How do you decide if medicine is the right career choice?

A quick disclaimer & a quick confession

Disclaimer 1: Take note of the title of this article. How do YOU decide? Applying to study medicine is a life-changing decision. It is not a decision that I, your parents, your teachers or anybody else can make for you.

Many people will tell you that you have to be 100% certain that medicine is the right career for you before you apply. This is wholly unrealistic. I applied for medical school 9 years ago and I honestly CANNOT say I am sure it was the best choice; all I can say is that on balance, I am satisfied with the decision I made. You CANNOT be certain until you’ve been put through the job itself, but you CAN try to make an informed decision beforehand. I hope that in this article I can begin to guide you towards making a choice.

The MSAG’s completely definitive and accurate careers personality and aptitude test (TMCDACPAT)  – just kidding.. might as well get your magic 8-ball out! 

When I was in secondary school, my head of year thought it would be a good idea to make all 120 15-year-olds participate in an online careers personality and aptitude test. I remember the day well: it was a hot summer’s afternoon when my form group was escorted into a hot, humid and windowless computer cluster. There, we performed a 30-minute online questionnaire to the sound of the outdated school computers, whirring away as if threatening to flatline at any moment from heat exhaustion. After answering an admittedly……shall we say……thorough list of questions, the software suggested I would be well suited to life as an airline pilot, tree surgeon or journalist. Apart from the fact that these careers are so diverse in nature that they might as well have been picked from a hat, I think my fear of heights and pollen allergy may have led to an early retirement. As for journalism, I’ll stick to the odd blog post. Maybe the questions weren’t as thorough as I thought.

My point is, it is very difficult to screen individuals to see if they will make successful doctors. Rather than identifying which career suits the qualities you possess, why don’t we just identify the qualities you need for a career in medicine? To do this, here are a few yes or no questions. There is no cut off mark, there are no correct answers. However, I hope they will get you thinking realistically about a career as a doctor to help decide if it is something you would want to do.

Disclaimer 2: The Medical School Application Guide does not endorse the use of the following questionnaire as a validated method of identifying eligibility or suitability for a career as a doctor. But it is fun and you probably have nothing better to do because it’s the middle of the summer holidays.

1. Is lifelong learning something that appeals to you?

Score 2 for yes. Score 0 for no.

Medicine is a broad topic which is constantly evolving. As a result, doctors spend longer in university than the majority of other professions and must also partake in lifelong learning, sitting exams and revalidating your skills throughout your lifetime.

2. Are you a good decision maker? do you enjoy taking on responsibility?

Score 2 for yes. Score 0 for no. (Technically this is two questions so I’ll let you score yourself twice!)

As a doctor, you have responsibility thrust your way very early on in your career. You take on more responsibility at the age of 24 than most people take on in their lifetime. You make life and death decisions, sometimes on the spot. Think about that next time you can’t decide whether to go for a mocha frappuccino or a skinny caramel latte (to be fair, tough choice).

3. Honestly, do you have FOMO if your friend's party without you?

Score 0 for yes. Score 2 for no.

Doctors’ working hours are notoriously antisocial. Hospitals don’t close on weekends and often you find yourself staying on after your shift to look after sick patients. I would be lying if I told you your social life and personal relationships won’t take a hit. It may get better as you become more senior but then again, tearing up the dance floor on a Saturday night might become less appealing with age (though it hasn’t stopped me yet).

4. Do you work well as part of a team?

Score 2 for yes. Score 0 for no.

Some people like to fly solo. They have a plan in their head and like to see it through without having to faff around explaining their great visions to lesser beings. There is nothing wrong with this, however, medicine is a team sport. The sheer breadth of subjects and specialities means that you will always be working as part of a wider team to deliver your goals. As a result, you rarely get that Superman moment where you appear in wide-stance with your cape drifting in the wind to the audible applause of grateful citizens (trust me, I’ve tried before – doesn’t go down well). More often than not, your contributions will be a part of something greater.

