Thursday, September 13, 2012

A college student has second thoughts about med school

[The content of this email was edited for length and clarity.]

I'm a junior in college. I was on the path to medical school since sixth-grade. The problem is now I'm not so sure.

Lately, I've been going to sleep at night and waking up with an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. For the first time since grade-school I'm having second thoughts on this career path. Before I studied abroad, I was hard-wired for medical school. But after experiencing so much life after studying abroad, I'm not handling the pre-stress of a medical school education that well anymore. I know there are realities, such as finishing at a relatively late age in life, the large amounts of accumulated debt, and the inability to set time aside for relationships (family, friends, significant other, etc). My alternate goal from here is to finish up my bachelor's in chemistry with a minor in computer science, then pursuing a master's in computer science.

So with this new plan in mind, I decided to call my parents. My mother took it exactly as I expected her to—delighted that I had found a new goal. "We're behind you all the way," said my father, "but remember that the choices you make now affect how happy you are in the future." Then he brought up the income issue and that I wouldn't want to have second thoughts later about sticking with medical school.

Leaving this path after seven or eight years of planning is a huge deal. Maybe this would be different if I were already in a committed relationship that could endure during medical school. But I'm not at the moment, and suddenly the idea starting a family in my 30s with ~300k debt looming over my head is almost unreasonable to me now. Not to mention the social distance I'd put between myself and my family and friends throughout the process of studying and clinical rotations.

I feel guilty. I feel like a disappointment. Not in my parent's eyes, but my own. I'm not sure whether I'll regret this decision or not, and I know that's not something you can answer for me either. I guess I'm just seeking some advice about all of this. What were your feelings before entering medical school? Do you think I'm insane for jumping ship?

Consider yourself lucky that your epiphany occurred now and not after you were in med school or even worse, in a residency. Your email says to me, no, shouts to me, that your heart isn't in it.

I went to med school because I relished the challenge. I had no doubts. I thought I wanted to be a psychiatrist and explore people’s minds. Obviously, that notion didn’t last. I opted for surgery because of the reward of seeing patients get better immediately.

Regarding income, I can't remember where I read it, but last year someone did the math. The loss of earning potential during med school and residency can’t be recouped. You will likely never be debt free if you owe $300K after med school. Don't forget, you will need to do 3 or 4 years of residency during which time you will earn $50-60K per year. The interest on your loans will pile up. I fully expect doctors' incomes to fall over the next few years too. Most of all, money is a terrible reason to choose a career. You should do what makes you happy. I know many MDs who have lots of money and are miserable.

My tuition at a private medical school was $1200 per year to start. Even in late 1960s dollars, my father paid for it with a check. I graduated with no debt.

And of course, medicine has changed dramatically over the years. I'm not sure that I would do it again if I had the chance.

By the way, I wouldn’t assume that being in a relationship before going to medical school would be a lasting solution either. The stress of med school and residency can be difficult for even the best of relationships.

I applaud your parents for supporting you. The second worst reason to choose a career after money is because you don't want to disappoint your parents.

I hope this helps. Good luck.


  1. SS,

    This is a legit question because students like me often don't understand the financial world after college. If we're working a field with a salary > $200K, why won't we get the $300K paid off?

  2. Here are three links that I found searching "Medical School Debt." They will give you an idea of the problem.

  3. If you have a physician mentor you look up to, go hang out with them for a week or two before giving up. Alternatively, find some way to hang out with an MD for a week or two if you don't already know one. You can come hang out with me! Nothing worth having ever comes easy. I wanted to be a doctor since age 5. I had niggling doubts many times along the way. You can start a family in residency or med school--it'll be just fine. You get out of residency around age 29 to 31 or so--that's still young. Maybe explore a military route and get out later but be debt-free. I was debt-free two years after getting out of residency, but I took a decreased standard of living those couple years to get there. Now that I do what I do, I wouldn't want to do anything else.

    In short, I'm encouraging you to stick with your childhood dream. Even Superman got discouraged and quit; he wound up regretting it.

  4. Just just what this post needed. A nice upbeat voice. I hope you can retain that enthusiasm.

  5. I regret not studying medicine, as my passion lies at the heart of trauma treatment.
    I am now an engineer at a South African mining

  6. Company and still linger the thought to start with medicine.
    After years the relative importance of icome has diminished, and my passion for medicine has increased.

  7. It's not unusual to have regrets about some of one's life choices. I think there are a lot of people who don't enjoy their jobs these days.

  8. I am in the same place, but the only thing stopping me jumping is that i can't help but think 'what if..'. I guess you never know if it is or isn't for you unless you try.

  9. Anon, you might be interested in the comments on this post that appear on my other blog