Studying medicine in your 30’s has its challenges for sure. Mortality seems closer. Everyone around you weathers a hangover better. And generally you’re a lot more tired.
But there’s a lot of positives to it too. Which is why, when most people ask why I went into medicine at a later age, I often tell them the same old answer.
“Why now? Because I didn’t have the right mindset for it before!”
Strangely though, I’m not alone in this perspective. Since writing this blog and putting my story out there I’ve had several people reach out to me.
They all seem to have a similar story; telling me, they too, dream of becoming a doctor.
Only they fear it’s too late.
So here’s where I want to spend some time suggesting otherwise. And share my perspective on being a mature medic halfway through their medical degree.
Note: This is intended as Part II to a broader piece about my story. I go into my origins and how I decided to go down this road here.
Studying Medicine in Your 30’s
I started medical school at exactly 31-years old. If you’d have asked me five years earlier if I saw this as a reality for myself? I would have laughed. I was too busy travelling the world, working from a laptop and generally having fun.
Ending up here nonetheless sometimes feels a little odd. Most of my friends? Ten years younger than me. Some of my professors? A couple of years younger than me.
That’s the way the cookie crumbles.
The strange thing is, now I’m three years in, none of it feels quite as weird as it used to. You adapt quickly. Get over the differences. Recognise that humans, despite their chronological ages and breaking bodies, are essentially pretty similar.
Most of us want to be happy, wealthy, successful and wise. Become good people. Help and give back to our families and our communities etc.
Even if we’re sometimes not that honest about it!
So being a mature med student then, in the grand scheme of things, is basically just being a med student. You can remove the mature part. And the experience would be fairly similar.
That said, if you’re as old as me going into medicine – or even older – you’ve probably experienced some of the following:
- Had a real job/career (no matter how you felt about it)
- Had a real romantic relationship (probably even kids – forgot to do that part myself)
- Travelled around and seen a few different places, cultures etc
- Lost loved ones (family members, friends)
- Experienced the sheer terror of being out and alone in the world (having to fend for yourself financially, emotionally etc)
Of course I’m not saying there’s a hard and fast rule here. Many young people I know have experienced much of these. But your average starter at med school – your 18, 19, 20-year old kid (at least in Europe anyway) – probably can only tick one or two of these off.
And as insignificant as they seem, they can make a big difference.
Especially in terms of how you approach your studies and your life.
Is 30 Too Old to Study Medicine?
One of the biggest questions I see asked on the internet, particularly on this subject, is; “I’m X years. Is that too old to study medicine?”
For the longest time I even thought (especially in my mid-20’s) that anything over 22-years old was probably too old to study medicine. The journey just seemed so painfully long.
I also had the flawed opinion that anyone over 26 (random, I know) should probably have their stuff together too. And anyone who didn’t maybe had a few things wrong with them.
Needless to say I’ve grown up a lot since then. I now recognise, a little more at least, what living life does to a human being. And how we can’t be expected to get everything right at the first port of call.
The truth is? People change their careers all the time. My dad did it in his 50’s. Friends I know have done it in their 60’s. The only limiting factor is your own mind and the internal struggle telling you NOT to do it.
Which is why, in some ways, I respect people who take the gamble even more. People who don’t sit around and accept their lot, silently wishing they did something else.
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. But it is a little too easy.
Especially for people fortunate to live in a world where the risk is fairly minimal. Who don’t have kids (or have grown-up kids). Or have the money but are too scared to reinvest it.
Because the time thing, I’d argue, is always there.
So don’t deliberate if you’re 30, 40, 50, 60 or even 70 and want to do this now. That’s what I did for far too long and the pain of carrying that around still hurts.
The dream? Won’t go away.
So, in summary; the best time to plant a tree was yesterday. The next best time is today.
Forget your age. Medicine is your tree that needs planting.
What is the Maximum Age to Study Medicine?
Whimsy aside, is there a maximum age to study medicine?
I know I said 70 before but perhaps that’s a bit of an overshoot. Not because they couldn’t do it but rather because they probably wouldn’t. Life expectancy is still a thing of course. And spending the near-end of your life in school with a load of pompous young nerds maybe isn’t all that appealing.
