First, there are some easy, boring, true answers – I like science. I like helping people. I want to work in a fast-paced environment. But all of these answers only actually address “Why a career in the health sciences?”
Things get much more interesting, and more uncomfortable, when you start considering “Why medicine, specifically?” The best interview question I’ve ever heard was this: “You say you want to help people. Why not nursing? There’s a nation-wide nursing shortage, but a surplus of people who want to be doctors – wouldn’t you be helping more people if you became a nurse?”
To his credit, the person who told me this story was only panicked for a minute. He answered honestly: “Because, sir, I respect nurses, but I’d rather be trained to call the shots.”
This guy knew why he wanted to go into medicine. He also had the guts to answer honestly, even when his reason for going into medicine is something that, taken alone, would be a bad reason.
That said, I believe that every possible answer – when taken alone – is a bad reason. Because you want to help people? There’s a million careers where you can do that better, and in some cases with a much better lifestyle. Because you want to make loads of money? Well, good luck with that. Because you want to impress your friends? You can’t really impress them when you’re so busy that you lose touch with them completely.
But I believe that a couple of “bad reasons” can be okay. The key is to make sure they’re outnumbered by the “good” ones, and to know exactly what it is you’ll be sacrificing.
1. Write down a brutally honest answer to “Why medicine?” Brutal is the key word here. A lot of the time we know something’s a bad reason to go into medicine, so we don’t even acknowledge it ourselves. For example: if I’m being completely honest, I like how hard it is to become a doctor. I’m stupid ambitious, I know. I also like that it guarantees a modicum of financial security if you play your cards right. These reasons aren’t anything I’d write in a personal statement, but I’m glad I acknowledged that they existed before I decided on medicine.
2. Bombard yourself with reasons to NOT go into medicine. Read The House of God. Read the Anonymous Doctor blog (try this entry, or this one, or this other one). Read SDN (start here, then here). Invite your surgical resident friend out to dinner, liquor them up, and ask them if they’d still choose medicine if they had to do life over again. Know the worst of what you may be getting yourself into.
3. Then go back to your brutally honest reasons for going into medicine. Is there another career that could satisfy those reasons?
I think often it’s the dumbest reasons that narrow the choice down to medicine. It doesn’t stop these reasons from being dumb – it’s stupid for me to want to do something just because it’s hard – but at the same time, 1) when you think about it, with all the sacrifices you have to make? You kind of need at least one dumb reason, and 2) I can’t change that aspect of my personality.
The real question is: if you take all of your reasons together – good, dumb, and altruistic – do they outweigh the sacrifices?