How do I change careers and become a doctor? As part of a post-baccalaureate pre-medical program at a top-20 university, this is a question our advisors are asked almost daily. Often the question is asked by successful professionals in other fields who want to pursue a career that is more meaningful, or who always dreamed of going to medical school. Over the years we have advised teachers, nurses, engineers, Peace Corps volunteers, military veterans, financial advisors, musicians, and others from a wide variety of fields about how to prepare for a career in medicine and successfully apply to medical school. Here in a nutshell are questions to ask yourself, key information to know, resources to utilize, and action items to help you on your way.
1. How do I know if a career change to medicine is right for me?
It may be a dream to make a big career change, but going into medicine requires a significant commitment of time and resources. Make sure you have accurate information on which to base your decision.
2. How realistic is it to apply to medical school at this point in my life?
It is important to be as well informed as you can about the medical school application process, and how your prior academic record and work experience may affect you.
3. What can I do now to move forward?
You will need to build both a strong academic record and a portfolio of relevant experiences. Some things you may be able to begin working on right away and some will require advanced planning. Now let’s dig a little deeper:
4. What draws me to medicine?
Begin by exploring what aspects of the field appeal to you, and assessing how well informed you are about careers in the health sciences. There may be other career options to consider that would be better fits or more quickly attainable. Also be sure you have an accurate impression of what the practice of medicine is like on a daily basis.
- Find out what it’s really like to be a physician. Interview and shadow some physicians in different specialties and settings. Begin by having a conversation with your own primary care physician, or with a friend or relative who is a physician.
- Volunteer in a hospital, clinic, or other health care setting where you can observe physicians at work and get to know some of them.
- Review the information provided by the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine about making the decision to pursue medicine.
- Compare other career options at explorehealthcarecareers.org.
- These things can be done in flexible ways around the demands of a full time work schedule.
5. What about my background and prior education?
Next, assess your prior education and consider how this record could affect your new goal. Reflect on what work experience or skills you have that will be relevant or transferrable.
Many students wonder, “Is it too late for me to do this?” Applicant pools are becoming more diverse in many ways. Medical schools routinely admit students who have not come straight from college. Many are in their late 20's or 30’s. Some are in their 40’s and even 50's. Your real world experience is important, and it likely has given you useful skills that will be transferrable to medicine. You are probably much more mature, reliable, and self-motivated than most younger college students who are preparing for medical school right now. Many medical schools will recognize this and value your indirect path.
Your college record will be important to your overall application, even if you graduated some time ago. Your academic success can either help you or it can be a challenge to address, depending on what your grades were like.
- Learn about the path(s) to medicine and the time involved for each stage of training. Research the differences and similarities between allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) medicine.
- Find out how MD and DO schools will calculate your overall and science GPA figures, and how further course work will be factored into these totals, by reviewing the grade information in the MSAR application guide on the AAMC website and DO programs on the AACOM website.
- Think about the cost of medical education and consider this in light of the number of years you would have to practice after you complete training. Start with information about the cost of medical school and how to pay for it.
- Reflect on what your work and life experiences have taught you that can help you become a good physician. Assess your strengths and opportunities for improvement.
6. How do I get started right now?
The answer depends on a variety of factors including your prior academic background and prior experiences, and even what time of year it is. You may need to wait for a new semester to begin to take course work that you need. One of the most immediate ways to start gaining relevant experience is to seek out community service and shadowing opportunities. This type of activity can be initiated at any time. Even if your current job is demanding, you can probably devote a few hours a month to these kinds of activities.
For academic preparation, the best place to start is by assessing your math background. If you haven’t had a college math course, you need to assess your best starting point. Taking a placement test and algebra courses at a local community college can be a good option. If you have had pre-calculus or calculus, you probably still need to consider a review of this material unless you use it on a regular basis in your job. A website like Khan Academy offers lectures and study materials at no cost. Studying math before beginning science course work will help you get into the mode of thinking quantitatively, and will give you necessary skills for doing well in subjects like general chemistry, which involve equations and extensive problem solving.
If you are ready to begin taking the science prerequisites for medical school, there are several ways to start. Any undergraduate level course work that you complete after finishing your bachelor’s degree will be considered post-baccalaureate work and factored into your application GPA figures. You can take courses on your own at a local four-year college or university. If you opt for this, it’s worth contacting your alma mater to see if they provide any support for alumni in the medical school preparation or application process. Check with the pre-health advising office or the career center.
Formal post-baccalaureate premedical programs are another option. There are many types of programs with a variety of formats. Some serve career-changers exclusively. Some are full time programs that are incompatible with employment, while others offer more flexible part time options. Financial aid is available for some, but not all, programs. Consider what your needs are and find out as much as you can about the application requirements, available resources, and benefits or restrictions of programs that interest you.
- Get relevant experience through shadowing physicians or volunteering in medical settings.
- Assess your math preparation and brush up on your quantitative skills.
- Investigate the best means to take the science course work needed to prepare you for medical school, either independently or through a post-baccalaureate program.
Whatever route you choose, advance planning and accurate information will serve you well. Learn more by emailing email@example.com.