There’s an old adage (where “adage” here means ‘thing I once read on the internet’) that goes something like this: ‘Son, all I want is for you to be happy…. and a doctor.’ Although that wasn’t quite my experience, growing up Asian I was always (acutely) aware that a medical career was an option. I was interested in biology and my teachers at school thought it would suit my personality, so I ran with it.
I chose the AS levels that most aspiring doctors do: Biology, Chemistry and Maths, and as my “contrast subject” Economics. However, it was after my first year of A-levels that I started to have doubts about the career path I had chosen. I was definitely interested in Medicine, but the problem was that I was interested in other subjects too; I’ve always thought of the choice of being labelled as either an ‘arts’ or ‘sciences’ person a bit of a false dichotomy. Until the age of 16 we’re quite capable of studying on average 10 subjects- everything from Maths to R.E. to Art and History. Post-GCSEs, however, if you choose a true mixture of science and humanities, rather than the more acceptable ratio of 3:1 it’s not uncommon for people to label such choices as ‘interesting’ (code for whacky), ‘confused’ or ‘muddled’. God help those who choose a combination such as Art, History, English Literature and Maths (because come now, if you can paint there’s no way you can actually do algebra too?). I, however, was interested in the humanities as much as the sciences, and the thought of committing to a career at such a young age left me feeling uneasy.
I remember a school trip where we visited Goldman Sachs for the afternoon, which probably swayed my decision a little. I remember sitting around a conference table in the plush offices, situated at St Paul’s, enjoying the complimentary biscuits and drinks they’d served us (because let’s face it, which seventeen year old wouldn’t sell their soul for a free custard cream and a glass of mineral water?), comparing the surroundings to the hospital I had done work experience in a few months earlier. I’d been on a ward for stroke victims, and found it a little depressing. A career in the City seemed cleaner, less gloomy, but most of all, it seemed easier. Fast forward a few years, as friends who work in investment banking will attest, if you want a good work-life balance, investment banking is not the way to go either (sure they get compensated well for their time monetarily, but that’s another conversation).
In the end, I decided to drop Chemistry after my AS levels, and undertake an Economics degree, with the intention pursuing a career in economic development. Whilst completing my degree, however, I realised that although a six year old might dream of a job where they get to sit at a computer on a swivelling chair all day long, it wasn’t the life I wanted. I toyed with the idea of medicine, but like many, thought it was probably too late. In the coming months, however, it was as if DiCaprio and crew had planted a seed in my mind – the idea began to grow. I started looking into it, and realised that it wasn’t really too late at all. After graduation I decided to devote a year to find out about the realities of life as a doctor – to get all the work experience and to volunteer as much as I could. After doing so, I knew that it was something I wanted. I’d also like to take this opportunity to set the record straight: yes, I am a fan of Grey’s Anatomy, but no, that is not why I want to be a doctor – aside from their car wrecks of private lives, the doctors in the show seem to have dangerously high mortality rates (thanks, Shonda).
Some people find the “switch” confusing, but as I mentioned earlier, having interests and even careers that span the spectrum of arts and sciences isn’t as uncommon as some may think. The Polymaths of old, Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), Da Vinci, Aristotle, Al-Biruni, Galileo and countless others, didn’t limit themselves to one field. There are more recent examples too. Henry Marsh, the widely revered brain surgeon and author of ‘Do No Harm’ completed a degree in PPE before making the switch to medicine, and eventually neurosurgery. Across the pond, medicine is first and foremost a postgraduate degree; students in the States spend up to four years studying something else before embarking on a medical degree.
So anyway, after my year of exploration, with the support of my family behind me, I decided to pursue a career in medicine. But where to start? A science-related degree is a prerequisite for many graduate entry medicine courses and Chemistry at A-level is required for most 5 year courses- I had neither. However, in a strange way, my lack of options turned out to be a boon. My choices were limited so I had to apply where I could, rather than waste time deciding. By this point it had been a few years since I had done my A-levels, and I could barely remember the stages of DNA replication, let alone anything else. By the time it came round to applying, I had also started a new full-time job and couldn’t really take any time off for revision. So, rather than trying to spread myself too thin, I decided that I wouldn’t sit the BMAT or the dreaded GAMSAT and would instead only apply to universities that asked for the UCAT. As I’m sure most people would tell you, the UCAT can definitely be prepared for; the untrained eye might eventually spot the correct shape in an abstract reasoning question, for example, but it would take significantly longer, and the UCAT is all about time management. Thankfully, my score was sufficient enough for me to be invited for interviews at three of my choices: two GEM courses, and one undergraduate.
I found the interview process surprisingly enjoyable, especially the MMIs. Beforehand, I had a think about questions and conversations that could possibly come up, but in the end decided not to rehearse my answers too much, lest they sounded scripted. It paid off as a year and a half later, I’ve just completed my first year at medical school. People have asked me whether I think I made the right decision, and I can wholeheartedly say yes. I know that a career in medicine will involve blood, sweat, and tears (both the patients’ and the doctor’s!), but it’s worth it. I’ve met doctors who’ve voiced that they wonder “what if” they’d chosen to pursue something else, because medicine is all they’ve ever known, but the grass is always a little bit greener on the other side. I also asked myself “what if”, and chose to find out.