How Do I Know I Want to be a Physician?

Premed 101: How do I know I want to be a physician

A lot of students who are trying to answer this question will focus on whether they should be a physician and qualities they think will predict whether they would be a good physician. Students will ask themselves: Am I smart enough? Can I make it through residency? Will I be able to do well on the MCAT? Am I too old to pursue medicine? I’ve already pursued a different career, is there any point in changing my path now? Can I afford medical school? If I had poor grades early in college, is there any coming back from that?

You can’t stop yourself from having these questions and some of them are really important, like the financial considerations you may have to make to pursue continued schooling. Another question that actually is important to consider at this stage is whether you’re pursuing or considering medicine because you feel like you should. Having good grades isn’t a reason to become a physician. Even loving science isn’t in and of itself a good reason. Your love of science can be part of the reason or even the thing that made you first consider medicine, but it can’t be the only reason because that is a recipe for burn out. Having been told you should be a physician is also not a good reason because you deserve to do whatever it is you really want. Answering why medicine or knowing if this journey will be worth it is difficult. While at the end of the day, only you can answer that for yourself, there are things that can help you work through these questions like session 45 of the Premed Years, which gives you reasons you should pursue medicine and some reasons you shouldn’t. If you already want to go into medicine and are doubting yourself or whether this will be worth it considering all the difficulties faced by medical students and the issues faced by physicians today, check out session 226 of The Premed Years where Dr. Shikha Jain discusses why she would still encourage students to go into medicine.

It’s completely normal to have fears and questions at the start of your journey and that’s not a sign that medicine isn’t meant for you. The key is not letting your doubt keep you from going after your dreams, even if in the end that’s something other than medicine. If you discover that this is truly what you want to do with your life, if you realize you can’t imagine yourself as anything other than a physician, you can do this. It’s true that you will need that passion and certainty to get through the hard days, but you can use that to drive you when you’re relearning how to study, or when you’re working overnight at the hospital when you do eventually make it to medical school and residency. No one is born having all the skills needed to be a successful medical student or physician, but each step in this process will give you new skills that will serve you in the future. There is no singular set of qualities that will predict whether someone will be a good physician, so don’t get wrapped up in whether or not you will someday be a good physician. Focus on getting the information you need to decide whether this is what you want for your future. 

If you have any physicians in your life, or other healthcare workers, reach out to them. They can probably answer some questions you have and then might be willing to connect you with colleagues who might be able to give you insight into other specialties and allow you to shadow them. If your network doesn’t include physicians or scientists that could have given you lifelong exposure to science and medicine, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. You may not know where to go to get more information about what it’s like to be a physician and what it would take. Take some time to think of all the people in your life, including professors or teachers who you would trust to give you advice or might know someone else who can give you exposure to the field. Building that network and learning from people in your community will be the best way to get the information you need to make this decision. You don’t need to know physicians to start building a network of people who will be able to support you on your journey. Go to office hours and talk to your professors about your goals. Your professors can be extremely helpful during this time for multiple reasons. If you have struggled in science classes in the past, your professors can help you learn how to succeed in their classes and your future courses. They may also be able to connect you with colleagues who work more directly with the medical field. Tell them you’re considering medicine even if you’re not sure yet. Sometimes people worry about having to say later that they changed their mind about their career path, but this is the point where you should give yourself the freedom to consider that you really can do this if you want to and the freedom to decide that this isn’t what you really want. 

When you’re still in the process of deciding whether you want to work in medicine at all, the most important information you can get is exposure to the field. At this stage, exposure is more important than logistics and there are multiple ways you can get this. One way is shadowing. If you’re more certain that you want to be in healthcare, but aren’t sure what role you would want to have in the healthcare team, read about the scope of practice and tasks that different professionals might take on. If you aren’t able to get in person shadowing experience yet, you can still sign up for eShadowing, which is free and hosted on Monday nights. I host eShadowing for premeds at 8:00 EST on Mondays. Pre-PA shadowing happens at 7:00 EST also on Monday, featuring talks from PAs working in all different areas of medicine. Replay links are sent out with the quizzes every Tuesday morning so you can still benefit even if you can’t make it to the live session. You can also find sessions from other services on YouTube for some additional resources, and these sometimes include NPs or CRNAs. 

