Why I chose medicine, and why this is still a good choice for your career

Today, we discuss the reasons why I chose to practice medicine, and why this can still be a good choice for you as well.

One of the many problems with a career in medicine is that the choice to practice medicine must be made so far in advance of the actual start of one’s career.  

It was approximately sixteen years from the day I formally began preparing for a career in medicine to the day I finally finished my residency program.  This discounts the hospital volunteering, various extracurriculars, and academic competition in high school that I did just to prepare for the possibility of a medical career.  

Why I chose medicine

I suppose in one form or another, I probably would have done a lot of that stuff just to get into a good college. But even at that age, when I was asked my career plans, I always spit out that I’d become a doctor.  Some of this was lack of imagination and lack of knowledge of other viable career paths. Certainly, a lot of it was cultural conditioning to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.

But I mostly felt that I wanted to help people, and I knew doctors helped people for a living.

Pre-med in college: less boozing, less vacation

After I managed to make it into an Ivy League school, I spent a year or so entertaining the thought of going into law before deciding firmly to go pre-med in my sophomore year.  There seemed to be a lot of disadvantages to this choice.

On Thursday nights, many of my friends would start their weekends early at the few bars on campus that would serve underage drinkers or at the frat parties that served everyone (and their dog too).  While they drank, I usually stayed in to prepare for a science class early Friday morning.  

I felt especially sorry for myself during organic chemistry, which took no less than two tries before I was able to successfully pass.  Finally, to add insult to injury, my school put all science and math finals on the last 3 days of the exam period. By the time I got to travel home for the holidays each year, campus had a cold and depressing feel of desertion.

Medical school = firehose learning

My studies eventually paid off with admission to medical school, and later, surgery residency.  Medical school was akin to trying to drink out of a firehose, with massive amounts of information being taught in a short period of time.  

For the first couple of years, rote memorization of laundry lists of bacteria, body parts, and drugs was required, along with the ability to apply the information to common patient centered scenarios.  The latter two years were spent in the hospital, operating room, and clinic, and focused on more hands-on learning.

While challenging, the school did an incredible job of keeping us forward focused. It was easier to ignore the stress of the constant exams when you could focus on the dream of becoming a doctor, which became more tangible with every passing month.  Living on student loans was also stressful, but almost everyone was doing it, so it was a fact of life that also became easy to ignore on a day to day basis. After four years of studies and endless tests, achieving the Doctor of Medicine degree was incredibly satisfying.

Residency = waterfall learning

Residency was a different beast.  The firehose of learning became more like a waterfall, with the danger of sinking below the surface of the water and drowning.

Surgery residency has a lot of stereotypical unpleasantries, like grumpy surgeons throwing instruments in the operating room and having to stay awake for 36 hours straight while on “call” in the hospital.  I found these largely to be true, unfortunately, and these and other indignities made it an experience that I never want to have to repeat.

However, finally practicing medicine in a tangible way was wonderful.  It was a validation of all the years of study and preparation. I was able to immediately make a difference in the lives of my patients. This ability carried with it a heady sense of power, and also responsibility.  

Finally, I have a job

Now, as a board certified surgeon, in many ways I have a job just like everyone else.  Im employed by a big corporation and have set work hours with multiple layers of bosses.  As an employed physician, I have perhaps a bit more job security than a private practice physician, but I also have less control over my day-to-day activities.

I do often wonder if it was worth all the training.  I’m early in my career, so perhaps this will change. I also often reflect on the fact that I spent the entirety of my 20s in school or training.  

It’s a good job

There are a lot of positives to my job.  I make a good living, with my income firmly placing me in the dreaded “1%” of Americans.  My job is satisfying and I estimate that I enjoy about 60-75% of what I do, depending on the day.  I do feel like I am helping people, which is one of the main reasons I started down the road to medicine in the first place.  It’s still incredibly gratifying to have patients, with earnest sincerity, thank me for my care. Finally, I have the security of knowing that even if I lose my job, my skill set would land me another position somewhere in America with relative ease.  

Conclusion

To sum it up, I chose medicine because I wanted to help people for a living.

Now, I have a good income, job security, and I enjoy the majority of my day to day work activities.  I often feel like I help people, which is potent positive reinforcement. Having come from modest means, which I’ll explore in other posts, a dependable paycheck was a priority for me.  So in many ways I feel like I made the right choice.

It was definitely a long and challenging path to become a physician and surgeon. That’s an undeniable truth.

Could I have these job elements in another profession? Surely. But medicine hits all the right notes for me (for now), and for those of you in medical school, it likely will for you too.

–TDD

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