You have thought of becoming a doctor more than once, but is medical school right for you? While medicine is a wonderful field full of opportunities, it can be a real uphill battle for some. Maybe you are even wondering ”Am I too old for medical school?” Not everyone is fit for this challenge, and it is not easy to tell if you really have what it takes to face it. We have put together everything you need to keep in mind if you are considering a career in medicine. What becoming a doctor means, what qualities you need, reasons to choose medicine and to stay away from it, and last but not least, some tips for medical school aspirants.
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What You Have to Know Before Choosing Medical School
Not everybody is aware of what becoming a doctor involves. Life as a health professional is not like what you see in movies or TV dramas. Aspiring physicians have to undertake years of intensive training, bear a lot of pressure and stress, work up to 60 hours a week, and they don’t even see a significant financial reward until they have reached a certain point in their careers where they are able to pay off their student loan debt.
It Is a Lifelong Commitment
How long does it take to become a doctor? Studying medicine involves going through a longer training process than most careers. It is not just about devoting yourself to school for a few years in your twenties and then just enjoying the benefits of a prestigious degree and a high salary. Best case scenario, you will complete your undergraduate degree, move on to four years of med school and then complete a three-year residency to finally obtain your license right before your 30th birthday. But that is not the case for most aspirants.
Some programs take longer to complete, some students take gap years before medical school, and some choose to pursue further training even after completing their residency. On top of that, physicians never stop learning throughout their careers. They are constantly learning new advances in medicine, conducting research, and undertaking additional training.
Before choosing medicine as your potential career, you must be aware of the life-changing commitment you have to make. It is a lifelong process that involves patience and persistence, but it is definitely worth it if you are truly passionate and committed.
Want to learn more about how long it takes to become a doctor? Check out this infographic:
The Path Towards Becoming a Doctor Is Arduous
1. Graduate from High School
If you believe medicine could be the right career choice for you, you should visit your school’s guidance office in search of resources. Start working your way up to medical school by getting involved in extracurricular activities, volunteering, or finding a summer job at your local health center. Any kind of health-related experience will look great on your future applications.
2. Earn a Bachelor’s degree
Do some research on the medical schools you are planning on applying to and make sure to take all the classes required by those programs. The list usually includes biology, chemistry, physics, biochemistry, math and English. This will also serve as a good opportunity for you to decide if you like sciences. If you realize these classes don’t interest you enough, then medicine might not be the right choice for you.
3. Take the MCAT
All medical school applicants should take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) before starting their applications. But what is it, and most importantly, how hard is the MCAT? MCAT is a standardized multiple-choice test that allows medical school admission committees to assess your general aptitudes to become a medical school student. It is famous for the challenge it represents, due to its length, complexity, and the short amount of time you are given to complete it.
4. Complete Medical School
Medical school usually requires a commitment of four years beyond your undergraduate studies. The first two years are a combination of classroom and lab time, while the third and fourth involve rotations in clinics affiliated with the school and becoming familiar with the daily medical practice.
5. Complete your residency
After completing medical school, it will be time for you to move on to your residency. Hopefully, during those four years you had enough time to choose an area of interest. Residencies are intensive and take place in hospitals or clinics. They provide in-depth training within a specific specialty and demand around 80 hours of in-house clinical and educational training per week. They can take 3 to 8 years to complete.
6. Pursue a Fellowship (optional)
All you need to get your medical license and start working as a fully independent physician is your residency. However, if you are willing to invest another 3 to 7 years to receive further training in a specific subspecialty and become a specialist, you can consider pursuing a medical fellowship.
Qualities of a Doctor
Choose Medicine if...
You Are Sure About Your Motivations to Pursue Medicine
Think of the reasons why pursuing a career in medicine might be appealing to you. You have to be intrinsically motivated to pursue medicine. If your motivations are not strong enough, you will probably struggle much more than expected, or even drop out. There are many reasons why pursuing a career in medicine might be appealing to you. Maybe you have a deep interest in the study of the human body, you enjoy working with people, or you went through experiences that inspired you to follow that path, such as watching a relative go through a severe illness.
You Have Ambitious Academic Aspirations
Medicine is an extremely intellectually stimulating career that will provide you with countless opportunities to make important contributions to your field. It is not just about completing your basic training as a doctor, but also about putting your knowledge to good use throughout your career.
Becoming a doctor involves numerous academic achievements that will only happen for those who work hard enough. Try asking yourself these questions: do you like problem-solving? Are you curious and inquisitive? Is research an appealing field to you?
You Comprehend and Like Science
You might have asked yourself how to get into medical school without a science background, or if it is even possible. Science and medicine are very closely related. Even if you don’t choose to pursue a major in science, you will still have to complete the required prerequisites for medical school. These courses are usually entry-level, so if you find those particularly challenging, you will definitely struggle during medical school. Science courses will inevitably be a big part of your education, so you might as well make sure you feel comfortable with subjects like biology, math, chemistry and physics. Enjoying science classes in high school is a good indicator that studying medicine might make sense to you.
Looking for more info on common med school prerequisite courses? Take a look at this video:
Don’t Choose Medicine If…
You Have the Wrong Motivations
It is not rare to hear stories of people who pursued medicine to embrace family tradition, to continue a legacy of several generations of doctors, or even quite the opposite! Some people bear the pressure of parents who didn’t have the same opportunities, who are now pressuring their offspring to pursue this career path.
Another common motivation to study medicine is prestige and financial status. Being a doctor involves much more than just carrying an “MD” after your name. Titles don’t mean anything if you don’t back them up with hard work and merit. It would be wise to avoid mentioning “prestige” as your motivation in your application to medical school. Regarding finances, even though becoming a successful doctor will reflect on your yearly salary, you will need to make a huge investment and even take on great amounts of debt before you can start enjoying your earnings. Even after finishing your training, it can take you years to pay off your student loan debt.
