This Guest Blog post in written by Liz Koblyk. She is a career counsellor at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, an instructor at McMaster University, and a regular contributor to the Careers Café blog at University Affairs/Affaires universitaires.
Along with my work in a med school, I also teach in a program full of students hoping to get into med school. One of the most heartbreaking phrases I read in their work is, “Once I get into med school, I’ll have it made.” Of course, being a doctor is a great path to pursue. It’s an obvious choice if you want to help people and you love the sciences. But it’s not the only option out there, and sometimes, it’s an option people pursue without fully considering what they’re getting themselves into.
Here’s the problem: no one “has it made” once they get into med school. What initially feels like enormous success – getting in! – can quickly turn into a long slog. Med students do a lot of work, get little sleep or spare time, and spend hours with angry, scared, ill and sometimes dying people. While the med students I work with talk about extremely rewarding times, they also share challenges, like trying to connect with patients who yell at them, feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities, and preparing to enter yet another competitive process as they hope for residency spots in their specialties of choice.
Yep – there’s more competition after getting admitted to med school. Not all medical students land a residency in their specialty of choice (if you want to see the stats, have a look at the reports on the CaRMS website). In fact, not all medical students land a residency spot at all. Likewise, not all successful residents find the jobs that they’re looking for, or find jobs in places where they want to live. There is no guarantee, just because you enter med school and pay your 6-figure tuition, that you will end up practicing as a physician. This is not to say that no one should apply to med school, just because there’s a labour market. People in all professions run into limits on where and whether there is opportunity to do the work they want to do. However, there’s something about the size of med school tuition, and the fact that the physician labour market is very good, that can lead people to believe there is unlimited choice for MDs.
So, if you’re considering med school, ask yourself whether you’ll be happy in a number of different specialties. If you’re hoping to be an emergency doc, a plastic surgeon, or an ophthalmologist, for example, will you be happy with other options if the public doesn’t need, or the labour market doesn’t support, another specialist in your dream job?
Finally, if you’re preparing for med school, there’s nothing stopping you from exploring other options at the same time. No one is so limited that they could only be happy and make meaningful contributions in one job. Time and again, I’ve seen people who focused initially on one goal because it was what their family wanted, because it seemed like a wise choice because of the money or status, or because they didn’t know what else was out there; they found better options once they started looking. Sadly, I’ve also worked with clients who pursued a job for those same reasons, and who came to find themselves dreading each day of work. From what they’ve told me, those work hours seem to stretch out into an endless parade.
That said, med school might be an amazing option for you. But explore it before you get into it. And give some other options you’re curious about a fair shake, too. Nothing is lost by that: either way, you end up knowing what you’d most like to pursue. And if your final decision is still to pursue med school, you’ve still lost nothing – you’ll be all the more able to explain your choice, and that will help you to earn admission in the first place.