5. Do you communicate well & connect emotionally with people?

Score 2 for yes. Score 0 for no

Whilst being a good scientist is a key aspect of life as a doctor, medicine is a mix of basic science, humanitarian science and the art of communication. To be a good doctor, you have to be able to connect with people from all walks of life and discuss with them the most private and intimate aspects of their health. It is a privileged position to be in. Though surgeons and anaesthetists will tell you most of their patients are asleep or unconscious, if you don’t like talking to strangers or listening to other people’s problems, you may not enjoy medicine as much as you think.

Tally up those scores!  

So how did you do? The important thing here is that you do not need to score points in all of the questions above. Many of the answers to the above will change with time depending on your experiences, but I hope it identifies key aspects of the job that you need to think about.

“So why did he make me count up my score?” - I hear you ask.

No reason, I guess I just feel a doctor should be able to do basic maths. I don’t think that’s an official GMC requirement though.


Up next - There are a few preconceived notions regarding a career in medicine that I would like to go over. Time to preach the truth!! I call this section Medical Mythbusters.

Disclaimer 3: The following section entitled “Medical Mythbusters” holds no association or legal affiliation to the famous American show Mythbusters and is not associated with, or financed by, the Discovery Channel or the Science Channel. Please do not sue me - imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.   

Myth 1

Myth 1: Doctors are omniscient beings who excel in all aspects of life. They are meticulous, intelligent, sharp minded and almost flawless. Most are born this way. I don’t think I have what it takes to be a doctor.

Commentary – Perhaps the above is an exaggerated hyperbole of what many candidates feel. I often get asked by young students if they have what it takes to become a doctor. It may be the stringent entry requirements or society's unrealistic expectations which generate self-doubt amongst candidates.

Whilst it is true that a good academic record is necessary to get into medical school, I personally feel you do not need to be on an intellectual par with Stephen Hawking to be a good doctor. Believe me, I have worked with colleagues who are excellent doctors in the hospital setting, but after a few pints at the pub, I have questioned where to place them on Darwin’s tree of evolution.

Above all, doctors need to be hardworking and resilient. Yes, you'll spend much of your university life regurgitating facts learnt from medical textbooks, but I do not feel this is a measure of intelligence. What separates doctors from other professions is the willingness to stay behind after your shift to help a patient or the willingness to act when you feel a patient’s safety is being compromised. If you are somebody who likes to frequently cut corners, perhaps medicine isn’t the career for you. If it is your academic ability and scores you are worried about, this can be improved with hard work.

Myth 2

Myth 2 – Doctors focus on just diagnosing patients and treating them. There are, therefore, a fixed set of skills all doctors possess.

Commentary – I am astounded by the diversity of the field of medicine on a daily basis. To take a simplistic view, the medical fields can be split into surgery, internal medicine, general practice and psychiatry. However, even within these fields, there are a variety of subspecialties each requiring a slightly different practical skill-set, temperament and thought processes. Beyond this, doctors are involved in a variety of other activities including research, management, teaching and planning public policy. The career is so broad that there really is something for everyone if they are willing to work for it.


Myth 3

Myth 3 – Doctors earn lots of money, have fancy houses and play a lot of golf.

Commentary – HA. If you want to be rich, become a stockbroker. As a doctor, you will eventually earn a decent living, but this will come after years of service and with significant responsibility and pressures. It is unlikely you will be a millionaire. There are far easier ways to make a lot more money.


Myth 4

Myth 4 – Doctors are the most important people in the NHS and, therefore, considering other healthcare careers would be to lower my aspirations.

Commentary – I hope nobody actually thinks this - it was intended to be more satirical than a true myth. The NHS is more than just doctors. My point here is that there is a whole host of other healthcare careers that you should consider if you think working in the field is something you want to do. Your decision should be based on what drives you to work in the healthcare profession.

Nurses are some of the most important members of the healthcare team. They spend more time with the patient than any other team member. They will know the patients better than anybody else in the hospital and are able to connect with patients on an emotional level. If making this human contact is the most important thing to you, I strongly encourage you to consider nursing as a career prospect. The face of modern nursing is also changing. Nurses now prescribe medications, see their own patients and make decisions about their care and have important managerial roles within the hospital.

The list of healthcare professionals does not end at nursing. If practical lab skills are something you are interested in, think about being a biochemist. If strength and fitness is something that interests you, consider physiotherapy and occupational therapy. The list goes on…. keep an open mind.


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