Medical School – Is Now the Right Time for Me?

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • Nowadays, the “nontraditional” medical school matriculant is almost the rule, more than the exception. Whether one jumps straight from college to medical school, takes an accelerated BA/MD, or takes a decade off in between for a career switch, the decision to go to medical school is a weighty one. Every doctor had to make it at some point, and, presumably, you are making this decision too.

    I hope my personal story will show you that there’s nothing wrong with taking the time you need. Furthermore, a hiatus might serve you even better than going straight through. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and you will have to do what you think is right for you.

    ::cue wispy flashback clouds and harp music::

    I took my pre-med requirements early in college because there was a pretty good chance that I wanted to be a doctor. As a hedge, I tried a year of engineering coursework, but found it a little too pencil-and-papery for my tastes.

    In my junior year of college, it was time to sign up for the MCAT, which at that time was given only twice a year. The test that made sense for me would be the one given in August 2005. On that summer Saturday that the test was offered, I considered another offer on the table: a chance to see my favorite band at a festival with my best friends. 

    Did I have my priorities crooked? Was I really weighing the first step in a long and illustrious career against a weekend camping in a muddy field with my buds? The fact that I was even considering both options was telling enough: I wasn’t ready to put every egg in the medical school basket. Not just yet. I took my $200 and bought a seat at the concert instead of a seat at the Prometric test center.

    “Medical school will always be there,” they told me. They were right.

    After all, nothing was screaming for me to head straight to medical school. The classic advice of “If you can see yourself being happy doing anything else, then don’t become a doctor” rang in my head. Peers and mentors supported my decision as well. 

    At the protein production lab I worked at, the professors and career PhD’s told me that now was the time to seek other experiences, if I wanted them. I’d be working for the next 40-odd years, and chances to “disappear” to far away places and let my guard down on extreme responsibility was somewhat now-or-never. Mind you, I was being told this by the smartest and most accomplished people I had come to know.

    “Medical school will always be there,” they told me. They were right. The institution wasn’t going anywhere. The paradigm would still be there next year, in three years, or whenever, IF EVER, I wanted to throw my hat in the ring.

    So where did life take me next?

    I worked at the lab for a few months after graduation, then transitioned to a job that was the opposite of the everyday academic rigor I had grown accustomed to. A close friend got me a job at his uncle’s forklift company, driving around in flatbed trucks and installing racks in warehouses. There was a new kind of solace in performing manual labor. The feeling of getting to leave work at work and not think about the next day’s duties was novel for me. And at $10 per hour under the table, I had it made.

    A random turn of events brought me on the next adventure, a trip across the country to become a ski instructor in Colorado…even though I had only been skiing five times in my life up to that point.

    “Just stay one lesson ahead of the kids,” I told myself. I thought I grew up in “the mountains,” but working at Breckenridge taught me what real mountains really looked like. I had just $2000 to my name, but was breaking even, getting to ski everyday, and getting to relax in a hot tub each night. My medical school postponement wasn’t looking so bad after all.

    Next came a backpacking trip through Europe with a few friends, after which, I moved back home. However a 22 year old with a sense of adventure doesn’t do well in the comfy confines of his childhood bedroom in the suburbs.

    The next adventure took place in a concrete jungle. I got a cold calling sales job in Manhattan, and while the work wasn’t at all rewarding, it was a young bachelor’s dream: living in the big city, always holding out hope for the next big sale, and going out eight nights a week. 

    While there was novelty to the happy-hour-hero lifestyle, I remember standing out in the cold on Wall Street, holding back tears as I told my parents how miserable and dead-end this job was. 

    On top of it, I appeared on a TV game show and won a small windfall for a marginally employed 20-something. Without the need to crush my soul to earn the next $1,000, my days at the company came to a swift end. Up next was a month-long road trip across America with my two best friends. 

    I had the somewhat conscious, somewhat subliminal thought, “I am ready to devote my efforts to something greater than myself.” 

    A body in motion tends to stay in motion, and upon arrival home from that trip, I took a job with an adventure travel company, and led trips for teenagers all around the Pacific Northwest. I spent about three months at home thinking about the next step, and made my way to Australia on a working holiday visa. With a one-way ticket and no plan at all, I boarded the plane and wondered where I’d find myself.

    My time in Australia was entirely self-serving and hedonistic, and I loved every moment. I worked at a surf camp, served as a cook and deckhand on a sailboat, and, most importantly,  stumbled upon the realization I had been waiting for the last few years.

