How to Decide If Going to Medical School and Being a Doctor Is Worth It

Becoming a doctor requires a lot of time and effort, and it often involves going into debt. So potential physicians need to seriously consider whether the benefits of a medical career outweigh the challenges.

“People may think they have an idea of what a doctor is — prestige, respect from others, and excitement. But when they get to the job itself, while it certainly can be all of those things, not everyone is going to have the same experience,” Dr. Andrew Moore, a gastroenterology fellow at the University of Chicago, wrote in an email. “Some people realize very late that being a doctor isn’t everything they thought it would be, and once they’ve started their training, they feel stuck because they’ve accumulated so much student loan debt and have to finish what they started in order to be able to pay it back.”

[Read: How to Decide Between Medical School and Another Health Care Degree Program.]

Someone seriously contemplating medical school should shadow doctors and conduct informational interviews with individuals who have medical training, Moore suggests. An important difference between medicine and other health care professions, Moore says, is that physicians have an unusually high degree of independence.

Moore adds that although medical training is demanding and “can be a very lonely process,” a medical career has the potential to be profoundly rewarding. “Once training is over, you have a very unique set of skills that can make huge impacts in society and people’s lives.”

Moore recommends considering whether there is any other profession besides medicine that would be more fulfilling, “because if there is, then the financial and social sacrifices (of medical training) will become personal burdens rather than means to accomplish your career goals.”

The consensus among individuals with medical training is that it isn’t appropriate for someone whose primary motivation is earning a high salary.

“I was always told not to go into medicine if I want to be rich!” Dr. Nicholas Jones, a renowned Atlanta-based plastic surgeon, explained in an email. “I feel this is partially true because for the hours you have put in, the sacrifices you have made, you could have done a million other things to make money. A career in medicine is a lifelong commitment and you do it because you genuinely care about people.”

Dr. Edward Halperin, the chancellor and CEO of New York Medical College, says that working as a physician is “the closest thing to sacred work” that someone can perform outside of a house of worship. “The relief of pain, amelioration of suffering, and helping people to avoid, to the extent possible, premature death is holy work,” he wrote in an email.

Dr. Karen M. Murray, associate dean for admissions at New York Medical College’s School of Medicine, describes medicine as “a calling.” Improving the conditions of patients is a rewarding aspect of the profession, but doctors may encounter frustrating situations.

“For example, I will recommend treatment for a problem but the insurance company will not cover the cost of the therapy and the patient is caught in the middle because they cannot afford the therapy on their own,” Murray wrote in an email. She suggests that the opportunity to “provide a needed service” is one of the perks of being a doctor, while dealing with the commercialization of health care is one of the downsides.

The financial cost of medical training is worth assessing, experts say.

Dr. Anita Srikameswaran, program director of the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute, chose to use her medical degree in a nontraditional way by working as a medical writer, but she notes that this unconventional career path might not have been feasible for her if she had received an expensive medical education. Srikameswaran earned a medical degree from the University of Manitoba, a public school in Canada, and later a journalism degree at Northwestern University in Illinois.

“I was fortunate that I was able to make that transition,” she says, adding that her career flexibility would have been limited had she carried a significant student debt burden from medical school.

[Read: Why Medical School May Not Be the Path for You.]

Srikameswaran says that potential medical students should think about how much money they will need to spend “up front” to finance a medical education and consider “what it might mean on the back end” in terms of how much money they will need to earn.

Practicing doctors say one of the greatest aspects of their jobs is the conviction that they are helping others. “Physicians can help patients both mentally and physically, can save lives, and improve quality of life,” Dr. Nikhil R. Nayak, a Virginia-based neurosurgeon, wrote in an email. “As humans, our careers and professions are a major part of our daily lives and identities, and I take deep satisfaction in knowing that my daily job involves helping other people and performing a greater good.”

Nayak notes that future doctors need to be patient, because after graduating from college they will need to devote years to preparing for a medical career. People “who cannot keep the long term goal in sight or have difficulty delaying gratification may find the career path unappealing,” Nayak warns.

Although medical training takes a long time, individuals who are persistent enough to finish discover that medical expertise is a highly marketable skill.

“From a professional standpoint, there is significant job security as well as financial security,” Nayak says.

[See: 5 Things to Do Before Applying to Medical School.]

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary among U.S. physicians easily exceeds $200,000.

Dr. Allison Rogers of Kentucky, a family medicine physician who is not currently practicing medicine but is teaching aspiring doctors, says one benefit of a medical degree is that it is a credential in high demand throughout the U.S. Rogers says recruiters frequently contact her, and she notes that doctors can typically find work in whatever region they prefer.

Searching for a medical school? Get our complete rankings of Best Medical Schools.

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