Four years ago I went back to high school as a 30-year old man. I had it in my head I wanted to be a doctor. Surrounded by bright-eyed teenagers more interested in under-the-table weed dealing, it wasn’t exactly a great time. But that’s sometimes the reality of studying medicine later in life.
Of course none of what you’ll read on the internet about becoming a doctor after your mid-20’s will tell you any of that. Mostly it will just detail the various routes and options available to you. To find any real information or an honest sense of perspective, it’s up to you to do most of the digging.
Luckily, along my many travels, I met quite a few kind people who filled in a lot of the blanks for me. These people, mature med students I pestered with some very long questions and emails, were really generous with their time. Helping and encouraging me to eventually do the same.
What I realise now however – especially as I’m getting a few questions in the inbox these days – is that it’s quite hard to find a mature med student out in the wilds (I understand it’s more commonplace in the US). So that’s why it’s maybe time to break down everything I’ve learned being one. Hopefully, this can stand as more than that too though. Serve as encouragement for you to do anything, regardless of your age.
Before You Start
This article is a long one (so much so it’s in two parts). Because of that I’ve also divided it up into sections. Feel free to jump around and browse whatever section you think might be interesting. I give a lot of context here too (sorry), so skip over all these details about me and go straight to Part II if you want to hear more about the day-to-day of what it’s actually like studying medicine later in life. Actionable advice is at the end of this article; “Things to Keep in Mind“.
Studying Medicine Later in Life: Origin Stories
My story (although it’s a little tricky to calculate) probably started around the mid-way mark of my 20’s. At that time I’d done a whole bunch of stuff. Taught English in Vietnam. Worked in start-ups and journalism in London. Ran a few blogs that I was able to live off for a couple of years. A pretty eclectic mix.
I guess what doing all that had taught me was that life is out there to be lived. There are so many cool things to learn and explore that we should try and do as much as possible. So I did for a while. But somewhere down the line it stopped making me happy. I remember the feeling. It came to me during the start of my second-stint living in Spain. I loved living in Madrid but I didn’t exactly love how I was living. I was getting by on savings made from my digital marketing days and the occasional freelance gig. The future was looking a bit empty. Unexciting.
This feeling was a long time coming. I’ve always been a thinker. An over-analyser. Someone constantly striving for meaning. I looked around at my nomad friends during those times spent in Thailand, in Cambodia, in Mexico, each of us working from our laptops. And I couldn’t ever stop thinking; “is this it? Is this dream I really wanted?” I always had the feeling I should have been doing something else. Somewhere else. That never really went away.
How I wound up a medic isn’t exactly straightforward. I’d been thinking a lot about where I saw my future (shout out r/findapath). Whether I really wanted to keep plugging away on the internet, or go back to journalism, or get back into marketing. For a long time, given my long-fascination with tech, computing and artificial intelligence, I thought about the idea of maybe going to do a computer science degree (which I’d still love to do). But I had loads of other ideas too. Wrote them all down in a big list on Evernote. Never really acted on any of them and just continued to add things for the next several years.
Medicine was off the radar for most of my life. If you’d have asked me at 14, 18, or even 25, if I thought I’d end up being a doctor I’d have laughed in your face. I considered myself possibly the worst person at science in existence. Barely knew what a cellular organelle was. Or where they were. Or that we had loads of different types of them in our own bodies. School had beaten me down when it came to both science and maths. I think I walked out with B’s in GCSE’s for both of them at the end of the day – and basically A’s in everything else. Anyway, I considered myself an “arts” guy. An English guy. A creative type. Not someone who knew anything related to science.
This carried over into sixth-form college (mine was separate from my school) and then University. Where at all junctures I avoided science, math and anything STEM-related like the plague. After four years, I ended up getting an English and American History degree. I did alright with a 2:1 – nothing to write home about but didn’t exactly flunk it either!
Anyway, sciences. Yeah, I avoided them. Intrigued but intimidated, I carried on that way until several years later. Right up until I went on a massive reading phase and my mind suddenly opened up.
Sowing the Seed
Around 2013/14 I wanted to live in Bangkok, Thailand. One day, after flying in to Singapore from Mexico, I remember trying to get up in a hostel bed and not being able to move. Terrified and thinking I was permanently disabled, I found myself hardly able to walk and slowly going out my mind. At some point – this carried on for about six months – I managed to get on a plane and get back out to the UK. Emaciated and looking like I’d had a mental breakdown, I spent the next year reading something like 100+ books and slowly building my strength back up. It was during this prolific reading spree that I got big-time into biology (evolutionary biology and Dawkins more specifically), physics (Feynman) and cosmology (Sagan). As a result, my intrigue in the sciences grew.
