Why I Rejected Medical School

When I received the offer for my medical school interview in Australia, it was a bittersweet moment. I was living in Indonesia at the time. I had been studying and doing research in America and Asia for the preceding 9 months, and I had recently discovered a passion for tech entrepreneurship, having built Indonesia’s first research repository.

By all means, I had the qualifications to make it as a doctor. I graduated with a perfect GPA, some of the highest grades in my entire university, several of Australia’s most prestigious undergraduate scholarships, and had already been published in a scientific journal. I worked so hard for this opportunity over the previous 4 years, and both my parents and society considered this the best career option for a science graduate. But for me, the only option was to say no.

If I chose to enter medical school, I would have spent a bare-minimum 4 more years studying, with a further 3–5 years climbing the medical ranks to specialise. This would all be undertaken full-time, leaving little opportunity to pursue other passions. Once I specialised, I would be earning big bucks, living in a mansion by the Swan River in Perth, settling down, and sending my kids to top private schools. But after spending the last 9 months in an environment enriched with adventure and opportunity, the life of a doctor was a life I could not imagine.

Why? I was convinced that the greatest impact anyone in science can have is outside the medical clinic. Don’t get me wrong. Doctors do an amazing job. They dedicate their entire lives to helping countless people, and they are the cornerstones of a healthy society. But their individual practical work will never cure cancer or change the world. The greatest impact on human condition has come from the medicines and scientific discoveries that receive a relatively small percentage of investments. Yet today, we spend about 50 times more as a society treating people who are sick than we invest in research so you won’t get sick in the first place. It’s an interesting realisation. As technology accelerates, we have the potential to completely rid future generations of disease within the next 100 years. We should therefore collectively focus our energy towards innovations for the future, to make this a reality. Yet research and discovery are currently numbed of funding and top-end talent, via a process that begins in high school.

In Australia, the top echelon of high schoolers is pushed into the traditionally prestigious majors of medicine and law. Medicine only accepts the top 1%. However, for the other 99%, there is still hope. Upon completion of a 3-year bachelor’s degree, graduates can obtain postgraduate entry into medicine and join the 1% who entered before them. So once again, there is a filtering process in which the best-performing students vie for a place in medical school. By the time the offers come out, medicine has received the large majority of science talent, while the rest either leave science or are left to live comparatively low-paying careers as researchers.

This is seemingly understandable. Our brightest young men and women spend the rest of their lives treating Australia’s diseased and disabled. But it also unearths a huge problem. Where in their jobs is room for innovation? Some graduates (very few) do enter medical research, and some take an entrepreneurial path, but the majority are confined to the clinic, where most of their time is spent treating patients. Shouldn’t our best and brightest be making groundbreaking scientific discoveries, inventing vaccines, and patenting biotechnology? Why are those jobs largely left to the ones who never made it to medical school?

It’s an interesting conundrum, but it can be resolved. Universities, for example, should do more to entice current medical students to enter medical research, medical technology and medical entrepreneurship. They are some of their country’s brightest minds, and they should be at the forefront of research and development, rather than simply applying the outcomes of others’ innovation.

But medicine isn’t the only field that requires human ingenuity. Countries with STEM education systems like Australia’s should distribute the best talent between medicine and other disciplines. Few countries have found a perfect balance. We should move towards offering better incentives for the top 1% to pursue research and fields with better opportunity for innovation. Whether this be offering wages that compare to doctors, more funding opportunities, or even prestige, the future will be better off for it. While practiced medicine will always maintain an important presence in society, the future lies in technology: computer technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and energy technology.

To the smartest young students, I would not choose to enter medicine for any other reason than pure passion. Not money. Not prestige. Not because of influence by your parents or society as a whole. Although medicine does provide some opportunity to innovate, other fields are solely dedicated to innovation, such as computer science and mechatronics engineering. If you have the ambition to change many lives, then medicine is right for you. But if you have the ambition to change the world, perhaps other paths are better placed to do so.

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