So here’s the scenario: you’ve worked yourself to the bone during undergrad, dedicated hours to studying for the MCAT, made it through the application process, and got into med school. For discussion sake we can even throw in the fact that you’ve made it through the first 2 years, and have passed the USMLE Step 1 exam with flying colors. So the uncertainty is over, right?
Now begins one of the most stressful periods of all: the one where you decide what you actually want to do for the rest of your life.
As far as I’m concerned, one of the biggest draws of pursuing a career in medicine is the flexibility. Within the various fields and sub-specialties of the profession is a whole spectrum of lifestyles, pay scales, and types of work. And while this is wonderful in terms of the seemingly limitless possibilities, it is equally stress-inducing when you start to consider the gravity of actually making this decision. Standing at a similar crux right now, it’s clear that this is no easy feat. Starting to look at possible trajectories for the rest of my life has forced me to be more honest with myself than ever before, and has made me address some of the “big” questions that I’d long pushed to the back burner: What do I want out of life? What kind of lifestyle do I want? Where, geographically, do I want to end up? Do I value prestige over community service?
In terms of beginning to tackle some of these questions, it seems to comes down to – the principle which translates to any life-determining decision – is a good deal of introspection (i.e. knowing yourself well), admitting the ego-traps that exist (do you want to be a surgeon because of the social cache/what you’ve seen on Grey’s Anatomy or does the field truly fascinate you?), and recognizing that there’s a good chance that nothing will fit 100%.
And so, during this all-important, insecurity-exacerbating 3rd year of medical school I’ve been going through my core clinical rotations with the intention of sorting things out. Each rotation lets me sample a given field and gives me a snapshot of what life might be like were that my ultimate choice. And this has allowed me to keep a running tab in my mind of what I’ve loved/been fascinated by as well as those fields that weren’t such a good match.
Unfortunately, a series of snapshots also means that the perceptions I’ve gotten aren’t completely representative of the field as a whole. After all, the people on a given rotation, along with other factors like the institution-specific experience (e.g. maybe pediatrics at UIC is a more fun experience than at Cook County), can affect the overall perception as much as the actual workday or the field itself. And though imperfect, it’s the best metric I’ve got.
That, paired with specific areas of interest (for example in the first 2 years of med school I loved learning all about the kidneys and reproductive endocrinology whereas GI and cardiac physiology/pathophys were more taxing to study) will hopefully start to narrow down the field. In my case, I just keep telling myself not to succumb to the temptation of pursuing a career in something that pays well or is prestigious (dermatology, radiology or anesthesiology) at the expense of hating waking up for work for the rest of my life. And while this hasn’t quite gotten me to a final decision yet, it certainly has cut down the number of possibilities.
So what’s the conclusion to the beginning scenario? Unfortunately, that uncertainty is a fact of life, and not just in medicine, but in any field. All you can do is remain honest about your options and where you want to end up, and maintain the flexibility to consider new options when they present themselves, even if this means reassessing things you thought you had figured out.