Becoming a Doctor: A Tough Decision

Perseverance. Expense. Time. Family. Weigh the factors that go into your decision to become a doctor.

If you are struggling with whether or not medicine is right for you, the first thing to do is take a realistic look at what it takes to get there and what the job of becoming a doctor in the United States is actually like. Many factors must be considered when making the decision. Do you have the right personality to be a doctor? Do you have the perseverance to complete the training? Do you have the ability to get good grades? Are you a good test taker? Are you willing to make the necessary sacrifices to get through medical school and residency? And finally, do you have a strong desire to help people? All kinds of people - from lawyers to indigents, grandparents to babies.

Some people have known their entire life that they wanted to become a Doctor. They chose a straight path from high school, through college as a pre-med student and into medical school, never wavering or considering other careers. For others, making the decision can be difficult. They must do some soul-searching, take an unbiased look at the profession, and an objective look at their own personality and abilities. More and more medical school applicants are older students who decided to pursue medicine after having started a family and had a different career.

For years nearly all med school students were 22 or 23 years old, fresh out of college. Indeed, medical school admissions departments rarely accepted "non-traditional" students unless they were outstanding candidates who had years of research or similar experience. And while many students in their late 20s and older ask, Am I too old for medical school?, today you can find medical students of all ages and backgrounds. All of them have at least one thing in common, perseverance.

Do You Have What it Takes?

Becoming a doctor takes time. Usually four years of undergraduate studies, four years of medical school, then 3-6 years of residency (depending on your specialty). That's an average of twelve years from starting college to practicing medicine. While beginning in your 30s or 40s is possible, waiting until you are 50 or older is probably unreasonable. It takes a certain amount of intelligence, although organization and good study habits can make the difference between a mediocre student getting through medical school and a brilliant student not getting in at all.

According to Carl Bianco, MD, there are three cornerstones of a successful career in medicine:

  • A love for learning in general
  • A true intellectual curiosity about medicine in particular
  • A strong desire to help others.

Being smart and doing well in the sciences are obviously important components of being a successful physician. However, do not fall into a medical career because you have done well in the sciences. Although this is a necessary requirement, you must also be able to relate well with people.

As a physician you have an opportunity to help others. Wanting to help others and enjoying helping others are necessary attributes of a good physician. This is something that cannot be taught. However, if helping others is important to you, but being a doctor is not the right fit, there are many other physician career options you can consider. And keep in mind that politicians, religious leaders, and social workers all have the opportunity to help others, perhaps in larger numbers.

Medicine is a career filled with choices. In what other career can you choose between delivering babies, taking care of children, handling emergencies, removing someone's cancer, or talking to someone who needs psychiatric help? Better yet, you can teach others your medical specialty, while still practicing your profession. Alternately, you can do research in whatever specialty you choose, with the potential to make a real breakthrough in preventing or treating illness. In addition, being a physician is honorable and is held in high esteem. It allows you to live just about anywhere, and provides job security (unfortunately, illness is something that will be around for the foreseeable future).

However, all of this comes at a price. The many years of preparation, the discipline, the awesome responsibility, the worry about malpractice and the long hours can take their toll. Medicine is a unique field and it demands a unique person. (Bianco)

Articles in this series:

  • Steps to Become a Doctor Premed Planning - The timeline and steps to become a doctor, including undergraduate studies, gaining experience in the medical industry and taking the MCAT.
  • Applying to Medical School Ready to apply to medical school? Be prepared for the application process and for medical school interviews.
  • How to Become a Doctor What to Expect in Medical School - Medical school curriculum, USMLE, and the cost of medical school
  • NRMP and Medical Residency What is residency for doctors? Medical Residency, ERAS, NRMP, the Residency Match and the Scramble - The process of getting matched with a medical residency position, and the medical resident's role.
  • Being a Doctor What It's Like to be a Doctor

Visit all the MomMD pre-med resources.

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