Having experienced life outside the academic rat race, you have perspective on your patients as being like yourself,” Dr. Haas explains. “This helps immeasurably with building trust and empathy.”
“This helps immeasurably with building trust and empathy.”
Ready for your second act?
You can see that becoming a doctor later in life is perfectly achievable. If you have a passion for medicine and are willing to work hard, you don’t need to worry about missing the window of opportunity. You have every reason to believe you can join the ranks of the many successful physicians who started practicing a bit later in their lives.
Selecting a quality medical school is one of the best ways to set yourself on the right path. Learn what criteria you should be researching by reading our article, “How to Choose a Medical School: 9 Things to Evaluate Before Accepting.”
This article has been updated from a previous version to include current facts and figures.
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