Is your pre-med major burning you out?

If your answer is yes, that’s not necessarily a sign you should quit pre-med. But it’s probably time to ask yourself (and probably not for the first time), whether pre-med is reallyquit pre-medright for you. Granted, I don’t believe there’s one “right” career for anyone, but there are definitely wrong ones, and people usually choose them out of necessity (they need a job ASAP) or because they’ve gotten their priorities mixed up.

Why are you in pre-med?

I decided to write this post because—out of all the possible academic routes college students can opt to take—I think the pre-med route is the one students are most likely to pick for the wrong reasons. There are just too many incentives to choose it that have nothing to do with whether or not you genuinely care about people or science.

Pre-med for stature? Job security?

Maybe for you, a pre-med major means having a plan for after graduation. Maybe you like the “oohs” and “ahs” you get from people when you tell them what you’re studying. Maybe you want to be rich or to impress girls (or guys!), or maybe you want to choose something your parents will approve of. It’s possible that you think of it as a very sensible choice with job security. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these. But in the end, whichever it is, they all point to the fact that you chose a pre-med major to fill a short-term want, rather than a sincere interest or passion. In other words, you made a choice because of something you lacked, rather than something you liked.

The problem with choices motivated by lack is that their allure always fades. Sooner or later you’ll realize that you can get girls (guys) without telling them you’re pre-med, there are much easier ways to make much more money, and that you’ve got to develop your own identity independent of what your parents expect of you. There are plenty of careers with job security and post-graduation opportunities. If you don’t realize any of that before you start medical school, you may end up with a mountain of debt to pay off with a career you don’t even like. Maybe it’s time to quit pre-med!

An easy way to figure out if you’re doing a pre-med major for the right reasons

Imagine for a second that you just decided to give up all of your plans for medical school and quit pre-med today. Where do your thoughts go first? Do you think of another career that choice would allow you to pursue? Do you think of your parents’ reaction? Do you think of what your girlfriend would say? Do you shudder at the thought of having a future with no plans? Your first thought will probably reflect what you see as most drastically affected (threatened) by a choice to do something other than pre-med. Depending on what it is, you can learn a lot about why you chose a pre-med major in the first place, or what’s keeping you in it, at least.

What are the possibilities if you do quit pre-med?

Do you catch yourself wondering what it would be like to study history, or philosophy, or engineering? Is it a relief to tell people you’re pre-med, because of how important it is to you that they know how ambitious you are? What do you enjoy more: learning everything you can about biology, chemistry or physiology, or getting good grades because you learned everything you could about them?

If you don’t like science or studying, if you did it for money, respect or security, or if you did it “just because,” I would recommend seriously whether you may want to quit pre-med.  Focus on filling up the holes in your life, work through your insecurities and fears, and see if you want to be a doctor more or less as the fears diminish.

Your pre-med major in hindsight

In the end, I’m not sure anyone chooses a pre-med major for the right reasons. I think that’s just par for the course for a career you have to choose before you know anything about what it’s like. Students typically start taking their science classes seriously and shadowing doctors once they’ve decided to go to medical school—not the other way around—because their applications need to be chock-full of research and volunteer hours by the time they apply. I’m not saying you can’t grow into having a sincere interest, but I am saying that not everyone does.

My advice: no matter how far along you are in the process—whether you’re an M2 or a freshman bio major—ask yourself why you’re so set on medical school. Be honest with yourself about what’s keeping you in it. No matter how far along you are, it’s never too late too quit pre-med for something you like more. Thirty years down the road, if you chose medicine for the wrong reasons, you’re not going to say, “Gosh, I’m glad I decided to be a doctor, even though I’m miserable practicing medicine.” You’ll wish you were saying, “Gosh, I’m glad I quit pre-med during my senior year in college. Even though I’d already taken the MCAT and applied to medical schools, changing my path allowed me to pursue career X, which is perfect for me.” On the other hand, I have no doubt that there are plenty of pre-med students who will make great doctors and enjoy their work immensely. You just need to find out if you’re really one of them.

If you’re asking yourself hard questions like these, you’ll be moving in the right direction no matter what. Either toward more confidence in your future as a doctor, or toward a career that really suits you.

In defense of the pre-med path, sometimes all you need to revive your commitment is an experience that reminds you why a career in medicine would still be an interesting, exciting, and fulfilling choice for you. For me, it took reading Paul Farmer’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” It’s a pretty popular read about a doc who splits his time between Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston and a hospital for the poor he built in rural Haiti. It led me to get involved in global health research and activism, which shaped my undergrad experience. Amazon also has a list of Must-Reads for Pre-Med Students with some pretty good titles, including “Doctor,” which is outstanding. And here’s our list of Best Books for Aspiring Doctors, mostly written by doctors and residents, while in practice.

Point being, don’t stay in or jump ship without some serious soul-searching and thought. You’ll be glad you did in the end.