Can we just stop for a moment and realise how weird the medical degree is? Think of it this way: chances are you’ll have friends applying for courses other than medicine (you know, all those degrees for sane people you’d be considering if only you loved yourself). You’ll hear those people talking about how they’re not yet sure what they want to go into after they graduate and/or discussing all the different jobs they could potentially end up in. As you look down at the seventh draft of your personal statement you realise a very peculiar truth: unlike them, you seem to have it all decided. You’re going to be a doctor.
This is where medicine is unique. What degree other than medicine, after 5-6 years of study, takes you straight into a specific job? I mean, I don’t know about you, but sometimes that thought is just distressing. It can feel like you’re jumping on a 300 mph train headed straight for a highly specified, non-negotiable direction. Like, what if you change your mind? Or the ride is nothing like you expected? Or you get bored and want some variety?
Asking yourself those questions doesn’t mean that medicine isn’t for you or that you have commitment issues – it’s only right to be cautious when the stakes are so high – it’s the rest of your life that we’re talking about here. And life changes: you yourself change as do your circumstances. Surely you want as many doors open as possible – and despite what it can seem like, good ol’ Medicine doesn’t come along and shut closed all of them but one. Let’s explore the wide array of opportunities a medical degree can offer beyond (or even instead of) being a doctor – there’s more than one way to skin the medicine cat.
To kick off, let’s look at one of the more well known opportunities you can pursue as a doctor: conducting studies to widen the breadth of medical knowledge and publishing the findings in scientific journals, otherwise known as research. The commonest way to enter this field is to obtain a PhD at a research institute following your medical studies. It’s a highly competitive area of medicine where strategic thinking, experience and networking is key. As a student you can scout for shadowing opportunities with researchers, attend conferences or even become part of project with the scientists of your university. It’s important to remember you might have to start very small – that promise of adventure you got from your lecturer when you agreed to help out with their research may turn out to be simple admin work – but with each experience more doors will open. This career option is most attractive to those who like to appreciate medicine as the complex science that it is – or simply enjoy living in the lab, watching as their sanity slowly begins to degrade – you choose.
In medical school, you’ll probably find yourself explaining a difficult concept to a classmate (or even more often – asking them to explain something for you) – and after graduating, having become a clinician, you may be tasked with taking under your wing some highly knowledgeable, perfectly responsible and not at all burdensome students.
If you find yourself enjoying those times, you can pursue teaching students on a bigger scale by becoming a lecturer. As you go through medical school you’ll realise that this job is fairly flexible: you’ll see medical graduates for whom lecturing is a day job and doctors who pop into to do a lecture once or twice a year – it’s really up to you. Whether it’s the passion for your field that will motivate you, your enjoyment of teaching or a willingness to give back to the world of medical community by helping to to raise a new generation of doctors, educating others can be a highly satisfying career path.
This is the part you were waiting for, right? Well, it turns out human bodies stay more or less on the same on the inside as you travel the world, making the vocation of the doctor highly transferrable. While travel in itself obviously isn’t a medical career, you may pursue career opportunities that facilitate you to experience the way medicine is practiced in different parts of the world. Main thing is to do your research – various options include working with organisations such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the Red Cross or doing locum work.
School can make it seem like writing of a level surpassing that of a ten year old doesn’t belong in a science classroom. If you enjoyed reading books, creative writing or essays during GCSEs or A levels there’s no need to leave that part behind as you enter medicine. Health is an aspect which permeates all parts of society – every single person has a body – giving doctors a place of considerable value in literature and journalism.
Opportunities to write begin at university really. Some medical schools have their own student papers – and if not, there is bound to be a university one. There may also be some student-selected components of your course which will allow you to write in a way that isn’t dry with hard science. The key is to keep seizing the opportunities and accumulate as much experience as possible since there isn’t a set path for a writer. Look up the careers of medical graduates like Michael Mosley or Sanjay Gupta and see what you think.
Let me paint a familiar picture for you. It’s 3am – your sixth episode of CSI: Miami that night ends – and as the next one loads, you catch your reflection in the black screen, asking yourself why you’re not applying to a police academy instead. Or law school. I’m pretty sure we’ve all been there with those TV- induced career choice hang-ups – I almost gave up my plans study medicine so I could become a CIA agent – because of Homeland.
But for real now, Dr Watson. If it turns out you find the medical law and ethics aspects of your course particularly interesting or develop an inkling for dissection in the anatomy lab, you may find yourself willing to apply your degree to pursue various medicolegal opportunities. If being a doctor doesn’t fulfil you, studying medicine allows you to enter the world of legal and forensic investigations surrounding death (assessing wounds, toxicology, decomposition), rape, paternity, injury claims, etc.
There are various organisations concerned with the health of people as a whole which could employ you, the most well known in this country being ones such as the World Health Organisation or Public Health England. If you like your infectious disease, epidemiology and/or epidemiology modules – and you sure will, all medical students absolutely love them – they could become your everyday reality. It may not always involve containing zombie outbreaks (although you know, there will come day), but you can help to develop public health campaigns or programmes such as vaccinations and education initiatives, all the while analysing statistics, to improve the health of your community.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that in the world of today, entrepreneurship and medical practice aren’t mutually exclusive – if you like to manage others and have creative ideas for changing the world of medicine, you can do anything spanning from starting a charity or an NGO to developing innovative medical equipment or drugs, even running a private clinic. As long as you’re not trying to develop a pyramid scheme revolving around a herbal treatment for all ailments known to man, the world is your oyster.
To Sum Up:
So hopefully you can see that medicine is anything but restrictive. That 300 mph train I mentioned at the beginning does in fact stop if you want it to and it can switch tracks – you decide. The medical degree is a long one – it’s plenty of time to roll these things over your mind. To remind you, we’ve discussed:
- Medical research
- Teaching at university
- Travelling as a doctor
- Medical journalism and writing
- Legal and forensic medicine
- Working for a public health organisation
- Doing business in medicine
Also published on Medium.