    I vividly remember staring out at the clouds on a 12-hour bus ride along the Golden Coast. I had the somewhat conscious, somewhat subliminal thought, “I am ready to devote my efforts to something greater than myself.” 

    Upon arrival home, I started studying for the MCATs, began volunteering in the local hospital, and beseeched some old professors (“Hey, remember me?”) for some letters of recommendation. I scored “acceptably” on the MCAT, got a couple of interviews, and while hiking in Patagonia, received a call from the Dean of Admissions at Rutgers – New Jersey Medical School.

    “Brian, congratulations, you’re in.”

    I had known that I would be a better student, resident, and physician if left to my own devices, and approached medical school when the time was right for me.

    So what are the salient lessons? What can you learn from my experiences? 

    What I can say is this: I was a very different person in 2011 when I started medical school, five years after college graduation. Finally, I was ready. The doubts were gone. The desire to be a medical student was entirely there, and I had gotten a lot of the travel bug(s) out of my system. I had my fun, and was ready for some selflessness. Twenty-four-hour calls would be easier pills to swallow after the adventures were in the bag. 

    Sure, there would be plenty of times that I looked out the window of the brick fortress of the hospital, longing for wide open spaces, endless sunsets, and fresh powder on the slopes, but at least I got to experience them early and often. 

    Now, explaining my five year “vacation” to admissions committees, on the other hand, was a little more difficult. Other applicants had spent their five years off building hospitals in Africa, or working for healthcare based nonprofits to improve the world around them. It was tough for me to hold a candle to, but I tried to communicate the central message that medical school was always somewhere in the schema. I had known that I would be a better student, resident, and physician if left to my own devices, and approached medical school when the time was right for me.

    Ultimately, that is the question you have to answer – when is medical school right for you? Are you currently in your sophomore year of college, and feeling burnt out? Or are you in the 1% of the 1% who cannot stop moving forward, even for a second, and each day of your life that you spend as a non-physician feels like a day wasted? You probably lie somewhere between these two points on the spectrum, and have a number of other forces in your life that might make the decision easier or harder to make. Do you already have children? Are you burdened by undergraduate debt? When you consider visas, immigration, finances, family, and your own health, you quickly see how it’s impossible to make a blanket statement about when is the right time.

    When I finally did start medical school, the time was right. I was strangely excited to study lecture slides. I knew this was the path for me, I had a full head of steam, and I relished the opportunity to take tests again. (Weird, I know.).

    There was another big thing that I figured out along the way, by virtue of taking my break. Many had told me about the horrible rigors of medical school, and how it’s this black box of four years that will disappear from your life, completely devoid of any meaningful non-medical school experiences. I was told that the experience would be all consuming, and was just an impossibly large amount of work. 

    Had I gone directly from a cushy undergraduate senior year into three hours of lecture followed by five hours of studying, it definitely would have been a rude awakening. When I started medical school at age 26, many of my peers had gotten past their entry-level jobs, and I realized they too were working really hard. Devoting more than eight hours a day to one’s career is normal, so why should the time in medical school be any different? The workload was easier to handle when I compared it to a job instead of to college, and the end result would be a whole lot more rewarding than cold calling. 

    How do you go about making this decision? Seek out the honest experiences of others in the field as best as you can. You don’t want the sugar coated story of “answering the highest calling” and getting showered in praise. While that’s part of the allure, you must balance this against missing Junior’s baseball game because of Saturday call, or doing rounds on Thanksgiving morning instead of traveling to Nana’s. Search your soul, seek the advice of those you respect, and ultimately, try your best to make the decision that’s right for you. 

    When I was trying to decide, I spoke to my Uncle Marc, an esteemed chief of cardiology at his hospital system in Long Island. He was a seasoned cardiologist, and the smartest man in my family. He likened the choice of a career in medicine to the choice of a spouse. “You can’t date everyone. You find someone and say ‘this is really enjoyable and this works,’ and you go with it. This decision is the same. You can’t dabble in every career. Eventually you say ‘this makes sense’ and you go for it.”

    Like all things in life, you make the best decision you can, with the information you’ve got, and give yourself to it, one hundred percent. A half-decade hiatus was right for me. A lifelong hiatus (i.e., different career) might be right for you. Throttling full steam ahead is another worthy option. Choose wisely, and may you be afforded all that you yearn for. 

    Photo by Who’s Denilo? on Unsplash