“Should I go to medical school?”
You’re not the first person to ask this, and you certainly won’t be the last. After all, the medical field is as intriguing as it is respected. Who wouldn’t want to save lives for a living?
All things considered, deciding to go to medical school is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in your lifetime. It is not a decision to take lightly. So how can you know if you should pursue the path to medical school?
We enlisted some medical experts to help us identify some important questions you should ask yourself while weighing your decision. The answers to these questions can help you determine if you should go to medical school or go another direction.
7 Questions to ask if you want to go to medical school
1. Do I have what it takes to get accepted into medical school?
There’s more demand for medical school than there are seats in a classroom. A lot of people want to be doctors, and institutions can only accept so many students. In fact, only 41 percent of medical school applicants matriculated in the 2019–2020 school year, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC).
If you’re serious about medical school, you should have the following:
• Strong grades, especially in science courses. The average GPA for students accepted into medical school is 3.7.
• An above-average MCAT score. The average MCAT score for test-takers is 506, but the average MCAT score of accepted medical students is 511.
• Solid references from professors and individuals in your life.
• Some quality volunteer experience.
• A stand-out personal statement and essays.
2. Can I afford it?
Medical school is a serious consideration, especially when it comes to finances. Perhaps you’ve already accrued debt from your undergraduate degree. Are you comfortable taking on more to pursue a career in medicine? It’s no secret that medical school is a huge investment, causing students to accumulate a significant amount of debt.
That being said, once you’re out in the working world you’ll be earning a decent salary, which can range anywhere from over $200,000 to just shy of $500,000 per year, depending on your specialty. You’d be wise to take some time to understand the details of your loans and how long it will take to pay them off.
There is another significant investment you should be aware of when it comes to medical school: your time. While most of your peers will be graduating and earning a living in their non-medical careers, you will still be a full-time student without an income. Additionally, the toll medical school can take on your personal life can be an entirely different “cost” to consider.
“There is certainly a price to pay and the actual price tag is not necessarily the most expensive part,” says Dr. Ryan Polselli, a diagnostic radiologist. “Medical school can take an emotional toll on your spirit and relationships.” He recalls some of his peers getting divorced or depressed. One of his classmate’s dealt with the guilt of not being able to spend as much time with her sick mother. These types of sacrifices are important to consider up front.
3. Am I willing to wait to start my career?
It can be hard to conceptualize just how long the process of becoming a doctor is when you’re 15, 18, or even 24. Becoming a doctor is a long process, with some specialties requiring training up to 11 years, not including your undergraduate degree. After spending four years on your undergraduate degree, you’ll spend four more years in medical school. Then you’ll have three to seven years of residency, and possibly a few more if you plan on specializing with a fellowship.
That all adds up to quite an endeavor. If you go straight into medical school after your undergraduate degree, you’ll be well into your thirties before you’re officially out in the working world. With that in mind, you need to ask yourself if you have the patience and stamina to make it through the entire process, and if you’re okay waiting until then to start your career.
If you’re concerned about the timeline detailed above, you may want to ask yourself if other health care careers might be a better fit, according to Dr. Remakus, an internist and author. If your sole purpose for becoming a doctor is to help people, could you achieve the same satisfaction by becoming a physician’s assistant, nurse practitioner, or other health care professional?
"Will you feel incomplete without the doctor title as part of your name?"
“Will you feel incomplete without the doctor title as part of your name?” Dr. Remakus asks. “And if so, does it really matter if you become an MD, PhD, or a doctor of some other discipline?”
4. Does a career in medicine match your lifestyle?
Given how long the process of becoming a doctor takes, will you be able to handle the rigor of medical school throughout your twenties — or beyond? This is a critical question to consider, according to Dr. Richard Beddingfield, an anesthesiologist and author. He adds that most pre-meds have to exert a lot of energy while in their early twenties to undergo the medical school application process, which leaves little time for physician hopefuls to enjoy their young adult years.
One must think about life outside of medical school as well. Will your spouse or significant other come along for the ride? If you have a family, will you uproot them for medical school and residency placement? Another consideration to make is whether or not you want children, and where they fit into your career aspirations.