The truth is that medicine is a lifelong challenge. If you do it for the wrong reasons, you will not only have little chances of success, but you will also feel miserable, no matter how proud your parents are of you, or how much money you end up making.
You Don’t Like Studying
Of course, you are not going to love every single subject. You might struggle with some of them and get frustrated, just like the average student. But unlike other kinds of professionals, physicians are lifelong learners. Medical training is long enough already, and additionally, doctors have to continually keep educating themselves on new techniques, procedures and advances in their field. You will also have to earn CME (Continuing Medical Education) credits to maintain your licensure by participating in educational activities that help increase your knowledge and performance. If you don’t enjoy learning, or if you have failed to develop solid study habits in the past, you can cross medicine out of your list of potential careers.
You Don’t Like Working With People
As a physician, all your knowledge and skills are oriented towards understanding and treating the human body. Just as engineers work with plans and musicians work with instruments, doctors work with people. While it is true that some specialties involve more limited contact with patients, you will still have to work as part of a team and communicate with your colleagues on a daily basis. Needless to say, being a people person in the field of medicine doesn’t necessarily involve being overly social. However, you do need to work on your soft skills if you plan on pursuing a career that, among other things, consists of making people’s lives better. Great communication skills, empathy, and patience are essential qualities of a physician.
Tips for Medical School Aspirants
If you are still unsure if you should become a doctor, try putting yourself to the test. Getting some real-life experiences might help you become more aware of what a career in medicine would involve.
Shadow a Doctor and Gain Clinical Experience
Shadowing basically consists of observing real physicians in action and it is an excellent way to understand the reality of medical practice. Pay attention to the doctor’s interaction with the patients, how they deliver difficult news or explain complex procedures. Don’t settle for just one, but instead try to shadow as many doctors as possible. This will give you the possibility to diversify your experience and get a broader idea of how a hospital works. Another advantage of shadowing is that you get the chance to ask questions and interact with everyone around you, which will allow you to get a realistic sense of a typical day as a health professional.
If you get the chance to get clinical experience, do it! Direct clinical experience is an incredible opportunity to experience patient interaction first-hand and test-drive your future career. That experience will also play a major role when you start applying to medical schools. Deciding how many clinical hours to do for medical school will depend on the schools you are applying to, but it generally somewhere between 100-150.
Focus On Your Interests
During your education, you will probably feel more comfortable in some areas than in others. Some students feel more comfortable with practical subjects such as those involving lab time, while others enjoy more theoretical areas. Similarly, some doctors prefer interacting with patients than sitting behind a desk, like pathologists. Realizing what your interests and your strengths are will help you decide which path to follow as you progress in your medical career. Additionally, choosing a specialty, even at early stages of your training, can help you envision your future in medicine much more clearly. Some programs might suit your interests better than others. This can be a good thing to keep in mind if you are wondering how to choose a medical school.
Gain exposure to different specialties and practices
Along those lines, exposing yourself to as many areas in medicine as possible will help you have a better idea of what you want to pursue. You might have decided right at the beginning that you wanted to pursue geriatric medicine, but after volunteering at a nursing home you realized that it was not the right choice for you. By shadowing doctors from different specialties, committing to volunteering, and gaining as much clinical experience as you can, you will be able to find out which specialty suits your talents and interests best.
Answering the question “is medical school right for you?” takes a lot of reflection. Even in early stages of your life, you can start identifying aspects of your personality and interests that could be compatible to those of a medical professional. Becoming a doctor involves a long process not everyone is fit to complete, and figuring out whether you have what it takes to succeed seems even more difficult. But don’t panic, as there is plenty for you to do before you cross medicine out of your list of possibilities. Start by becoming aware of what it really means to be a doctor, think of the reasons why you are considering to pursue a medical career, and how your personal qualities fit into the requirements to become a health professional. Additionally, try to get some real-life experience and expose yourself to the medical profession by shadowing physicians, volunteering, and gaining clinical experience. Whether becoming a doctor has been your lifelong dream, or you are just starting to think about it, these exercises will help you have a clearer idea of what you really want for your future!
1. How long is medical school?
Medical school usually lasts 4 years. Although you must have completed an undergraduate degree before becoming eligible for medical school, and you will be facing another 3 to 7 years in your residency to finally become a certified physician.
2. How much money do doctors make?
It depends on a variety of factors, such as their employment status or where they live. According to the Med Scape Physician Compensation Report, the average yearly salary for primary care physicians is $242,000 and $344,000 for specialists.
3. How much does a doctor work?
Doctors work an average of 51.4 hours per week, including weekends, holidays and long shifts of up to 36 hours.
4. What are medical school prerequisites?
Prerequisites for medical school are usually courses such as introductory/first-year biology, physics, math and chemistry. They vary from one school to the other, but usually cover the same subjects.
5. Should I complete a science major before medical school?
Not necessarily, but you do need to complete the prerequisites of your desired medical school.
6. Is it necessary to keep studying after med school?
Doctors are lifelong learners. Medicine evolves constantly and physicians have to keep up with the advances. Additionally, they need to earn CME credits to maintain their licensure by participating in educational activities that help increase their knowledge and performance.
7. What makes a good doctor?
Among the main characteristics a doctor should present, we could name empathy, leadership skills and hard work. Doctors are lifelong learners; they have an aptitude for science and love to help others.
8. How soon should I choose my specialty?
There is no rush to choose your specialty, but starting to think about it early on in your career will give you more chances to find out if you are making the right choice. You should try to explore as many specialties as possible and contemplate all the possibilities. Some specialties might seem appealing in theory not be the right ones for you in practice.
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