In the summer of 2010, I was an enthusiastic 17 year-old hoping to make it into medical school. I was fully committed to medicine, choosing work experience over music festivals and studying over cinema trips. At school I was told the world was my oyster and I could achieve anything, which was (and still is) true, but sometimes I think young people need to hear the other side of this story. I headed off to med school with big ideas and an empty brain, and it was a bit of a shock to the system when I arrived.
Whilst on work experience that summer, I was shadowing a consultant anaesthetist. We were in theatre chatting when she looked at me and asked that classic med school interview question: ‘Why do you want to do medicine?’ I embarked on a well-rehearsed spiel about caring for others, being good at science, enjoying a challenge, gaining a universally applicable skillset etc. All of what I said was, and is, completely true. She listened and nodded and asked me again: ‘But do you really want to do it?’ I remember feeling confused and a bit belittled – had she not listened to my previous answer? Were my reasons not good enough? Did she not believe me? I went home that evening and told my Mum about the ‘stroppy consultant’ I was with.
Studying medicine is such a privilege, but it’s not like any other degree out there. Revising your butt off every Christmas and Easter holiday whilst your non-medic friends are out having fun, spending more time in the library than in your house, having to smile and talk to strangers about their body functions when all you want to do is go home and sleep/cry. It isn’t easy and, quite frankly, often isn’t fun. The pressure we put on ourselves is unreal. None of my non-medic friends ever had to pick-up their course-mates from A&E following suicide attempts. These are things to bear in mind, because your reasons for wanting to become a doctor may not be enough to justify what you’re about to commit to. If that’s the case find another fulfilling job – there are plenty out there!
BUT it’s not all doom and gloom.
Some of the best things I’ve ever done have happened over the last 5 years. I’ve met unforgettable people, heard the most amazing stories, heck, I even delivered a couple of babies! As a medical student (and indeed as a doctor) you are able to glimpse into the lives of others in a totally unique way. Not only do you observe, but you participate in the major life events of complete strangers. And though you may not remember every detail, they will. On top of this, you have the opportunity to influence these events for the better. I still can’t fully get my head around the honour that this is and I often find myself wondering what I’ve done to deserve this amazing job. (The answer: a whole lot of hard work).
These things are incredible and wonderful and are the reason I’ve kept going. However, they are not exclusive to studying medicine. You can make a positive difference to the lives of those around you without having those two extra letters before your name. Do I regret it? No, I don’t think so. But over the years I’ve thought a lot about that stroppy consultant. Though I didn’t hear it at the time, she was asking me a real question. A big question.
Were I applying to medical school again I would make some lists (I love lists). The first list would be of all the reasons I want to be a doctor. I don’t mean all the reasons you would say in an interview. I mean the things that, if you’re completely honest with yourself, are most driving you towards medical school. Honesty is really vital here.
The second list is of jobs that fulfil these criteria (so medicine should be on there). Do some research, chat to teachers, career advisors, family members, older friends, literally anyone you can talk to. There’ll be a few things on that second list. Then, take a good long look at that piece of paper because all those jobs are perfectly viable options for careers that you could prosper in and would, most likely, make you happy. Take these options seriously and weigh up the benefits and draw backs of each.
If, after doing all this, medicine is still winning then go for it. Throw your heart and soul in; organise work experience, volunteer at a nursing home, join the Red Cross and don’t look back. Work hard and support those around you and you’ll get there (if I did it then you most certainly can!)
I wish you all the best, whatever you decide to do!