But I don’t know for sure.
Still there are practicalities you have to consider. And some med schools, judging by their admissions process, consider these also. So much so that I’ve heard rumours of schools in Hungary, for example, actively discouraging anyone older than 30 from applying.
Which makes little sense to me seeing as they’d be a surefire bet on actually paying their fees and genuinely seeing the course through. But oh well.
But being young going into medicine obviously has it’s advantages. Your career trajectory is longer. Your earning capacity is higher (more on this later). Studying, granted you’ve never known anything else, is probably easier too.
So I can see where a potential bias from admissions offices might come from.
Interestingly, this article from St George’s University, says the average age of US-students matriculating into med school is around 24. Read around US-based med school forums and you’ll hear many stories of people aged anything up to their mid 50’s tackling medicine.
So maybe the US is more generally accepting of older med students than its European brothers and sisters.
Partly, I’d argue, that’s probably down to cost. You pay your own education in the US for the most part. While your earning trajectory, right out of school, is high enough that any loan can be re-paid within a good amount of years.
Granted you play it smart.
The UK also has similar programs. The mature medical access pathways explained by the British Medical Association are a case in point.
The real point here? Economies are willing to invest in you. Regardless of your age.
Such is the value they perceive in training people, later in life, to become doctors and work in their healthcare systems.
But as for maximum age; is their a cut-off? Most medical admissions offices don’t directly state there being one. And if they did it would be University-specific.
There’s no law to my knowledge, not in any developed country at least, that states that medicine is closed to you as a profession when you reach X number in age.
Meaning again, it comes down to circumstance and mindset. Your choice whether to go for it or not.
How Long is Medical School?
Most European international courses (like mine in Bulgaria) are six-years long. The final year is usually an “internship year”. This is where you work doing rotations in a hospital in a junior doctor-style role.
Medical school duration however is broader than that. And also depends entirely on your background and your country of study.
In the last few years the UK and many European countries have launched shorter four-year (“fast track”) initiatives for graduates to re-train as doctors. But this almost always requires they hold a previous degree in the sciences or at least some lengthy healthcare industry experience. So isn’t open to all.
In the UK then, the average duration – foundation years aside, is about five years of study. And in the US it’s generally four (not counting pre-med).
So the short answer is, in 95% of cases, anything between 4-6 years.
Which is longer than your average University or college degree. All factors considered.
The reason this might be important to you though, specifically if you’re an older person thinking about becoming a doctor, is the length of time you’ll be out of the job market.
Not to mention the demanding nature of medicine as a degree. Which makes it extremely difficult (although there are ways to make money in medical school) to earn a full-time salary alongside it.
A huge disadvantage to mature students used to a certain way of life.
Studying Medicine as a Mature Student: The Positives
Hopefully the discussion before has helped clear up some of the more common questions you may have wanted to ask. So now it’s time to get further into my story. Get a little more personal.
Studying medicine as a mature student in their 30’s? Here’s where I see some clear positives:
- Habit and discipline
- Clear understanding of why
- Refined study techniques (plus years of outside/other industry knowledge)
- Less distraction
- Clear future objectives
- Less neuroticism/anxiety
- Better understanding of patient’s concerns/background
- Easier to identify opportunity
Having a career before and having lived financially independent from your family is proof of your ability to stand on your own two-feet. You know what works for you in terms of habit. And you build your life and your study around it.
Giving up something else in life and going into medicine also shows you’ve thought more deeply about the transition. This is what often divides others. Especially some 18-year old’s, who, through parental pressure or lack of imagination, don’t understand why they wound up in med school. Subsequently struggling to find the motivation as a result.
Being older also means you’ll have a clearer sense of purpose. You won’t get distracted by all the drama that comes with being young; trying to look cool, impress the opposite sex etc. Something a lot of your colleagues will be focused on instead.
And then there’s the idea that you’ll better empathise with your patients. Understand their concerns, more fully, seeing as you’ve most likely lived, learned and lost in the world.
So there’s a lot stacked in your favour to ensure you succeed.
