Medical school is typically a long-term dream. People generally don’t decide to become doctors on a whim. This is because of the great commitment it takes to undergo the education and training needed for a medical career, as well as how difficult it is to get accepted to medical school at all.
No one just shows up one day having decided to enroll, or gets accepted with grades that are just good enough.
Good enough doesn’t cut it for a career in medicine.
One has to have excellent grades in the right subjects of a pre-med curriculum. To be competitive to get into medical school, one also has to take more than the minimum requirements in math, science, and, pretty much everything else. When you’re competing against academic rock stars with Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses under their belt, you need to step up your game as well.
On top of the grades, you also have to have excellent SAT and ACT scores, and be competitive with extracurricular activities.
In short, finding your way to an acceptance letter to medical school is a tough road to follow, followed by an even tougher road to get through medical school at all.
We all know that becoming a doctor takes a long time, and it should. Your job will be to take care of precious human beings. You may end up with a specialty that leads to your literally holding someone’s heart in your hand, or restoring someone’s sight or helping someone manage a mental illness.
So, no one really objects to the fact that becoming a doctor takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work. Four years of high school, taking challenging courses and studying to be tops in standardized exams, followed by four years of college with a rigorous pre-med schedule and studying for the MCAT, followed by three to seven years of residency, and potentially followed still by fellowships or additional training. You will likely be close to 40 years old by the time you are a fully trained doctor.
So, you don’t exactly do all of this on a whim.
This also means that at any point along the way, should you decide you don’t want a career in medicine anymore, that this isn’t your path, and that maybe, just maybe, you are meant to do something else, it’s important to know that all is not lost.
A rigorous science-based education counts for something. Good grades and high test scores mean you have a certain level of dedication, knowledge, and focus that you can apply to other fields. Most importantly, if you finish medical school and decide you don’t want to work as a doctor, you’re still a medical doctor, even if you don’t take your boards.
If you quit medical school
Let’s say you get halfway through medical school and realize it isn’t for you. Is it wrong to quit? Not even a little.
That’s right, we said it’s not wrong to quit.
Yes, there are some financial losses to finding yourself a semester or a year or two years into medical school given the loans you probably had to take out to get that far. But, believe us when we say that it’s far better to have to reconcile one or two years’ worth of loans and move on than it is to deal with two more years’ of loans plus four years of deferment because you can’t afford to pay down the loans while you’re a resident, along with all of the interest that accrues over that time as well.
Don’t make the decision to quit lightly, but know that walking away is a decision that you can make, with confidence and without guilt.
If you do quit, don’t worry that your career choices are limited. You actually will be quite marketable in a number of fields if you focus on your strengths, use your skills, and do what you love.
Despite medicine long being a coveted and respected career field, we are experiencing a doctor shortage. This is believed to be due to several factors:
- STEM: Jobs in STEM fields are on the rise, grabbing the attention of young people moving up through school and looking for a rewarding career path for their science and math interests
- Time: People are seeking a viable work-life balance, and the long hours and high debt required to go into medicine are a deterrent
- Location: A residency means you go where you match, and that puts you largely at the mercy of a system much bigger than yourself. You could end up anywhere, including geographic locations that are not your preference. For many, that is not only not appealing, but it’s also a reason not to go into medicine at all.
- Insurance: More and more people are reading and learning about how frustrating it is to be at the mercy of insurance companies even as a doctor, and are making the decision to pursue other careers that involve more autonomy and creative thinking
So if you are someone who looks at all of these things and thinks that a career in medicine isn’t for you anymore, that’s okay. Just as there are English majors who decided to go to medical school, so are there doctors who decided to write books for a living (cough…Michael Crichton).
If you do decide to walk away, your number one goal should be to take care of yourself. Look into ways to seek appropriate, professional advice on your next steps, and make a plan for what’s next. Here are a few tips on how to get started:
Find a coach: Your first step in moving forward is to seek out coaching. Life and career coaches are a great resource to help you apply your skills to a new path. Either type of professional can help you find your strengths and your new path.
Network. Don’t just go away quietly. Be you and be proud of who you are. Talk to people in your field, go to conferences and workshops, and make sure to tell the people in your life what’s going on. You never know who might be able to help set up an informational interview to help you determine your best next steps.
Practice self-care. Changing careers is tough, even when you know it’s the right thing to do. Be sure to meditate, do yoga, write in a journal, or do any activity that helps you feel centered and calm.
You get kicked out
So your medical school offered you the opportunity to seek career training elsewhere. Being asked to leave a program, even if you know in your heart that it’s not the program for you, is hard. Take a deep breath, and seek solace in the fact that any career path will have its ups and downs. If you find yourself in this position, do not despair. You have options.
- Physician Assistant: Not to be mistaken for a physician’s assistant, this role is a terrific profession, involving patient care, creative decision-making, science, a reasonable work-life balance, and respectability, all without the burden of medical school and its attendant burden.
- Other health professions: Even though the prospect of starting another professional degree program likely doesn’t sound appealing, give it a minute to sink in. There was something about the study of medicine that appealed to you in the first place, so perhaps the right fit is still in the health professions. Give chiropractic, podiatry, or optomology some good consideration to see if working in a more specialized, focused health care area is the better fit for you.
