Is a Career in Medicine Right for You?
Six core qualities you should have to be successful in a medical career
By Rawpixel via EnvatoElements
By Rachel B. Levin
When Michael Cook, MD, was in high school, he had two burning interests: aviation and medicine. Right out of college, he decided to become a pilot, but he never lost sight of his fascination with medicine and imagined he might someday have a medical career.
Seven years into his airline career, he was offered the opportunity to take a management role that would solidify his rise up the ranks of the aviation industry. “Instead of being super-thrilled, I was kind of disappointed, feeling like that would commit me to that path and [cause me to] give up the opportunity to pursue medicine,” says Cook.
Cook says he desired work that allowed him to have more human connection, depth of meaning, and a higher purpose. And so, he decided to change course and head toward a new destination: medical school.
While there’s no magic formula for deciding if a medical career is right for you, there are some core qualities that those in healthcare-related professions tend to share. We asked some faculty from Stanford's Clinical Science, Technology and Medicine Summer Internship, a program that aims to inspire compassionate careers in science, technology and medicine, to share some of their insights.
A desire to help others
“One thing that seems pretty universal is a genuine desire to help people,” says Larry Chu, MD, MS, the director of the Stanford Anesthesia Summer Institute and professor of anesthesia, perioperative and pain medicine. “You really have to want to be of service to others.”
That drive to help goes hand-in-hand with personal characteristics such as compassion. Bassam Kadry, MD, associate clinical professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at Stanford, says practicing medicine requires a degree of empathy to understand another person’s perspective.
Resilience and Grit
Since patients and their loved ones are often grappling with difficult emotions in the hospital, medical practitioners must possess the sensitivity needed to comfort others. At the same time, those within the profession need to be able to compartmentalize their own emotions. “Literally, sometimes I’ve been in a situation where a patient died,” says Kadry, “and then you have to go start the next case.” He notes that managing such tough transitions requires resilience and grit.
Capacity to learn
Aside from these soft skills, medical careers also require an aptitude for science, because medicine is grounded in physiology, notes Chu. Yet, despite all of the scientific knowledge that you gain during medical training, how you learn is almost more important than what you learn, since information can quickly become outdated as research advances. “Your capacity to learn and be comfortable despite uncertainty are critical characteristics to succeed,” says Kadry.
Be a team player
Many people who are interested in medicine set their sights on becoming doctors, but it’s important to keep in mind that health care is an interprofessional practice, says Chu. “There are so many important allied health careers,” he adds. Such health careers include nursing, occupational therapy and pharmacy, to name a few. Individuals in these various roles often work together to serve patients, which means having a knack for teamwork is essential. While leadership skills are valued with a medical career, it’s not about leading all of the time. “It’s actually most of the time about fellowship,” Kadry says.
A healthy dose of self-knowledge
Figuring out if you’re well-suited for a medical career requires not only knowledge of the profession, but also self-knowledge. Do you pass out at the first sight of blood? Do you enjoy talking to patients? Are you comfortable with a needle in your hand? “I think the only way to really know is to gain an experience in a medical setting,” says Chu. “Finding opportunities to meet clinicians, learn from them, and work with them is a very important way to know if a medical career is right for you.”
All of these characteristics are important for those in a medical career. They are something that Cook and others know they must embody to be successful. Cook also credits his early experiences shadowing doctors for helping inform his choice to change careers. Today, he’s just a few months away from completing his residency in anesthesiology at Stanford, and he couldn’t be happier. “Anesthesia is so interesting, so much fun, and it’s a really rewarding specialty,” says Cook, who can now attest that switching to a medical career was the right choice for him. “I feel really, really lucky.”
Instead of being super-thrilled, I was kind of disappointed...
Michael Cook, MD
Resident Physician, Stanford University School of Medicine