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Can’t Decide Between Medical School or Graduate School?

Posted in: Personal Development

For the longest time I just couldn’t decide between medical school and graduate school. I mean come on, being a physician would be great. I could save lives just like they do on TV! But on the other hand, being a biomedical scientist excited me just as much. You can’t tell me you’ve never dreamt of being the next Isaac Newton…

If you find yourself at this crossroad, I understand your frustration and I want to help you decide which path is right for you. Here is my advice.

You Are Not Alone

I want to make it very clear that you are not alone. Many students are asking themselves the same question… “Should I go to medical school or graduate school?” I remember feeling like I was weird because I couldn’t make up my mind. On top of this, I felt constant pressure from my family and friends, always getting questions like, “So what’re you doing next year?” or “Have you made up your mind yet?” This can be very stressful but it is important that you keep a positive mindset and trust that you will find the answer when the time is right.

Work in a Research Lab

Whether you want to pursue a PhD. to do research, to teach, or to take on industry, it is important that you have extensive experience around research. Earning a PhD. means that you will probably work in an environment constantly surrounded by, or at least affected by research. Make sure you understand what research is all about… the process, thinking about data, applying results to solve a problem, etc. Decide if this is something you truly enjoy.

You can do this during your undergraduate years as a volunteer, or even in a paid position if you’re lucky. Also, many institutions have summer research programs that will give you a good idea of what full-time research is like. Come on, what’s there to lose? You get to move somewhere for the summer and make new friends that are just as interested in science as you. Oh and did I mention that most programs provide a stipend that covers your living expenses? Also the option of taking a gap year and working as a lab tech or a researcher is always available.

Shadow Physicians Before Medical School

You will never know if you actually enjoy medicine until you shadow multiple physicians. Surround yourself with clinical and hospital environments and decide if that’s where you want to spend your career. Another good way to accomplish this is by becoming a medical scribe. Make sure to get exposure to many different areas of medicine, such as pediatrics, surgery, orthopedics, etc. Even though you can’t take over for the doctors, try to put yourself in their shoes as they are doing various parts of their job.

Take A Medical Mission Trip

You will get the opportunity to be a little more hands on and have a direct impact on those in need if you go on a medical mission trip. You may be asked to a take vital signs or record patient history. If you don’t want to get hands on, you can spend time educating patients about their health and providing them with materials such as first aid kits. While doing these things, do you feel a sense of purpose? Does this give you satisfaction? These are key questions that you need to ask yourself during a medical mission trip.

Talk with as Many People as Possible

And I mean AS MANY as possible. Family docs, surgeons, industry scientists, academic researchers, teaching professors, students. Talk with those that you know well and also connect with people you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to send someone an email and ask if they would be willing to have a quick conversation, no matter who they are. Ask them about their typical day, what they like/dislike about their job, how much they work, what motivates them, etc. Have a purpose to your conversation and really try to understand how they feel about their career choice.

Take a Gap Year (Or Two)

This goes without saying, but please don’t rush this decision. If you need more time to decide after you graduate from your undergraduate program, there are many opportunities you can pursue for a year or two. You can spend this time wisely and give yourself a chance to do some of the things that I mentioned above.

Find a Thinking Spot

This might sound a little cliché, but I’m serious. One thing that really helped me was finding a spot where I could sit, in peace and quiet, and contemplate all of the information that I had gathered from talking to others, shadowing, etc. After you leave your thinking spot, try not to think about your decision too much. Let it go until the next time that you return. Don’t let this decision run your life.

Which do you Love More?

Which is really your passion? What gives you the most joy? Is it directly caring for patients that are sick and injured or is it working on the science behind the scenes of medicine? Give this some serious thought. Only you can answer this question.

You Can Have Both

If you find that you want to care for patients while also conducting research, you can always apply for M.D./PhD. programs. These programs typically last around 8 years, broken down like this: two years of medical school, then four years of graduate school and research, followed by the last two years of medical school. This route can be a long road but if you’re passionate enough about medicine and research, it could be for you.

At the end of the day, you want to give yourself the best opportunity to make the right decision by surrounding yourself with helpful resources and people. I don’t think it’s important to share which route I chose, but I know it’s the right decision for me. I’m glad that I endured the decision-making process, and I’ve learned a lot about myself because of it.

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Image Credit: Maryland GovPics


  1. Marylander on August 1, 2017 at 4:35 pm

    Why is a stock photo of former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley used for this article? He went to neither medical school nor graduate school, unless you’re counting law school as graduate school.

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