Another great resource is the Meded Media podcast Specialty Stories where Dr. Gray interviews a variety of different physicians about their fields discussing how they came to medicine, how they came to their specific specialty, and what they love most and like the least about their job. They will also often take some time to describe the type of student that is likely to succeed in their particular field, with a focus on qualities other than grades and test scores. If you find these stories of cases and the day of a physician interesting or exciting, or if their personal paths to medicine resonate with you, that’s a great reason to pursue some in-person opportunities like shadowing and getting clinical experience, whether that’s paid or on a volunteer basis. 

There are also many medical students, residents, and physicians who share their journeys and work on platforms like YouTube. While watching these videos wouldn’t count as official shadowing, they can still be a very interesting look into the day and work of physicians and what your future could look like. There are a few good examples of these videos and creators, but a search will also provide more options for you to check out. Mama Doctor Jones is an OB/GYN who makes educational videos about topics in gynecological health and obstetrics, and also sometimes films videos in the hospital showing what her day is like on a 24 hour call shift. Violin MD has several years worth of hospital vlogs since she is now in her rheumatology fellowship and videos talking about how she came to medicine as a nontraditional student. Starting with a few people will open up a wealth of other options you might find helpful and encouraging. Your current and future colleagues will be some of your greatest resources. You can join in on premed conversations and get answers to some of your questions by joining the Premed Hangout Facebook group or by checking out the premed forums we host here at Medical School HQ

Another great thing to do at this point in your journey, and to keep doing as you move forward, is to write down all the reasons you have for why you want to be a physician. At this point, don’t worry about them being “good” reasons. Some of these notes might be really useful when it’s time to write your personal statement to apply to medical school. Give yourself the freedom to also write things that you wouldn’t include in a personal statement like things you hope to get the chance to do someday. These notes can be something you look back on when you’re starting to get discouraged, or when you don’t do as well as you had hoped on an exam. There will be times on this journey where you stumble, where you fail, and you might feel like giving up. You need to have something to encourage you on hard days. Being able to fail and learn from it will serve you for the rest of your career, wherever it leads you.

This is a great time to start journaling about both what has led you to this thought process so far and to have a record of your experiences. When you are able to get shadowing experiences or patient exposure, at least jot some notes down about it when you’re finished. It’s of course okay to have things you didn’t enjoy about any experience but try to write down at least one thing that was useful or enjoyable about the day. Pay particular attention to anything that made you think, “Yes, this is what I want to be doing. The hospital or the clinic is where I’m supposed to be.” These are the moments and stories that you’ll want to recount in future application essays. A great place to start keeping track of your courses, activities, and impressions of your experiences is the software company Mappd, which can be incredibly useful for premeds at any step in their journey. It’s intended to be used as soon as you decide you want to be a physician. You can enter all of your coursework, get customized feedback, and add all of your activity hours along with reflections. You can now also see essay questions for all of the application services so Mappd can carry you from the beginning of your journey to when you hit submit on your application. 

The key thing to take away from this advice is to get all the information you can to know whether medicine is the right path for you, and what role in medicine is the best fit for you. It will also let you be sure that you are doing this for you and only you. Having some sense of your “why medicine” will give you that drive you need to keep going and will give you a clearer end goal. Also know it’s okay if, with information, you change your mind and you’ll know you did it because you learned that this isn’t what you want and not because you were scared. It’s okay to be afraid of failing and struggling, but the key is to keep going. 

No matter what has led you to this path and no matter what age you are when you begin walking it, you can achieve your goals with effort and determination. Take some time to find a community that can lift you during hard times and celebrate your successes. Make sure to give yourself some time to review each week or few weeks what has gone well for you recently and what didn’t succeed as you had hoped it would. This will tell you what to keep doing and what you might need to find a different way of doing. Looking at both what went right and what went wrong gives you the chance to celebrate your successes and skills. Everyone deserves to have people in their life who will encourage and celebrate them, but we also all need to be able to encourage ourselves and recognize our own successes. 

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