A short time after all this I found myself in a healthier state. Deciding I wanted to walk the camino, an ancient Catholic pilgrimage across the whole of Spain (best thing I’ve ever done), I thought it’d give me time to reflect. During that epic trip I asked myself a lot of questions about how I saw my future and what I wanted to do. And the concept of medicine, based on my experiences troubleshooting my own health issues and reading lots of science, kept cropping up. Suddenly I began thinking about it as a small possibility. Even if it would take me a further 3 years – and many conversations later – to finally bite the bullet.
The Middle: Giving Up & Going Home
The middle part of my story, as to how I ended up studying medicine later in life, is probably the more important. This is where you’ll learn exactly what I had to do to get to the position I’m in now. Why I chose to do it this way. As well as my experiences doing it.
Basically this part of the story started with a conversation with a guy called Jim.
Jim (he’s a doctor now), was a second year student at the University of Belfast that I met through a good friend of mine in Madrid. Jim had a very similar story except he’d never gone to University. Having worked for several years in film production, Jim told me of his past history struggling to work out what it was he really wanted to do in life. And his existential problems searching for meaning. This side of his personality resonated with me completely. Like Jim, I too considered myself a bit of a philosopher of life. Constantly asking questions of myself in my own head.
Jim’s path into medicine was an interesting one. While working he’d started a science-related degree with the Open University. Stoking his interest in medicine as a career, he then started ringing around UK medical schools asking if they’d consider taking him. Cutting a long story short; Jim got a couple of offers before finally opting to start as an undergraduate at Belfast medical school. He was in his mid-20’s at this time. But I was much older!
What the conversation did however – as did a similar conversation with a University of Liverpool medic on a Biarritz surf trip a year earlier – was open up my eyes to the fact I could finally do this. Now I had seen living proof of two people, both with quite similar non-science backgrounds to me, going into medicine late and making a good go of it. And both seemed all the more happier. So it was that day (and that conversation) where my plans got kick-started. Later that night, sitting in my room, I told myself I was going to go for it.
Deciding was the easy part of course. From there I had to work out a plan as to how I was going to make it happen. Not having any science prerequisites (A-levels) made it difficult. First, I looked into the Spanish system (I was fluent in Spanish at this point) to see if it was possible. What I learned is that it involved me having to do something called the “selectivo” (their high-school equivalent exams). Which I couldn’t do as a foreigner with no contacts and no actual idea where to do it.
So I began looking at access to medicine courses in the UK. Courses designed for people without science backgrounds who want to go on to study medicine. Cool, but the problem is there’s only a few of them and they’re really over-subscribed. They’d also involve me having to move to somewhere in the UK for two years where I’d have to spend a ton of money doing the course and supporting myself. So I ruled those out.
In the meantime I sent an email to literally every University in the UK asking them how I could make this happen. I think I got like two responses. Both pretty much fobbing me off and telling me to forget about it unless I had the A-levels to go in as an undergraduate. Or by some miracle got on an access to medicine course. Or wanted to compete with all the bio-med and chemistry graduates smashing the GAMSAT (medical board exam) and going in on the graduate entry programs.
Eventually, through months of research (and guidance from Jim), I figured out what I had to do. I was never going to be able to score high enough on the GAMSAT (not against all the STEM-graduates) with no educational science background. And I wasn’t able to get in on an access course either. My only option? I had to go all the way back to the start. Go back 14-years and put myself in the position of a 16-year old school leaver. Brutal.
Still, for some crazy reason, I was down for this. Medicine was what I wanted. And I had to make that happen. So I called up a college in my local town (Swindon New College) and pretty much begged them to let me do Biology and Chemistry A-levels. The kicker? I wanted to do them both in one year. When everyone else normally does them in two.
At first the course coordinator said no. Told me it wasn’t possible. Said it’d never been done before. Somehow though? I was able to talk them into giving it a try. Next thing I knew I was flying home from Spain. On my way to live with my grandmother. All set to take a double course-load of two of the most difficult A-levels in the UK.
Mexican beaches and the roof-top nightclubs of Bangkok? Suddenly never seemed so far away.
Prerequisites & University Acceptance
The next year was possibly the toughest of my life. Not only did I have to swallow my pride, move back home and shack up under the roof of my 80-something grandma, I also had to sit in weekday classes with 16-year old kids and pretend like I cared remotely about anything they had to say. Perhaps that’s unfair. I met some really decent young people too (shout out to my man Steve). People I’m still in contact with to this day.
Still, going back to college (high school) wasn’t exactly fun. I stood out a country mile. And, given my intense schedule, pretty much lived there at the time (except when I’d go home to grandma). The one thing that kept me focused? Walking out of that place with what I needed. Two A-levels (at least above a grade B) to try and get on an undergraduate medicine course in the UK.
