People go into medicine for a whole host of reasons. They like science, they crave variety, they want their work to make a difference in the field — but underlying all of these motives is a desire to help people.
Still, you don’t need to become a doctor to put your altruism into practice or to pursue your passion for, say, biology; there are, in fact, many related options. Here are six alternatives to consider that align with different interests, temperaments, and talents, and draw on various aspects of medicine.
In many ways, the day-to-day work of a doctor involves teaching. For most physicians, residency — the time devoted to training in a particular specialty — is also spent mentoring medical students through the confusing world of clinical practice. At some point, most residents and attending physicians are required to give instructional lectures to their colleagues or other health care professionals-in-training. Moreover, patients themselves seek out their physician to instruct them on medical conditions. In this sense, nearly every clinical interaction involves some degree of teaching on the part of a physician.
If you are passionate about expanding people’s knowledge and understanding, consider what you could achieve as a teacher — without experiencing endless sleep deprivation or an educational debt equivalent to the cost of a mansion in a midwestern city. For example, teaching children in elementary school draws on many of the same temperamental strengths as pediatricians possess. On the other hand, if you like distilling complex concepts into clear, comprehensible tidbits, becoming a college chemistry or philosophy professor may be your path.
Many aspiring pre-meds have their hearts set on becoming a doctor because they have a mistaken assumption that medicine is simply applied biology. Even some practicing physicians operate under this misguided notion. Despite the fact that medicine relies on science, it is much more of an art than science.
Scientists seek to comprehend the unknown — in a sense, pursuing knowledge for its own sake. Medical practice, by contrast, involves using the current state of scientific understanding to craft a treatment plan tailored to a particular individual’s circumstances, desires, or goals. That is, doctors use available materials, like drugs or medical procedures to try and produce a particular outcome, much like a painter uses paint, brushes, and a canvas to produce a work of art, or a poet communicates the essence of an idea or emotion through the words at her disposal. Indeed, it is the insights and understanding that emerge from scientific inquiry that doctors sculpt into an approach to care for their patients.
The opportunities available in the realm of “pure science” are unlimited. Some researchers leave their field to become doctors, only to discover that what they really loved was simply the type of research that concerned itself with clinical outcomes — whether some drug worked to treat a specific disease, or whether a particular test could be developed to diagnose a rare medical condition. Such clinical researchers still interact with patients, as well as other scientists and health-care professionals, but their focus remains principally on the science behind the treatment tools rather than the patients themselves. They run investigative procedures to shed light on disease processes or pharmacological effects. Their work may eventually result in the cure for an illness or an intervention that changes the course of many patients’ lives.
If the strongest passion you can imagine for a potential stint in medical school is the content you’ll read in your science textbooks or the uninterrupted investigation into a particular bacteria, consider pursuing a career in research, or “pure science,” without the unnecessary detour through medical school first.
Most doctors spend the majority of their time writing — and about an equal amount complaining about the paperwork. Sure, the notes that physicians record to document their conversations, thoughts, and plans regarding patients are confidential and aren’t going to wind up on The New York Times’ bestseller list. But they constitute writing nonetheless.
It is revealing that quite a few physicians end up leaving medicine altogether to become authors, or at least devote a significant portion of their professional lives to being full-time writers — think Walker Percy, William Carlos Williams, Michael Crichton, and Khaled Hosseini, to name a few. The intimate experiences physicians share with their patients at moments of great vulnerability likely afford them insights into the human condition that feed such creativity.
If you’re drawn to writing — whether such expression is fictional or documentary — there are many successful writers who either leave their practice or turn away from medicine after pursuing pre-med undergraduate studies. Indeed, Columbia University now offers a master of science in an interdisciplinary program known as narrative medicine, in which graduate students study literary theory, psychology, and philosophy to more effectively listen to, record, and recount patient needs in health-care settings. Such a course of study may be the ideal path for those who love writing and are fascinated by medicine.
Pharmacists work in a variety of settings, from small, independent pharmacies to retail chains to inpatient hospital wards. In pharmacy doctoral programs, students learn the intricacies of drug mechanisms, their chemical structures, and applications for a variety of health conditions. These professionals are often better informed about medications than the physicians who prescribe them.
If you truly love chemistry, but are rethinking applying to medical school, consider a Pharm.D. program: You’ll make a solid income, have the freedom to work in a range of settings, and finish your education sooner than a prospective physician.
For those who like the satisfaction of helping someone immediately, being involved in preventive care, and playing a role in maintaining an essential part of a person’s health, dentistry is an excellent option. For many, this profession is the singular goal they’ve always had when mapping out their educational plans, but others don’t consider it until they begin to question a career in medicine. Four years of dental school following an undergraduate degree will enable you to perform surgeries, work with your hands, and keep predictable work hours while earning a respectable income.
Veterinarians are the comparative anatomists of health-care practitioners. If anatomy is what piques your interest and the thought of working with patients with fur or feathers makes you smile, consider veterinary school. You’ll have the opportunity to study the wonders of different species and play an integral part in maintaining the health of a beloved member of many families. Veterinary medicine is intellectually challenging — and there’s a good shot you’ll get to hold puppies and kittens on a daily basis.
Whichever path you choose, remember Hippocrates’ adage: “Ars longa, vita brevis” — the art (of medicine) is long, life is short. If you are not completely sold on a career in medicine, think deeply about why you’re considering it in the first place. Such reflection may open a door to a path you had never before considered.
After all, life is too short not to love what you do.