This is a question that almost all medical students have asked themselves at least once during their degree. Guaranteed. In fact, the reason you are probably reading this is because you too are a medical student, have asked yourself this question and then wondered if Google would have the answer. I’ve been there too and now, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d like to offer you my wisdom on the matter…
One of the hardest things about trying to have discussions with other people over whether or not to quit medical school is that it tends to generate a sort of moral outrage from the other person. ‘What do you mean you don’t want to be a doctor? Don’t you want to help people?? Are you really going to throw away the opportunity to do such a wonderful, noble profession?’. People don’t say this to someone who says that they want to quit being a banker to become a gardener, or that they are fed up of being a lawyer and would rather set up a bakery. In fact most of the time this is thought to be quite a cool, daring decision and ‘good on them for throwing off the shackles of tax law and following their dreams’. But for some reason, in peoples’ minds, once you’ve publicly announced your intention to be a doctor, you are bound to this decision for the rest of your earthly existence because its a ‘wonderful profession’ and you are ‘so lucky to be doing it’. The fact that actually you might want to do something else is considered ‘selfish’ and a ‘waste of all that time and money’.
But actually, sometimes it is the right decision to make. I always quite admired those who did; I never dared. I toyed with the idea a lot, sometimes even going as far as printing out the form to withdraw my place at university. Ultimately, I stayed the course and qualified which I think was the right decision for me and for the moment I am working as a doctor and it’s not too bad. Whether or not you end up doing the same is entirely up to you, but I passionately believe that anyone who is having these doubts should fully explore them, express them and not feel forced to do something they don’t want to do because they feel guilty about having changed their mind.
Here are some of the things I think are important to consider:
Is this just how I am feeling at this moment? One of my favourite poems ‘Desiderata’ includes the line do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Medical school is tiring, stressful and, at times, all consuming. Are you feeling like you want to quit because you’re shattered, overworked and haven’t gone out with your friends for weeks? Are your ‘dark imaginings’ actually just a product of your poor, weary brain and maybe with a break and a bit of distance, you might feel stronger and more positive about continuing? Maybe come back to this decision after a holiday or even try to take some time out from medical school.
Is there something else you’d like to do and you’re frustrated that medicine is preventing you from doing it? This was certainly the case for me. I was never one of those people who knew they wanted to do medicine since birth. I had a whole other life of acting and music before medical school and I deeply resented medicine for eating into the time I wanted to spend on these passions. In the end I found a way to fulfill this artistic side; I created a youtube channel and make music videos which are fun and creative ‘projects’ to work on- in fact I’m working on a new idea for one now! I also made three quilts throughout my time at medical school (yes, I know that makes me sound 95 years old but actually I find it a nice and relaxing hobby!). My point is, that if there is some activity you love to do, make time for it! Don’t try to suppress it and tell yourself ‘medicine comes first’. Yes, your degree is important but actually, you will only end up hating medicine for stopping you from playing tennis or painting or whatever it is you really like doing, and then you will just want to quit the whole damn thing altogether.
Why medicine? This is the first thing they always ask you at medical school interviews and it’s a really annoying question. But I think sometimes it’s really important to remind yourself about why you chose to do medicine in the first place. For me, being a doctor was the only proper, grown-up job I could think of that I would actually like to do (apparently being a lion tamer or chocolate factory owner aren’t sensible jobs…). Even now, I still sometimes have to remind myself why I chose to do medicine and I still come to the same conclusion. Why did you choose to do all those applications, take all those exams and turn up to all those lectures and clinics? When you’re contemplating quitting medical school, sit down and write out the pros and cons, go back to those initial intentions you had before applying to medical school. Do these still apply? Is medicine still the job you see yourself doing and enjoying? If it isn’t, and actually you’ve changed your mind, that’s fine!
Is this the sign of a deeper, psychological issue? Depression and anxiety are endemic among medical students and doctors, and sometimes we are really bad at recognising it in ourselves. Before you make a big decision like quitting medical school, do consider whether this may actually be symptomatic of more general low mood or anxiety. Is your decision to drop out of university part of a wider picture of feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, poor concentration, high anxiety and disrupted sleep? In which case, do you actually need some help and would a chat with your doctor be a good idea?
I remember once at the beginning of third year, we had a talk from a youngish doctor who was trying to give what I can only imagine was what he thought was a ‘hard hitting’ talk about the ‘realities’ of being a doctor. It was all very macho and profound, and I remember him saying with great dramatic effect ‘medicine isn’t a job; it’s a lifestyle choice’. At the time I though he was a total prat, and I still do now. Medicine is only a job and anyone who makes it a lifestyle choice needs some serious help in my opinion.
Right now I am a new doctor and I can say that so far it’s OK. Not amazing, not terrible but somewhere in between. It sucks a bit at the moment because the NHS have placed me about 200 miles away from my boyfriend and the pay is pretty bad. My sister’s boyfriend painted a wall black last weekend and got paid more than I earn for a 9 hour shift. On the plus side though, my colleagues are generally really nice, I live in a little cottage in the countryside for very low rent, and I just have a short drive into work.
I am glad I continued with medical school and being a doctor is still the only proper job I can think of that I would like to do. But who knows in the future? I certainly don’t intend to continue working in the NHS, and I may well not even continue being a doctor at all. Medicine is just a job, no more or less than any of the thousands of other jobs out there. You have every right to change your mind, and those who try to dissuade you are often those who have absolutely no idea what going through medical school and being a doctor is like.
I hope this helps and please do comment if you’d like any advice or if you just want to share your feelings about medical school with the internet!