I expected all this to actually be easier than it was. Knowing what I know now, having gone back to school as an adult, I’ve got a whole lot of respect for young people walking out of high school with top grades in some very difficult subjects. A-level Chemistry? That’s no easy ride. Given my GCSE’s were literally two decades in the past, I was also basically starting from scratch. Like a baby. Trying to cram all this stuff about electron orbitals, titrations, Le Chatelier and Avogrado etc into, what felt then, a really tiny brain.
Coping with the Work Load
Biology, I’d argue, was a bit of a shade easier. Because I’d done a lot of personal reading in the field I was able to get a faster grasp. Where it was difficult though was doing two years simultaneously. Because A-level modules go in linear fashion, meaning each new unit builds on the things you’ve learned before, it was a constant cat and mouse game. Most days I was diving into high level stuff with little to no frame of reference. Meaning I’d then have to spend the whole night in front of YouTube, Khan Academy or the textbook, desperately figuring out what the f*ck was going on.
My life that whole year was just an endless cycle. Wake up, study, one hour gym break, go home, study, sleep. There was no time for anything else. There was no way I was staying in that hell for an extra year.
Of course I learned a few hacks to make it slightly more tolerable. Anki saved my ass on multiple occasions. Huel saved me time and money making food. My late grandma kept me alive and stopped me from going mental. All those little things added up. I was lucky in many respects. And not just because I’d managed to save a bunch of money from all the link-selling on the internet to pay for all this beforehand!
Anyway, I got through the year. Made it to the end. Sat in the exam hall as the only student with a beard and then waited for the months of torture that followed. Was I going to make it? Some of those chemistry questions had me feeling like I was just drawing circles. I’d honestly felt like I’d blown it.
End in Sight
August came. Got my results. Picked up an A and a B. Feeling a bit gutted but also kind of surprised, I started thinking about what I was going to do now. Angela, my biology teacher, told me I’d done enough to get on an undergraduate course. But was I willing to wait around another year putting in an application with no guarantee of getting a place? Especially after the horror I’d endured as a fully grown man, going back to school and having my ego humbled. Didn’t really fancy that.
Another thing I had to consider was money. A couple years back I’d paid off my first student loan with cash to spare. This time the Student Loans office, for some weird reason, told me they weren’t willing to invest in an undergraduate degree. Seeing as I had one already. Annoyed by that, I started to do some more research.
Studying Medicine Later in Life: Bulgaria
Now with the qualifications in my pocket, what other avenues might be open? I was in a better position now thanks to Jim and the plan but the UK’s preciousness with their med school admissions – the waiting around, the interviews, the entrance exam lotteries and then having to pay the best part of $120K for the privilege – kind of got me thinking. Why not go back abroad and do this thing faster and cheaper?
And so one month later, after not that much research (mainly because there’s hardly anything out there), I found myself going up to London to sit an entrance exam for Medical University Varna, Bulgaria. Rushing my application through an agency (not recommended) and paying $2.5K for the privilege, I got everything in order. That September I became a first year international student on a six-year, internationally-recognised, medical program. Self-funding it for less than I would have had back home in the UK.
Things to Keep in Mind
I like to end articles (especially really long ones that talk about me) with some practical advice. What would I say to the person at the beginning of this story knowing what I know now?
Here’s a few things:
- Get it out your head that you’re confined to one educational area in your life. You can learn anything provided you put in the work and time.
- Action is always better than inertia. All those years you spend searching for the impetus to make the change? Fear getting the better of you. You have to find it within yourself to take the first step forward. The sooner you do that (it took me five years) the better.
- Commit to something with the idea that you’ll fail. This can help with the previous step and takes a little of the pressure off but still gets you to take action.
- Studying medicine later in life is just like studying anything later in life. There’s no real excuse as to why you can’t do it now. Only your mind telling you otherwise.
- Look to the people around you. Reach out for help. Have the personal conversations. You’ll be surprised how much people are willing to support you.
- Don’t sweat the small details. Often they will just work themselves out, provided you start.
- Get out of your own way. You’re old, so what? Most of the people around you are way too busy working on themselves to spend any real time considering how different you are to them.
- Stay open-minded. There’s often more than one way to do things. Just like I had to switch up my plan for the UK to Bulgaria, you too might have to course correct a little to get on the path. The same goes for the people around you. Just because they’re young, old, British or whatever doesn’t mean they don’t have anything interesting to say!
- Share your experiences. I wish I’d put some of this stuff down earlier. You’ll be surprised how many other people are in a similar position to you and how just a few sentences of your own perspective can help.
- Leverage your past. The skills and habits you’ve developed earlier in life can all be used to build momentum going forward. Most things are transferable but self-belief and knowing you can succeed (because you have before) are crucial.
- Don’t give up. The final one (and perhaps the most important). You’re going to want to quit. That’s just a fact. So don’t.
Hopefully some of that might help.