You’ve always dreamt of becoming a doctor and have done your fair share of research. You may think you know what it’s like being a medical student, or what to expect in your residency. Perhaps you know doctors personally and feel like you have a pretty good idea of what their shifts entail.
But do you really know what it’s like pursuing a career in medicine? Do you know what life is truly like on the other side of the exam table?
We spoke with a handful of doctors to learn about the things they never expected to experience in medical school and beyond. Their insight and firsthand experience can help give you a head start in your medical career.
12 Insider insights about pursuing a career in medicine
1. You may struggle academically for the first time in your life
Medical schools attract and admit the brightest of the bright. Most incoming students have a track record of earning impressive grades and performing well on exams, as demonstrated in their stellar academic backgrounds. But even the most intelligent students who graduated with ease may find medical school to be an entirely different level of rigor.
“I underestimated how hard medical school is,” admits Dr. Richard Beddingfield, author of Med School Uncensored. He goes on to explain that the sheer amount of information, the time most students have to study in order to stay on top of things, and the frequency of exams during the first two pre-clinical years can be overwhelming to even the highest-caliber students.
“For most students, medical school is the first experience in which they work very hard academically and still may be nothing more than average in the class,” Dr. Beddingfield adds. Knowing this up front can help you avoid the shock and focus on pushing through.
2. You can (and will) have a social life in medical school
Yes, medical school is rigorous and demanding, but trying times have a way of bringing people together.
“Most pre-meds underestimate the social life during med school, particularly during the first two years,” Dr. Beddingfield explains. Your pre-clinical years will likely have you surrounded by a relatively small group of peers, all on the same schedule of classes and exams.
“Post-exam parties and post-lecture happy hours are inevitable,” Dr. Beddingfield adds. “Some great friendships are formed during medical school.”
3. You’ll have to learn to filter yourself around friends
“What did you do today?”
Whether in medical school, residency, or as a practicing doctor, your answer to this question could very likely shock, horrify, or disgust your friends and family. You’ll need to start being more conscientious about topics of discussion — drawing a line between medical peers and personal acquaintances.
“Your dinner conversations will never be the same again,” says Dr. Alex Roher, a board-certified Anesthesiologist and founder of SD Botox, who says he’s become accustomed to grossing out his non-medical friends.
4. You’ll need to decide on a specialty earlier than you think
Getting into medical school is no small feat. The MCAT and admissions process will likely dominate your thoughts for some time. But aspiring doctors need to also be thinking about long-term decisions, like which medical specialty you’d like to pursue.
“Most pre-meds are so invested in the process of simply getting into medical school that they have given no thought to specialties or how to get into their specialties of choice,” Dr. Beddingfield says. He says this decision needs to be made surprisingly early on, especially if you’re interested in an especially desirable specialty.
“Some medical specialties are very competitive, requiring extensive planning and superior performance throughout the first two years of medical school,” Dr. Beddingfield explains. “The rat race doesn't stop with acceptance to med school!”
5. The “rich doctor” stereotype isn’t always accurate
You’re probably well aware that the average physician salary sits much higher than most other professions. Ranging greatly by specialty and region, doctors can expect to earn anywhere from over $200,000 to just shy of $500,000 per year.
But are doctors rich? The medical profession certainly has a financial draw. If salary is your sole motivator, though, you may end up sorely disillusioned.
“Pursuing a career in medicine is far from a quick ‘rags to riches’ story,” Dr. Beddingfield states. “The stereotype of the ‘rich doctor’ isn't nearly as universal or straightforward as most people think.” Between the financial burden of medical school and the time spent completing courses, residency, and training, don’t expect a career in medicine to be a get-rich-quick scheme.
Dr. Beddingfield goes on to point out that many aspiring medical students are equally capable of other respected and high-earning professional careers, including business, law, dentistry, and engineering. Most of these fields have far shorter, and typically less expensive, training and education requirements. So if you’re in it for just the money, you may want to rethink your plans.
6. You’ll be a different person when you graduate from medical school
As we already mentioned, medical school is intensive and rigorous. Your stamina and determination will be tested time and time again. You can expect plenty of late nights studying during school, and several overnight shifts during your residency. The exertion will take a toll on you, and through it all you’ll come out a different person.
“The sleep deprivation experienced in medical school, residency training, and medical practice can significantly change a person’s personality,” says Dr. Bernard Remakus, an Internist and author. But this personal growth is all part of becoming an amazing doctor. All of the hard work and sleepless nights will only help fuel the passion and determination you’ll draw upon throughout your entire career.
