“What do you want to do with your life?”
“Are you sure you want to be a __?”
As I neared the end of my time at Stanford, questions like these became inescapable. Especially if you’re considering a career in medicine, this decision might dictate the next 4–8 years of your life. For those like me who can be indecisive about their career, I hope my personal advice and journey through this process may be helpful to you, regardless of what careers you are choosing between.
My name is Jon Wang and I was raised in Roseville, Minnesota where I graduated from Mounds View High School, a public school with around 400 students per class. I am interested in pushing forward medical innovation through new technology. I graduated from Stanford University in the top 3% of my class with a Masters and Bachelors in Biomedical Informatics. During my four years at Stanford, I was a founder of a hospice volunteering organization, Stanford Undergraduate Hospice and Palliative Care, as well as a national science tournament, Golden Gate Science Olympiad. I also spent time getting medical experience as an EMT in the Stanford Emergency Medical Services, and worked on a number of informatics and cancer research initiatives. During application season, I had a very broad idea of what I wanted to work on, and for that reason ended up applying to MD-PhD and overseas scholarships. I was very fortunate to have offers from two top ten MD-PhD programs (UCLA, WashU), MD programs (Yale, UCSF), full-time data science with Apple (return offer), and a competitive overseas PhD scholarship (Computer science PhD with the Gates Cambridge and NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars).
When I was going through the process of figuring out what I wanted to do in the future, I felt like there wasn’t much material from a younger person’s perspective on choosing a career path. I hope that those struggling to make a career choice might find my personal journey helpful for their own. I strongly believe that every opportunity and career is a good fit for a certain type of person. However, there are some fundamental ways to go about this process.
This is also a great chance for me to share the reasons for my own decision to all of my friends, mentors, and family who have been supporting me on this journey.
Discover your value system
This is different for everyone, but it’s important to think about what you want out of your career. What things are you going to prioritize in your career for the next couple of years? These values change as we experience new things and get older, so re-evaluating every so often is a good idea.
As an example a number of the ones that I thought through were:
- Growth: how much will you grow academically, emotionally, socially, spiritually? Which aspects of growth are important to you in your career for the next couple of years? Is there good mentorship and career development?
- Fulfillment: I think of this in two parts 1) do you actually enjoy doing the day-to-day work (some people call this “flow”)? 2) does this match the type of legacy or impact you want yourself to have?
- Location: weather, size of city, urban vs. rural, are your friends and family nearby, is this where things are “happening” in your field?
- Money: salary or scholarship may be a large factor depending on your financial situation.
- Environment: do you feel like you could find a community amongst the people there? Do you feel comfortable working there? Is this a sustainable profession?
- Brand: I think of this in two ways 1) within-field brand and 2) prestige. Within-field brand is how well people within your field know about the institution and what reputation it has. Prestige is how well lay people know about the institution and what reputation it has. You may favor one or the other depending on what your other value system components are. In general, brand isn’t as much about skills or growth, which I believe are more important — but it does help give you trust in how people receive your advice and work.
I thought about my decision for about a month before deciding to attend UCSF for medical school. As I juggled between trying to defer or combine different options (to no avail), I made posts on forums asking for advice and spoke with mentors and friends from industry, medicine, and academia. Ultimately, my decision was made based on the following components:
- Growth — I felt that moving to a new location and working in city hospitals would give me exposure to more diverse patient populations. Additionally, the rigor of the clinical education was amongst the best of the offers I had.
- Environment — I came in not expecting this to be a factor in my decision, but I was pleasantly surprised when I met other students at Second Look. It’s hard to describe, but I felt I could be genuine and comfortable while going out for drinks or grabbing lunch with students. I had some great conversations around new research in medicine, health inequity, and the impact of childhood on our development. It was inspiring to meet such a wide diversity of students who were all hoping to make a contribution toward improving medicine.
- Location — For bio and healthcare technology, the Bay Area is pretty much the “place to be”. There is cutting edge research into clinical informatics with professors like Atul Butte, who I got to meet with and talk about research opportunities. Additionally, coming from Stanford, many of my friends will be in SF and the Bay Area still, and it is always nice to be close and maintain those friendships.
- Fulfillment — Out of the two parts to this, flow and impact, figuring out whether I would enjoy the “flow” of becoming a doctor was easier for me. Over the past four years, I spent time getting to know medical students and getting an understanding of the day-to-day life of a medical student. I shadowed doctors from different specialties to see what their “flow” was like. I spoke with doctors and medical students to gain a sense of the personality, values, and environment in the field. These experiences also revealed to me the burdens I would need to overcome — burnout, non-compliant patients, missed vacations with friends, more tests. The other part to this, discovering the legacy or impact I would like to have, was through stories. Some stories came from literature — I read broadly on works that described medicine as an art, of patients who were treated without a caregiver who engages with their values and goals, how mixed incentives sometime conflict business with good practice, of stories that did not get to be told. These stories also came from patients and loved ones. I witnessed family members as they struggled against uncurable disease. I sat with patients as they took their last breaths. These stories not only revealed to me the importance of a quality caregiver, but also gave life to a calling to become one myself.
