Today I wanted to touch on a topic that I get asked a lot - mostly in person when I get the pleasure to meet some of you at events (shout out to the Harvard undergrad women who invited me to speak on their Road to Success panel last month) - but also in emails from you all as well. And it always has to do with some variation of, is medicine still right for me? Maybe you're in your junior year of college, having completed most of your premed requirements and even having already taken the MCAT, but now having doubts about a career in medicine. Maybe you've already done the "hard work" of making it to med school, but you're in your second year and concerned that you may have chosen the wrong field. This is exactly where I was my second year of medical school, and I hope that sharing some advice can help you come up with your own answer to that terrifying question. And for those of you outside of medicine, this post totally still applies to you, whatever path you're on.
The most important thing to help you reach your answer is to figure out what's making you have these doubts in the first place. I'll share a little bit of my experience with this question and some self-reflection I did to figure out why I was feeling that way.
Right around second year of medical school I hit the "I hate this and want to do something else" phase of my training. Second year is a stepping stone for med students - gone are the days of the familiar anatomy and biochemistry and genetics that many of us were already mostly familiar with from undergrad - now it was all new territory. And add to that, we were now facing the first big exam for clinical licensing - the all powerful Step 1. With all of this came self-doubt in the face of that increased work-load. And not only that, but everywhere I looked, I saw doctors who were unhappy. I don't know about you, but nothing raises more self-doubt about a dream than seeing those who are living your dream unhappy, some even downright miserable. The question started coming up in my mind - "Why I am I working so hard? To have that? I don't want that." I struggled with this for a while, eventually mustering up the courage to talk to a few people about it - namely, my medical mentors, and my parents. My medical mentors all told me to stick it out, and my parents just couldn't understand at all (but thankfully said they respected whatever I decided). There was a lot of guilt that came with feeling this way, after all, this is what I wanted all along, right? People would kill to be in my place here at Harvard Medical School. And here I was, being ungrateful for my blessings. (Looking back, this is a mindset that hurts a lot of people, especially those suffering with depression). Anyway, make a long story short, my change of heart and renewed drive and motivation came from the unlikeliest of places. A blogger meetup. Finally I had the chance to talk with women outside of medicine, and instead of hearing that they all loved their jobs, it turned out that many of them were unhappy or unsure of their jobs and the path they were on. This was a critical aha moment - the realization that it wasn't unique to medicine or the path I was on, that it could happen to anyone, that it was in fact probably a downright normal sentiment to have at this stage of life! So I did some more thinking, and outlined below you'll find the biggest points I learned from this experience and hope may help some of you!
- Negativity perpetuates negativity. During this time in my training, although I felt like the doctors I was seeing were miserable, I realized I was almost looking for those physicians. If I did meet a physician who appeared happy, I would assume that they were hiding how miserable they were, or that they somehow just got lucky - that they were an outlier. I would read medical forums and commiserate with other medical students who were considering switching careers as well. This was an incredibly unhealthy habit and led me further down a path of unhappiness and almost encouraged it. I was feeding into the negativity loop. When I got out of it, I realized there actually were happy people in medicine, and I could definitely be one of them.
- The grass is not always greener on the other side. Not only do we tend to only see the bad in our current situation, we also tend to see those outside of it with rose-colored glasses - it's all good on the other side. We think that if only we were on that other side, everything would be better. Figuring this out was the key to me realizing that I was in fact still on the right path. Meeting with those other amazing bloggers who were in all different careers, and hearing what they thought about their fields was incredibly enlightening for me. They all had things they disliked about their jobs and they all had daydreams of switching fields (and obviously this may be biased because they were all bloggers, and so already had interests outside of their "day job," but I think the lesson is still critical). After meeting with these women I came to the life-changing conclusion that the grass isn't greener on the other the side; the grass is greener where you water it. (I can't take credit for that line, though, but you get the point). So I decided I'd water my own grass, dammit!
- We tend to question our path when we're unsure of ourselves and our capabilities. In my case, it wasn't just that I was seemingly surrounded by people who were where I wanted to be, but unhappy. It was also that I was finally facing my first big hurdle in medical school (Step 1), where a number (your score) presumably dictates the specialties you can enter, and therefore your future. That is terrifying. And with that fear came along self-doubt, and with that self-doubt, the fear of failure. One way that some of us deal with the fear of failure is to quit before we fail. To go out on our own doing before we actually figure out we're not good enough. I've been there, and I completely understand. But I also know that the only way we truly fail is by not trying. I've spoken about self-doubt and the feeling that you're not good enough before (read here if you missed that post), so I won't get too much into it now, only to say that do not let that self-doubt get to you. Rise up to the challenge - study your butt off - and trust that you are good enough.
- This age (for most of us, our 20s, but it can happen anytime) is a time where we all are unsure if we're on the right path. There's a fear that if we don't hurry up and choose a path, someone will choose one for us. And if we have chosen a path, there's a fear that we're committing to a field (and it doesn't have to be medicine - this goes for those of you in business, or grad school, or law school, or teaching, whatever field you choose) that may not be "the right one" for the rest of our lives. Almost every single one of us hits this stage, it's normal, part of becoming a so-called adult and hoping that we'll somehow fit the mold we set up for ourselves as adolescents. As much as it feels like we're stem cells committing down one path to becoming a fully differentiated cell locked into that fate forever (sorry for the corny science reference, I couldn't help myself) - we are not differentiated cells! We can change at any time, even if it doesn't seem like it now. As much as it feels like you should have everything "set" by the time you hit 30 (or whatever random age you choose), rest assured that most of us are just winging it. The best advice I can give is to trust the path that you're on, work hard towards whatever goal you set for yourself (even if you have your small doubts about it), but don't be blind to new opportunities as they pop up either. Life has a funny way of working out for those who make the best of it.
- Finally, don't be afraid to quit if that's what you truly, truly want to do. I put this as the last option, because I'm not a huge proponent of "quitting," and I really do believe that most of the things listed above are our true reasons for wanting to quit. But, if you've gone through this list and really done some self-reflection as to why you're unhappy, and still feel like medicine (or whatever field you're in) just isn't right for you, maybe it just isn't. And that's completely fine. It takes a courageous person to really see that and take action on that, but more power to you if you can. Now I'll say this with a caveat - if you're not in medical school yet, it's a much easier time to decide to do something else. I don't think anyone would even call it quitting. If you are in medical school though, my most sincere advice would be to stick it out and get the M.D. degree. You don't have to pursue medicine after, but whatever you choose to do instead, you'll be a much more valuable and desired person with the M.D. This becomes even more true when you're further into medical school and already amassing quite a bit of debt. More likely than not, you'll find something in medicine you love and decide to stay in it after all. But some people don't, and that's just fine. Even when a change of path seems like it will take a lengthy amount of time, as they say - never give up on a dream (or a new dream) because of the time it will take to accomplish it - the time will pass anyway.
I hope sharing this could help some of you! I hope you'll share it with anyone you think would benefit from reading this. At the end of the day, if you've decided you're on the right path but not necessarily happy, learn how to water your own grass! Find the positive and happy people and figure out why they're that way. Find something you love, or someone you want to help, or a problem that needs solving, and feel like you have a purpose again. And remember to be thankful that you're even in a position to be contemplating your place and potentially changing that place - so many people do not have that liberty. Would love to hear what you think about the post or if you've been in this place before in the comments section!