As a teaching assistant, part of what I love doing is talking to my students about their career goals. Some of them know what they want to do, many of them don’t, and a handful are pretty skilled at telling me what they think I want to hear. A large proportion are pre-med or pre-health. This question is posed at the end of a thoughtful article on School of Doubt on advising students about career options:
“Here’s my question to you: what makes students so intent on specific career options so early?”
In other words, why do so many of our students want to become doctors? The article is good and wonders why pre-med is such a popular major among life sciences majors. The author floats a couple of hypotheses, including the hero complex and prestige of the position.
While I agree, a couple of other factors I didn’t see mentioned are family pressure and the fact that the road to becoming a doctor is quite standardized. I’m going to set aside family pressure for now, which can be a very strong and complicated factor for many students, as it really warrants an entire post (or book) of its own. I think this second factor, the desire for a set pathway, is more common than we realize. Let’s be honest: very few jobs out there have linear career paths leading to them. Sure, pretty much any profession requires that you bring certain skills, experiences, and maybe a degree or certification to it, but a majority of people out there didn’t get to their current job by traveling in a straight line. Not even (or especially) the academics I work with now. An example, from Duke professor Sönke Johnsen:
I entered college and quickly discovered that my Physics classes bored me. I switched majors to Math, mostly because my favorite teacher at the time — who shared my interest in modern dance and told funny stories about Abel and Galois — taught this subject. This major also gave me time to do what I really enjoyed: dancing, painting, playing practical jokes, and worrying about my personal life. I graduated early, moved to a clothing-optional group house with my girlfriend, and started teaching dance to three-year-olds. I fully expected to never return to academia.
(I highly recommend reading the rest of his fantastic Q&A for the full story.)
Given that most people land their jobs by some mixture of circumstances, geography, opportunity and luck, momentary personal motivations, and ‘just figuring it out’, becoming a doctor (or planning to become a doctor) is reassuring in this sense. There are on the order of 10 years’ worth of hoops of definite heights to jump through. A close friend of mine who recently became an RN told me of the pride she felt in her achievement: “I set myself a goal, I went through all the necessary steps, and here I am.”
To become a doctor you know exactly what you have to do: get good grades, do well on the MCAT, go to medical school, do your rotations, complete a residency, and then, BAM, DOCTOR. For a directionless college student (there are many and I was one) a proscribed pathway can be reassuring. It is much less comforting to hear, “You’ll figure something out, but first you have to go wander and struggle and be a bit lost until you do.” I had a wonderful Albanian math teacher in middle school who was fond of telling us, “Freedom is like a fat in your body.”
This linear pathway is not unique to doctors, and includes many of the health-related professions, lawyers, and others. As a graduate student in the life sciences, I think we tend to see the most wanna-be doctors because biology is the most obvious plinth upon which modern medicine sits (and at a university like mine where there is no official pre-med major the biology-related majors are packed with pre-meds). Additionally, compared with other health-related professions, “medical doctor” carries with it the one-two of high prestige and high earnings. My students’ backup plans are usually quietly considering pharmacy school, PAing, or dentistry.
The article asks a second question at the end: “How do we expose them to what [their early, restrictive career fixations] will really mean?” For that, I think the best thing is to encourage students to engage in volunteering and internships in their desired field early. They should seek out (and we should help them find, as much as possible) older students and professionals in the field to talk to. This would help them think about their career path more critically and expose them to the realities of what it means to be a doctor (and more than the melodrama, hero worship, and martyr complexes portrayed on House, Grey’s Anatomy, and other TV shows).
What do you think? Anything else we’re missing?