Is It Normal To Have Doubts About Medical School?

Having doubts about med school is completely normal. It’s a commitment that eats up serious time, money and social life. Being human, that’s going to affect you.

Aside from recognising it as common feeling though, what should you do about it? Is doubt worth examining to the point you consider quitting med school altogether? Or is it just something you’re prone to experience now and again – that, with a little effort, you quickly overcome?

As a non-traditional entrant into med school myself, I sympathise with a lot of these concerns. The uncertainty of the future, and the anticipation of how we might feel, is a preoccupation most of us have. Despite us not often talking about it.

So if you do find yourself having doubts about your place in med school, firstly recognise it’s normal. Only after should you begin a more in-depth exploration. The type of which this article is focused on.

Doubt Or Burn-Out?

The best place to start when analyzing doubt is the source of the doubt itself. How is the feeling manifesting? Anxiety about the future? Stress in the present? Perhaps it’s not doubt at all but rather burn-out.

We tend to start doubting our choices and our futures most when we’re tired. Being in med school, following a relentless schedule and preparing for a ton of exams, is draining to say the least. But don’t be fooled into thinking this will always be your reality. Clinical years, graduation and specialty training all offer something different.

You just have to remind yourself of that fact.

Of course it’s hard to do this when you’re low on energy and can’t get a moment to think. But perhaps it’s necessary to take a break. Take an afternoon or evening off and forget the consequences. If only to get a clearer sense of perspective and maybe reconcile your doubts.

Personally speaking, most of my doubts about becoming a doctor or wasting my time away in medicine come when I’m drained and in need of sleep. Ensuring I get a good eight hours and a healthy-dose of exercise, usually makes the doubt dissipate.

Just as learning to study effectively to save time and energy can also. Anything that takes me out of this world for a while.

Delayed Gratification or Prolonged Stupidity?

Many med students will tell you to look at the ‘chore’ of med school as a process of delayed gratification. Where you work hard today to enjoy the rewards in the future. But there’s a lot of doubt surrounding that last part and rightly so.

How can you be sure working in medicine (and rising in the ranks of a particular speciality) will bring you satisfaction? You can’t. That’s just a simple truth. Nobody has a crystal ball.

But the same can be said here for indulging your doubt too. There’s just as much unknown about that life – the one deviating away from the path of medicine – as there would the one on it.

Working hard in school and spending your evenings and weekends consuming material, while people your age are out having a nice time with their friends and spouses, makes it hard to buy the whole ‘delayed gratification’ thing. At the same time, however, you don’t know the daily reality of those people’s lives. Or just how mundane and meaningless they deem their careers and lives to be.

Most doubt that gets poured on any career path or journey comes from a grass is greener look at life. The problem is though that these types of comparisons are not good to make. Most of the time you’re dealing with incomplete data.

Who Is More Susceptible to Doubt?

There’s a theory among non-traditional or mature students like myself that the younger student, the straight through high school and college types, are probably the more susceptible when it comes to experiencing doubt.

This hinges on the idea that they’ve never known much of a life outside of school. Or got to learn, first hand, that most alternative careers they might deem as more attractive have just as many problems too.

My own personal journey into med helps to highlight this. I had a whole bunch of experiences – jobs at start-ups, teaching abroad, freelancing and building my own businesses – to know that each of these was never the idea I thought it would be going into them. Nor did the reality of them match up with the image others had of them either.

Sharing my main story on Reddit not long ago, someone reached out to me to say what a cool life I had before. The truth was however, that it just seemed cool on the surface (lots of travel, self employed etc). Behind all that it, a lot of the time, it felt like a souless grind. Much in the same way most things do when you’ve been at them for a while.

Of course I don’t go into medicine thinking it’ll be a remedy to that feeling. I suspect, after several years, it’ll probably feel pretty similar. At least as long as it’s my critical mind judging it and searching for meaning in it all the time.

Which is the point I want to get to; doubt comes from over-analysis.

Sometimes the best way to deal with it is just to get on with it. Realise that whatever it is you commit to, the same element of doubt will always be involved.

Legitimate Reasons for Doubt

Sure there are legitimate reasons for having doubts about med school. Aside from the ones I already touched on, you’ve got things like this to contend with to:

  • Automation and the future of artificial intelligence (job security)
  • Pandemics and outbreaks (healthworkers being sent to the front-lines)
  • Less governmental or state protection of doctors
  • Getting older and starting a family (will working as a doctor be conducive to that?)

The list goes on.

My argument here however is that you’d have a big list like this no matter where else you turned. Uncertainty and doubt is everywhere. No career or lifestyle is pure plain-sailing or immune to change.

If you can dig down to why you chose medicine in the first place and identify those core reasons, maybe you’ll also see that the doubt has always been there too.

It’s natural.

How to Deal with Doubt Over Medical School

As for how you might better deal with doubt, here are a few more ideas based on the reasons we might experience it in the first place…

  • Define your goals: the self-doubt that comes with comparing your grades and progress with everyone else, and then challenging yourself as to whether you’re capable, is best confronted by taking a more honest approach with yourself. The real truth about med school? Grades don’t matter. Nobody cares where you studied. It’s perfectly fine to be average at the cost of remaining sane and actually finishing.
  • Find a field that excites you: one of the great things about medicine – that can also help alleviate career-based doubt – is how broad it can be. Have doubts about whether you want to deal with patients? Go into radiology, anesthetics or pathology. Have doubts about whether you want to practice at all? Take your degree and go into the business world (biotech, pharma etc). This degree doesn’t have to define you. In fact it can open up way more doors than most other things.
  • Get interested in what you’re learning: the way pre-clinical years are taught can seem a monotonous slog. Reframing what you learn, seeing science and the way the body works as a crazy, mysterious journey where the gas from trees ends up in little air sacs controlled by long branching nerve bundles etc, can help you get through it. Choose interesting and informative resources. Mix up your styles of learning. See what you learn as priveledge so that you can have no doubt over whether it’s worth your time.
  • Be mindful of the content: think about how a single sentence you read about in a review book somewhere took someone an entire life to theorize and prove for the sake of human betterment. That’s medicine. That’s what you get to do. How can you doubt the utility of that knowledge when its taken so much blood, sweat and tears to produce?
  • Explore what else interests you on the side: you have free time in med school. You’ll even more if you learn to prioritize and work smart. Use the time you save to explore what other interests you might have. Start a business. Build a blog. Pick up a non-medical related skill. Pursue the thing that might be causing you doubt about medicine in the first place. You’ll find out what’s more worth it in the process.

Final Thoughts

Doubt, especially over the choices we make and the outlook of our future, is a normal part of being human. Major challenges in your life, such as choosing to study medicine, will only exacerbate that. Don’t treat it as anything unusual. Don’t assume it to be a clear indication of that decision being wrong either.

Having them puts you in a better place. Forcing you to think harder about your choices and why you make them, doubt can help you live more consciously and with purpose.

Don’t immediately disregard them as negative.

Image Credit – @hamann at Unsplash