When I first decided to pursue medicine, or at least pursue getting into medicine – me, a 25-year-old whose approach to the natural sciences typically centred around avoiding or, if absolutely necessary, attempting and then comprehensively failing the subject – I anticipated problems. Strangely, they turned out to be less actual than expected, and when faced with the prospect of 40 years of spreadsheets I didn’t feel like I had a great deal to lose.
Changing careers, quitting a job altogether, moving continents, the prospect of my med school application not making it past the “In” tray; these challenges were all far more appealing than the grim matrix of excel, middle management, and water-cooler chats.
Nonetheless, it was a big step. As I was quitting my job and moving from the UK back to Sydney, if things went awry it wasn’t something I could exactly remedy by slinking back to the HR department with my tail between my legs and a promise to redeem myself.
It was a huge decision. There were intense moments of self-doubt where my motivation waned. And despite being satisfied with finally deciding not to work in The City, I was acutely aware that lacking job satisfaction in the lower echelons of any white-collar career is so unremarkable as to be a cliché.
I didn’t know what was worse: being dissatisfied with my job or realising that I was hardly an outlier with having this idea. With this realisation, I poured the Kool-Aid into the sink and started studying for the GAMSAT.
The fear that I was being self-indulgent stalked my early months of preparation, especially as the horror of GAMSAT study became a grim reality. When I realised how lucky I was to able to consider taking on medicine at all – particularly seeing friends and colleagues whose personal circumstances were less flexible – these fears faded.
And the further I studied – not just for the GAMSAT, but for the medical voices of Henry Marsh, Atul Gawande, Oliver Sacks, and Karen Hitchcock, among others – the smaller the self-indulgence became. Particularly when I realised that all these authors were all ‘late bloomers’ to medicine, just as I was hoping to become.
With that, there are two great benefits to coming to medicine slightly later than your average school-leaver. The first is that your exposure to other careers and modes of living allows you to gain a more realistic view of the career options that exist outside of medicine. This in turn allows you to more effectively evaluate your desire to pursue it.
The second, in my own case at least, is that while my career outside of university has been short, it has given me a window into the ambiguity and compromise that confronts adult life. This helped me realise that the opportunity to pursue something about which you are passionate is rarely offered and should be taken with both hands, regardless of the perceived age restrictions to those dreams.
Surprisingly, my main concerns were superficial – such as how best to navigate being open and honest about what I was doing and why, without feeling like I was the Oh-God-is-he-going-to-start-talking-about-climate-change guy at the party.
As the prospects of getting in grew gradually less faint I felt compelled to be honest when asked what my plans were. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that telling someone you’re applying for med school is just a roundabout way of letting them know that you think you’re smart, compassionate and driven.
Equally, when I did get in I was wary of implicitly suggesting that through my own personal epiphany I had discovered the cure for the neuroses of modern professional life, and that maybe if everyone followed my lead and stopped making PowerPoints for people they detested they’d be a lot happier.
Social faux pas aside, approaching something like medicine when you’re slightly older does mean that you will face a unique set of challenges. Your mid- to late-20s are when conventional wisdom dictates you work hard and save what you can: delaying financial and professional gratification for 4 years is daunting in this context.
More relevant, however, are the opportunities this decision presents: the opportunity to start fresh in a fulfilling, challenging and meaningful career in an era of increased professional specialisation is hard to come by. I, for one, can’t wait.