During my first year at Wellesley, every pre-med student I met was incredibly intense. They had four-year plans in the first few weeks of classes, they were acing all of their STEM courses, and they were already brainstorming summer internships. It was daunting, to say the least. But the pressure of being pre-med is almost nothing next to the pressure to stay pre-med.
There is an inherent attitude among those in prestigious institutions like Wellesley that there are two options if you’re going into the medical field: doctor or researcher. Anything less is looked down upon, and anyone who can’t “handle the pressure” of the pre-med track just isn’t trying hard enough. These attitudes aren’t only founded on privilege and perpetuated by dynasty-esque doctor families, but also are inaccurate and limit students’ potential.
I know several students at Wellesley who don’t even stop to consider other medical careers due to the bias against those careers and the lack of information regarding other pre-health graduate programs on campus. While every Wellesley student is certainly capable of pursuing a career as a physician or PhD researcher, it has to be said that the graduate school experience, work-life balance of the careers, and student loan debt required do not suit everyone. Students who weigh out these factors and look into other careers in the medical field should not be shunned or feel bad about themselves.
Many students also feel that the only way they can become wealthy in the medical field is to follow the medical school route, despite the fact that they’re often starting their residencies making only around $60k with $250k-500k in graduate student loan debt. In comparison, in-state public Physician assistant programs can cost less than $45k, with the starting salary being typically close to or over $100k. Additionally, students going into other medical professions can start their careers much earlier. With two gap years and surgical residencies, many medical students do not begin their medical career until 29-32 years old. Most other graduate medical programs are able to start their careers at much younger ages, allowing for financial independence much earlier in life, and earlier payback of student loan debt.
Another often ignored aspect of medical school is its ability to shut out students who are minorities or from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Despite medical schools having increasingly competitive MCAT scores and GPA requirements, studies have found that MCAT scores and GPAs have no correlation with MD achievements as a clinician. These test scores and GPA requirements are often keeping out low-income and disadvantaged students, who are more likely to be juggling more responsibilities outside of school work during their undergraduate education, and less likely to afford MCAT prep courses and other tutoring services. In comparison, while still very competitive, most PA programs no longer require forms of standardized testing and have much lower required applicant GPAs. The system of medical school has been designed to shut out disadvantaged students – and fighting a system set up in that way can be exhausting. It shouldn’t be the expectation that every minority student has to take it upon themselves to dismantle or fight the systemic oppression of medical school and become a doctor.
Careers in other areas of the medical field are just as rewarding as those of physicians, if not more so depending on your goals as a medical worker. Nurses, for example, have much more patient contact than doctors and often can make a greater impact on daily patient health and safety than doctors. Additionally, travel nurses now make over $100k on average, along with their travel and meals being covered in their contracts by most travel agencies. This essentially means that nurses can travel somewhere new in the US for a three to twelve-month period for free on top of being paid six figures. A nurse I know has lived in Hawaii for almost two years through travel contracts, and she has loved the ability to help patients, travel and make a ton of money.
My point is not that you should give up on your dream of being a doctor. Everyone has different things that draw them to a career, and anyone who feels medicine suits them should pursue it. However, I’m asking that – Wellesley students especially – have more of an open mind to the medical field. Not everyone has to be a doctor – and that’s okay.