“You need to ask yourself, ‘How important is having a family to me, and will I be able to give my family and my profession the time they both require?’”
“You need to ask yourself, ‘How important is having a family to me, and will I be able to give my family and my profession the time they both require?’” Dr. Remakus says. All of these personal considerations must be taken into account before deciding to pursue a career in medicine.
5. Can I accept being a little fish in a big pond?
The medical profession attracts the best and brightest minds from across the globe. Many medical school applicants are excellent students with the grades to show for it. Many have never struggled academically in their lives.
But medical school is an entirely different story. The level of academic rigor can be testing to even the most successful students. For many, it’s the first time in their life in which they may struggle academically.
On top of that, it’s the first time in many medical students’ lives where they are no longer the smartest in their class. The reality is that among a cohort full of bright, driven students, you may never rise above average grades no matter how hard you study.
This can be a rude awakening for some. Can you handle being a little fish in a big pond full of great academic minds? Can you handle not being at the top of your class? Your class rank doesn’t necessarily mean much in the grand scheme of being a doctor, but it’s still something to be prepared for.
6. Do I love to learn?
If you’re considering medical school, you must seriously ask yourself this: Are you hungry for knowledge? Because the learning never ends in medicine. It’s not over once you complete your med school courses or once you’re in residency. It’s not even over once you’ve become an attending physician.
After medical school, you still need to pass the USMLE, obtain a medical license, and eventually pass board exams to become certified in your chosen specialty. There will also be maintenance of certification (MOC) for your specialty as you continue in your career. And all throughout your medical career, you will also need to earn credits to put toward continuing medical education (CME).
"A doctor’s education only begins after medical school, residency training, and specialty fellowships have been completed."
“A doctor’s education only begins after medical school, residency training, and specialty fellowships have been completed,” Dr. Remakus says. “Medicine is a dynamic science, and it’s not uncommon to have to relearn concepts when material previously learned in medical school is later proven to be incorrect.”
Medicine is a highly regulated practice, and new research and technology is introduced every year. Physicians are required to keep up with the evolving information and advancements in the field through continual learning.
“You will spend the rest of your working life proving to your state licensing department that you still know enough and are up-to-date enough to continue practicing,” Dr. Beddingfield says. If you are considering a career in medicine, you better be sure you have a passion for learning and the stamina to keep up with it for the long haul.
7. Am I doing it for the right reasons?
If you’re thinking about going to medical school, you need to examine the reasons why you’re interested in a medical career. Are you seeking the prestige of being a physician? Is it a family expectation coming from a long line of doctors? Are you in it for the money? Do you want to make the world a better place?
Before taking the first step on the long journey toward becoming a doctor, you need to have a solid understanding of why this is the path you’ve chosen. Medical schools want to know of your intentions during the admissions process, and you’ll need to keep your personal mission close at heart during trying times in medical school. When the going gets tough, your passion and purpose is what will carry you through.
Everyone enters the medical field for their own reasons. Some want to help people. Some want to work with the general public. Some want to work with their hands. Some want to pursue a love of science. But if you’re in it for the money, telling that to a medical school in an application or interview is “career suicide,” according to Dr. Beddingfield.
"I agree with others who caution against choosing a path of medical school primarily for the money."
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a qualified applicant wanting to enter a career with good earning potential,” he explains, “but I agree with others who caution against choosing a path of medical school primarily for the money.” So before you embark on your medical journey, take some time to reflect on your motives.
Is medical school for you?
“Should I go to medical school?”
It’s a question only you are capable of answering. But don’t decide without asking yourself the other important questions above. Even if you are fully motivated to journey down the path to medical school, reflecting on these matters will help solidify your decision.
It’s alright if you don’t have all the answers just yet, though. Medical school is a long road to travel, and a fulfilling career in medicine is what awaits you at the end. Get some insider insight on what you can expect in our article, “Doctors Reveal 12 Things No One Tells You About Pursuing a Career in Medicine.”
* This article has been updated from a previous version to include current facts and figures.
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