- Massage therapist: Therapeutic massage is an impactful way to help restore health and well-being to people who really need it.
- Naturopath. Consider looking into healing from a more holistic perspective. A naturopath looks at the whole body to determine underlying causes of illness, incorporating elements of traditional medicine with more natural therapies as well.
- Mental health professions: Similar to other health professions, perhaps the right fit for you is to counsel others on their mental health and well-being. There are many rewarding avenues that a career in counseling or social work could take you.
- Medical writer. If you have writing skills, you might consider working in medical writing. There is a growing demand for professionals with scientific knowledge who can write a variety of types of documents needed in medical settings.
- Higher education. Consider switching gears and becoming a different kind of doctor. Earning a PhD in nursing, epidemiology, or another scientific field could be the perfect fit for you.
- Public health. A master’s degree in public health could lead to a rewarding career in healthcare administration, project management, or as a safety engineer.
- Public service. Don’t rule the Peace Corps, working at a nonprofit organization, or another public service role. There are many ways to serve others with a science background and a lot of heart.
- Business school. Go the MBA route and combine your science knowledge with a love of business to work in the for-profit sector or at a health-oriented nonprofit
For many of these options, more schooling is necessary, which is why it’s important to take some time to really think about your next steps, as well as to work with a professional coach or career counselor. But, once you’re on the right path for you, more schooling is merely a bonus to helping you learn what you need to know to thrive in your new career.
If you don’t match
Not matching is a real thing that can happen. In fact, in 2015, 250 students didn’t match at all.
The reasons why are varied, but one of the biggest is simple: they didn’t follow the guidance of the leaders in their medical school program.
When people who have been down this road before talking, it is wise to listen and consider their advice. Your medical school faculty and administrators have a vested, professional interest in helping you find a placement. This is valuable.
If you didn’t match, you do have options. Most importantly, you can go through the matching process again the following year. If you do, here are some things to consider.
Work on your interview skills
Eye contact, presentation, grooming, handshake, and especially how to be confident without being cocky are all important criteria for success in the matching process and also in any professional job application situation. The goal is to impress, not offend. You may think that your knowledge and grades are enough to make you shine, but the reality is that the matching process is a job application process. It’s important to respect the process and you show that respect with how you present yourself.
Don’t just fade quietly into the night if you didn’t get a match. Reach out to your medical school and ask for feedback as to why you didn’t match. Then, listen carefully to the answer. If you decide to try again the next year, keep in touch with your medical school, and ask them for help in preparing to be successful on the next round. It’s natural to want to be invisible and hide during a stressful and likely embarrassing time, but this is when you need assistance the most, and your schools’ job is to provide that assistance. They are strongly motivated to help every graduate match and find a job.
Whether you are going to try to match again the next year or not, you now have some time on your hands. That time is best spent getting to work. Look for a job in a medical field, such as with a pharmaceutical company or lab. This will strengthen your skills and your resume and help prepare you for success on the next round.
Look for positions teaching pre-med courses at a prep school, or teach at a testing center or MCAT or SAT prep type service. It’s true that the best way to learn anything is to teach it and you will only benefit from this experience, even if it’s volunteer. Plus, you’ll build your resume with experience in your field, you’ll build your professional network, you’ll build your work skills, and you’ll earn money.
Believe in yourself
In your second round of matching, you’ll have practice and experience. You’ll know what to expect. If you opt not to try to match again, you will still have the experience that comes with going through that process, and then reflecting on why you did not achieve your goal. Do not underestimate the importance of this.
One of the reasons that students don’t match is because they focus on specialties in highly competitive fields despite not having the academic record or performance to back it up. You aren’t magically going to get matched with dermatology just because you really, really like it. How did you do in your rotation? What advice does your faculty have for you? Listen to their feedback, and be honest with yourself.
The other reasons students tend not to match is because they ranked too few schools. Your second try at matching is not the time to put all of your eggs into one coveted basket. Give yourself options.
Ask for a transitional slot at your medical school. This is essentially like going through the fourth year of medical school again. Not ideal, and certainly not cheap, but if a career in medicine is where you know you want to be, this opportunity will help you achieve your match with a residency program and achieve your long-term goal of a career as a medical doctor.
If you are in the position to have quit or been asked to leave medical school or did not receive a match, it’s normal to feel a bit unmoored. It’s tough to have to regroup and refocus. What you should not do is worry. There are many options available for you to try again to match or to shift gears and put your medical knowledge and dedication to work in a different, yet undeniably rewarding way.
We know what you are probably thinking: what about the debt? It’s good that you are thinking about this. Debt is real and important to deal with. But, know that just because your career is taking a different path doesn’t make the money you have spent or borrowed a waste. That time in medical school has turned you into the resilient person you are right now, and that is an additional quality to put in your toolbox to use to find the right career.
The road through life is long. You may as well move forward taking one step at a time toward your dreams, and if your dreams change along the way, then maybe you are meant to have new dreams. Be reasonable with yourself, and above all, be kind with yourself. It’s always better to realize sooner rather than later that medical school is not for you so you can make a correction and change course before going even further in debt. There are wonderful opportunities ahead.