Each opportunity had its own advantages and disadvantages. I felt that UCSF had less “prestige” in that many lay-people don’t know about UCSF despite having a very strong within-field brand. Pursuing the Gates-Cambridge or some of the other offers had more prestige, but I felt fit me less academically, or I didn’t think I would fit in as well there. For example, at Cambridge, though I felt I would grow more emotionally and socially, there was a clear difference in the amount of relevant knowledge I would be learning between the two programs.
Finding the right shoe — assessing your career-value system fit
Coffee chats with people in your field
One great step to take is talking to mentors or reaching out to people who are higher up in your career of interest. These people are living and breathing the career, and will know more than anyone what the day-to-day is like. Talking with them will also be a great way to assess how the career fits into your value system. If you send an email asking for a coffee chat, most people will generously offer guidance to students. When you meet with people, keep in mind the context of where they’re coming from! Many times, people will recommend you to do whatever they did themselves (since they probably think it’s a great career, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it). It’s good practice to talk to more than one person, as advice from just a few people is likely to have individual bias and more variance.
There are two types of people I highly recommend talking to: 1) people 2–3 years ahead of you in the career path and 2) people much older or superior in the career path (~10+ years of experience). Some questions I like to ask are about what the day-to-day is like, how much time they spent doing X activity everyday, do they work more on their own or with other people, where is the industry moving, what skills do they think you should be working on now, if they were in my shoes what would they be doing, what other careers did they consider?
When I was at Apple last summer for a data science internship, I reached out to most of the MDs as well as the health data science leads. I was pretty nervous to send out cold-call emails, but I found that almost everyone was willing to find a time to meet with me. I came out of Apple with a great mentor who continues to advise me today, as well as a better understanding of what working in tech with an MD was like. I’ve reached out to physicians, entrepreneurs, VCs, academics, and more and found this process to be very helpful as I thought about my career. It helped me navigate the differences between academia, big companies, and startups as well as identify what skills are valuable for career disciplines in tech, medicine, and academia.
The exploration vs. exploitation tradeoff
In an ideal world, we’d try every profession and figure out which one we like most. Reality is that we have a limited amount of time. Some people apply holistically and let the decision decide for itself (I’m guilty of this too), but this may waste your time and decrease the quality (and chances) of the applications you sent out. There is value to exploring, but at some point you just need to make a decision. For me, this meant limiting the scope of the number of programs I applied to (I narrowed it down to 20 in the end).
Our preferences and values change over time too, so it’s good to take time to check-in with yourself every year or so to make sure you’re getting what you want out of your career. It’s easy to get stuck into the rhythm of the day-to-day. Sometimes a pivot to a new company or educational program may fit you better as your values and needs change.
Don’t get stuck on one rejection.
Whether it’s McKinsey, the Rhodes Scholarship, Harvard, etc. most people (myself included) have a “golden” opportunity for themselves. For many years, I thought that Harvard would be the best fit for me — it had prestige, great research opportunities, and was in a medical innovation hub. I interviewed for all three programs (HST, Pathways, and MD/PhD) and later received a triple rejection. At first, it almost felt that my whole 4 years of preparation — the classes, extracurriculars, and research — had just been invalidated. But you learn that rejections can be good for you. Receiving a rejection or failure is a sign that you are challenging yourself and vying for competitive opportunities. They teach you not to place your value on the piece of paper you send out to institutions and companies around the world, but on your own skills, intellect, and values. They teach you to look at life more realistically, and appreciate that there are other people out there who also have valuable skills. The best advice I can give is to take it as an opportunity, set new goals and use it as fuel to keep growing. Most career applications are inherently subjective, and it just might be the case that the reviewer of your application might have missed lunch that day. There are many great opportunities out there — as a good friend of mine likes to say, look deep in what you have! It’s just as important to make the most out of your opportunities as it is to choose them.
If you take the time to think about your decision, it’s really hard to make a wrong choice. Even if you don’t end up in that same field 6 years from now, life is a journey not a sprint — taking turns in your career give you perspectives that can be extremely valuable. Think about it this way: when you have a hard time deciding, it usually means you can’t really go wrong with either! In many cases, you’re picking between two great opportunities — and ultimately it is your values and your experiences that dictate what you do with these opportunities.
I am happy to answer any questions or discuss further, just shoot me an email at email@example.com or leave a comment below. This is my first article, so I would love any suggestions for future topics or feedback that you might have too!