From my own perspective, I’m able to leverage a lot of these advantages. Having a good base of knowledge from years spent reading, writing, researching and working has proven very transferable in terms of skills applied to studying.
But I’ve also spent many years working on myself personally. Working out what I want to do and why. And thinking about exactly how I want my future to look; with stability, security, family and an interesting career etc right at the forefront.
All things I believe medicine can provide.
Studying Medicine as a Mature Student: Negatives
For all the advantages there are, of course, some negatives.
Here’s what I see them being:
- Isolation and distance from family
- Fewer people to connect with who have the same “shared experience”
- High expectations/standards of others
- Regrets of not having started earlier
- The looming shadow of mortality
I think some things here need better explaining. So I’ll start at the beginning and try to work my way down.
Missing home, I’ve found, is a big one when you get older. Mortality becomes an ever greater weight. And you see yourself – and everyone around you – ageing in front of your own eyes.
Of course this is compounded all the more in medicine. Where you see the sick and dying on a daily basis.
But you also connect more with your patients because of this. And are better placed to understand their fears and the horrors of one day soon ceasing to exist.
Still, it doesn’t make not seeing your family for months on end any more easier. Even more so when your knowledge grows and you see all the messed up stuff that can happen to a human body. Another form of anxiety grows in the place where your teenage angst once lived.
Having fewer people to share this experience with – to talk about this very real fear with – also makes it difficult. Most people around you are interested in being young. Spending their free time playing around on social media, hitting the clubs on the weekend or doing whatever other hobby it is you don’t really understand.
Then there’s the idea that you have better expectations of them. Almost forgetting what it was like yourself to be free and away from your parents for the first time. So you’ve got to remind yourself, from time to time, to take it easy on those around you. Not hold them to the same standards you perhaps hold yourself.
The last thing is probably the reason you’ll hear the most; money.
Going back to medical school (as previously mentioned) puts you out of the working world for close to half a decade (more in my case). That’s a lot of money you’d otherwise be earning. In a job where you might be advancing year-on-year too.
And to say that’s not a massive pain point would be a lie.
Although personally, given I’ll still be under 40 when I graduate (insane though it seems), I still have a good couple of decades to make that back up.
Besides, I’d probably have died of boredom anyway. Doing what I was doing before…
The main thing to take away from all this, in consideration of my individual pros and cons, is that it’s just one side of the story. My own personal perspective.
As a white British male in their 30’s with no kids, crushing responsibilities or any real commitments (besides medicine)? I’m in a position of privilege.
Made even more real by the sheer luck of having a massively supportive family who are willing to help me out. Not to mention friends and girlfriend too.
So my observations of studying medicine as a mature student will be quite different from the next persons.
Which is important to understand should you be thinking about doing something similar yourself!
But here’s what you really need to think about here – especially if you’re thinking of doing this yourself…
Forget your age.
Your decision? Has very little to do with it. And everything to do with personal circumstance instead.
The bottom line being; if you want to make this work you’re going to have to make a sacrifice.
Whether that means time, money or relationships. There’s no two-ways about it. Something, in some area of your life, is going to have to give.
That’s a direct result of having lived as long as you have. You accrue more baggage along the way. And everything gets harder and more complicated.
Medicine however is a great leveller. And a killer for stripping deadwood away.
I’ve tried to make this article a mix of both the personal and the practical.
Obviously this site is intended as depository of my thoughts as I go along this journey. And I fully expect to look back on a lot of it and cringe with regret!
But it is my intention to make it real. So hopefully it can help others too.
The real answer to the question; “I’m X years old, is it too late for medicine?”…
Is no. Not unless you’re dead.
Studying medicine is an age-independent endeavour.
Meaning, aside from those concerns mentioned; my experience is the same as the next students. My worries and anxieties too.
We take the same classes, see the same patients, do the same exams etc.
The thing that worries me most? Not usually my age. Rather a different question that’s always at the forefront of my mind.
The one that goes something like this…
How do I learn all this stuff without going crazy?
And well, I have a few theories about that.
Footnote: This is one of my favourite videos explaining what it can be like studying medicine later in life. Many things here parallel my own experiences. Well worth the watch!
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.