7. Sleepless nights aren’t limited to medical school
Speaking of sleepless nights, college students – and medical students especially – are notorious for pushing their limits, studying into the wee hours of the morning. But don’t expect your days of pulling all-nighters to be behind you after graduation.
“So you finish medical school, residency, and become a full-fledged practicing doctor. You are ready for a good night sleep. Forget about it,” laughs Dr. Roher. “Modern working arrangements have brought into existence the ‘week of nights,’ where you work four or five and sometimes seven night shifts in a row.”
Of course, this depends on your area of practice and your employer. But for many in medicine, working overnights are part of the deal.
8. You’re going to have your heart broken
Practicing medicine affords you the great privilege of helping others, saving lives, and pursuing an impactful career. But your patients will not always make full recoveries, and they will not always survive. In some cases, medicine can only do so much.
“Aspiring doctors are an empathetic lot, and there will be times that your heart strings will be tugged,” says Dr. Joseph Alton, an author and retired Obstetrician and Pelvic Surgeon. For him, it was sick children, especially those in cancer wards. “My rotations in these units left me depressed and heartbroken, and more than once in tears.”
“As a doctor, you won't be able to completely escape sad situations. Be prepared to give not only of your medical skills, but also your emotional support as well,” Dr. Alton adds.
9. Medical school doesn’t teach you how to become a doctor
Believe it or not, all the blood, sweat, and tears shed in medical school doesn’t produce doctors. Rather, doctors emerge from their cocoons in residency and practice.
“Very few students ever learn how to actually practice medicine in medical school. That comes during residency training and post-graduate practice,” Dr. Remakus says. He explains that your first years in medical school are more about learning the scientific foundations of medicine, which lays the groundwork for the rest of your training. And it’s quite possible that the material you study in school will be outdated by the time you begin practicing, proving the importance of continual learning throughout your career.
“This puts the onus on the student to cautiously consider issues rather than just memorize them, and stay abreast of the latest medical developments when they finally finish their formal education and begin their own practices,” Dr. Remakus adds.
10. It’s hard to conceptualize how much of your life will be spent becoming a doctor
Many aspiring doctors know it’s their desired career path early on in life. But when you’re in your teens or early 20s, it’s difficult to wrap your head around how many years it takes to become a doctor.
“I think most pre-meds underestimate just how much of their lives will be absorbed by medical training,” Dr. Beddingfield says. He explains that it typically requires four years of medical school, three to five years of residency, and one to four additional years of fellowship, if that route is chosen.
“Given that the average age of matriculation is 24, most physicians are well into their early- or mid-30s by the time they are actually entering the profession as practicing doctors,” Dr. Beddingfield adds. It’s important to really have a grasp on the investment needed in order to follow this career path.
11. Having a doctor in the family can be beneficial
Medical students with close connections to doctors, either through friends or family, have a unique, invaluable advantage. These individuals can provide a wealth of wisdom and be confidants, listeners, and voices of reason throughout the strenuous process of becoming a doctor.
“Medical students with relatives or friends who are doctors are at a distinct advantage because they have resources to guide them that are not available to students without lifelines to call when problems arise,” Dr. Remakus says.
12. You’ll never be fully prepared
Even after all those years of training and preparation, you’ll never be able to learn everything. Medicine is a field that will keep you on your toes, with each day bringing the unexpected. Because you can’t possibly prepare for every potential scenario, your ability to think on your feet and act accordingly under pressure will serve you well.
As confident as you are going into a situation, you must always expect the unexpected, according to Dr. Ryan Polselli, a Diagnostic Radiologist. He recalls a time early on in his residency when he was asked to obtain a medical history and physical exam for a new admission. “I had done this dozens of times and felt confident I could get to the bottom of any situation within 20 minutes,” Dr. Polselli says.
When he entered the room, the patient’s tongue was so swollen that he was only able to utter some basic sounds and poorly formed words. After a few failed attempts at speaking back and forth, Dr. Polselli opted to grab a pen and paper and communicated that way.
“No lip reading, translator, phone app, or communications training could have prepared me for that situation,” Dr. Polselli says.
Do you have what it takes?
You know that a career in medicine is definitely no walk in the park. These doctors have made it clear that not everyone has what it takes to become a doctor. So did their insights alarm you or excite you?
This behind-the-scenes look is valuable in helping determine if you want to pursue a career in medicine. It's clear there are some challenges, but there are also plenty of rewards. Hear it straight from the experts in our article, "Why Become a Doctor? MDs Share What They Love Most About Their Careers."
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