For medics who don’t want to be doctors

I was always unsure about the career I wanted to pursue. I blazed through my school years dabbling in everything from Physics to the Social Sciences to Music: unable to settle on a single topic of focus. I liked writing analytical essays and lab reports, learning about human behavior, and mathematical problem-solving. When it came time to apply to universities, I remained indecisive and applied for a variety of academic programs: Neuroscience & Physiology in San Diego, Biotechnology in Atlanta, and Clinical Medicine in Sheffield, among others.

As I profusely emphasized in my medical school interview, I was fascinated by human biology, and especially intrigued by a course that focused so wholly on the study of people and their make-up. I accepted my offer to study Medicine keeping in mind the versatility of a medical degree that required discipline, would equip me with numerous transferable skills, and convey to future employers a strong work ethic. This would open doors for me in multiple fields — academia, business, management, law, pharmacy, and more.

It is easy to become engrossed with the idea of being a Doctor: the privilege of being entrusted with patients’ maladies, the detective work to arrive at a diagnosis, the status that accompanies a “Dr.” prefix. Surrounded by students at medical school passionate about pursuing various fields of medicine and surgery, there were times I tried to convince myself that I would grow to love the occupation, but with every clinical placement I felt more uncertain and unsettled.

After two years of numerous clinical placements, I began to question whether Clinical Medicine was a career I wanted to pursue. While I enjoyed my degree, I did not experience the same satisfaction and fulfillment I saw in my peers. Around the same time, I began working in student marketing jobs I enjoyed tremendously; these positions require me to take creative approaches to present and establish brands on campus using skills in communications and market research. My experiences in these positions and the enjoyment I continue to gain from operating within a more commercial framework compelled me to examine my personal strengths and preferred work environment. After immense reflection and much deliberation, I have come to realize that these may not be compatible with practicing medicine.

Medicine is a highly employable degree. Abandoning the course seemed foolish, and I now focus my efforts on building a résumé that will complement my medical knowledge to better prepare me for a more commercial role within the field of healthcare. But the medical curriculum and teaching environment is not always conducive to this.

It can be difficult to formally acquire a wider range of skills in a rigorous medical course with less (and more often, no) opportunity to complete elective academic modules in Business, Drug Development, Technology, Bio-engineering, and other fields highly relevant to the advancement of healthcare. Additionally, there is often a stigma attached to not wanting to be a clinical doctor: disclosing this to consultants on clinical placements has on multiple occasions elicited concern, with consultants attempting to change my mind and at times treating me differently in light of the revelation.

Medical students are rarely counseled on the various non-clinical career opportunities available to us. Information for medics who wish to pursue a wider range of jobs after their medical degree can be difficult to find, and often exists only in anecdotes from former doctors who have transitioned into these alternate careers. I still grapple with questions about how long I should continue with my medical training to be qualified enough for management positions in other fields. Do I require a certain time course of clinical experience? Are there any essential qualifications? Is there anything else I should also be doing?

A few months ago, on a whim and after a long and frustrating day of clinical placements, I reached out via e-mail to a professional I admired: my friend’s mother and a former medic who now works in management at a pharmaceutical company. I expressed my adulation of her achievements, my desire to pursue a non-clinical career, and my uncertainty about the steps I needed to be taking through medical school to work towards my career goals. Her response brought clarity to the questions I had, and increased my confidence in the actions I was taking to remain proactive about my future.

I have since gathered information from a various resources and professionals about how to explore alternate career opportunities for medics within healthcare and beyond. Here are some main pieces of advice:

  • Find professionals within the industry in which you have a special interest. Read through their Linkedin profiles to understand their education, qualifications, and career progression. Send them a message to let them know if you’re struggling to understand how to proceed. Don’t be afraid to ask for their advice! (One person responded by telling me he admired that I had reached out to him asking for work experience, and said he was a strong believer in “don’t ask, don’t get”.)
  • Attend university career fairs for graduates from Biomedical Science, Pharmacology, Law, and other disciplines of interest to you to find out about local companies within these fields. Speak to representatives and enquire about work experience opportunities you can partake in, whether this is part-time or during a university break. (I managed to get part-time internship within a local office of a pharmaceutical company!) This is a great way to meet more people within your industry of interest, find out about their role and responsibilities, and examine whether your personal strengths and occupational preferences are compatible with these positions.
  • Get in touch with the university department of your field of interest, and get involved with their proceedings. If you’re interested in Medical Law for example, contact your university’s Law department to enquire about any classes or projects you can partake in to better understand the field. Ask whether there are any medics working within the department: if yes, get in touch and speak to them about their career transition and professional experience.
  • Keep a wider range of skills intact: competence with research methods, statistical analysis, essay writing, etc. Make a conscious effort to do this, as these may be useful when applying for work experience positions within other disciplines.
  • Browse career sites (I love to find out about various positions that medics would be qualified for. Look through their role descriptions, responsibilities, required qualifications, and essential skills to gain a better understanding of your future professional options and the portfolio you need to be building. Remember — even within the same industry, some roles may require more qualifications than others (e.g.: Medical Science Liaisons vs. Pharmacovigilance Officers within the pharmaceutical industry).
  • Try free and/ or accredited online courses from established universities to acquire skills and knowledge about a wide variety of topics relevant to your industry of interest. Coursera and FutureLearn are great platforms to do this. These skills can boost your CV and credibility for more diverse careers. Working towards acquiring these skills can also help you understand the theory behind specific non-clinical fields, and keep you motivated through your medical degree.
  • Complete an intercalated degree if you can to acquire an additional qualification and more theoretical knowledge within your field of interest. Some jobs favor candidates with additional scientific degrees (BSc, MSc, MRes, etc.)
  • Keep up-to-date with industry news. Subscribe to relevant magazines (The Economist is great!) and newsletters. These will help you understand trends and new developments within your industry of interest, and give you more to discuss in interviews later on.
  • Consider the nature of various career prospects: the quality of life of professionals within certain industries, their work schedules, career progression, etc. Some occupations may require longer hours, on-call shifts, and/ or frequent travel. This is especially important to consider for family planning.
  • Don’t glamorize jobs! Just as being a doctor is not as portrayed in House M.D., the realities of most professions are not as conveyed on screen. Instead of fantasizing about salaries or ease of life, focus on your strengths, weaknesses, and job satisfaction to guide your professional decisions.
  • Speak to people about your professional goals, regardless of the reception you receive. Those with similar aspirations will never advise you if they don’t know that you are exploring a non-clinical career. If they are aware, people will keep you in mind when they hear information relevant to your plans and will pass this on to you.
  • And most importantly, DO NOT LET YOUR MEDICAL SCHOOL GRADES SLIDE! Medicine is a highly employable degree because it is challenging and requires disciplined hard-work to complete successfully. It also conveys a high level of medical knowledge and a strong understanding of clinical medicine if you are interested in entering a healthcare industry. Prove that you were up for the challenges that medical school threw at you to demonstrate to future employers how ready you will be to tackle the challenges of transitioning out of clinical medicine and into a new field.

Remember that you do not have to become a doctor out of obligation or as a default if this is not a prospect that excites you. It’s okay to feel uncertain about clinical medicine or more enthusiastic about another field. Don’t forget to explore the extensive list of alternate professional opportunities available to you. It’s all up to you: are you going to let your medical degree imprison or liberate you?

This article originally appeared in the Medic Mentor Magazine (Issue 6) as “Why I Changed My Mind: Student” and is reproduced with permission.

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