Dr. Frwagon?
November 9, 2009 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Late twenties, and want to act on my lifelong dream of going to med school and becoming a doctor... Is this a good idea?

So, I'm 27, and in a weird state of transition for me... I've wanted to be a doctor since high school, but bad study habits and the high cost of med school have scared me off... until now.

I'd need to go back and get the pre-med degree, then med school, and then residency, and I'm entirely ok with committing the next 10-12 years of my life to this ... but will it be worth it? Can a 37-year old new doctor succeed, or am I too late to follow this particular dream?

As said above, I stayed away due to bad study habits, but those have been well and truly corrected.. it's kind of what I've been spending the past ten years doing, on the side.

I'm confident that I can handle the coursework, as well as the stress, and I'm willing to be poor and dedicate my next 12 years to this, but the question still lingers in the back of my mind:

Should I pursue this course of action, or just let that dream go?
posted by frwagon to Education (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It might help to list the reasons you want to be a doctor. It sounds like you're not doing it just for the money, which is good-- but are you into science? Helping people? Solving technical problems? Do you just want a career that will make people respect you? If you can find the most important thing, maybe you could investigate other careers that would fill that need (example: if you love science, you could pursue the [only slightly less grueling] researcher path, or if you love helping people, you could look into becoming a nurse or even joining the Peace Corps).

Of course, it's totally possible to become a doctor later in life, but you'll be competing for residencies and jobs against people who are a good 10 years younger than you. If being a doctor is the only career you can imagine loving, then no reason will be good enough to dissuade you.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:08 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, my 40-year-old friend's biggest regret is not following through with medical school because, at the time, she thought the end was awfully far away. Had she stuck with it, she'd be a doctor today.

I say go for it!!
posted by cooker girl at 10:09 AM on November 9, 2009

A friend started med school at 40 and is a practicing psychiatrist today. She feels that having lived as an "ordinary person" (not a physician) is of benefit to her and her patients.
posted by Carol Anne at 10:13 AM on November 9, 2009

I have two friends, both in their late 30s, who recently did what you are contemplating. They have both had tremendous success so far. They both had to go back and get the pre-med degree and everything. It has been inspiring to see them go through the process and be successful. Do it!
posted by The World Famous at 10:15 AM on November 9, 2009

It might help to list the reasons you want to be a doctor.

I've been fighting to distill this one down to specific reasons myself. You're correct about the money - a doctor's salary is nice and pretty, but I'm lined up to be doing pretty well in the IT field by the time I'd be a doctor. I'm not going to claim coherence for the next few sentences, but here are the ideas that run through my head when i try to analyze my motivation: I want to help people directly... I want a job that is very fulfilling, and very challenging... I like leading a directed team through difficult paths (and so the position of surgeon is simply THRILLING to me)... The respect would be nifty, and I like the sound of Dr. Frwagon, but to me it seems the same as the money - it's a fringe benefit.
posted by frwagon at 10:20 AM on November 9, 2009

You're going to be 37 anyway. It's really whether you rather be 37 as a new doctor or as someone who wishes they were a doctor...unless, as Oinopaponton notes, you can identify just what is making you want to be a doctor and then address those points. If the answer is doctor, then go for it.

I used to want to be a prof. But then I realized I just wanted to help people, publish, teach, do research, have flexible hours and have respect. So now I run a business where I have all those things.

I wanted to be a doctor for about a year, but I found I was able to satisfy that need by taking on health care clients and doing advocacy work in my community. However, it sounds like you have a longer-running desire.
posted by acoutu at 10:23 AM on November 9, 2009

Also, more in response to oino's request for motivation -- I thrive under stress... it's the down time that gets to me.
posted by frwagon at 10:30 AM on November 9, 2009

There is a woman at my medical school who is in her 40s. She was previously a pharmacist, because that's what her father (in her native country) wanted her to do. She moved to the States, got married, and decided that she didn't have to give up on her dream after all. Non-traditional students add a different (and often valuable) perspective to medical school and patient care.

Also - if you already have an undergraduate degree, you don't have to complete a pre-med "degree" - there's really no such thing anyway, and there are plenty of people who enter medical school with degrees in English, political science, theater, etc. You just have to complete the prerequisites - for most schools, a few semesters of biology, a year of both general and organic chemistry, a year of physics, a year of english, and a year of math (which should include calculus). Going back for a full undergraduate degree won't help with most of medical school, and if you take a review course for your MCAT, it won't make much of a difference there either as long as you study your ass off. You can do your prereqs anywhere, but if you live close to Big State University, I would consider doing them there. Or look at some post-baccalaureate programs - Loyola is good in Chicago, and Agnes Scott has one, too.
posted by honeybee413 at 10:31 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

The idea that it is too late is bullshit (I say this as someone who is only a bit older than you, not as someone who is wistfully looking back, so what do I know). As far as anyone knows for certain we only get one go-around and that is it, so if it is your dream then go for it.
posted by BobbyDigital at 10:32 AM on November 9, 2009

My sister graduated from Duke Med School at 45, a cousin graduated from Case Western Reserve at around the same age. Both are very happily practicing medicine.

Med schools are somewhat reluctant to admit older students, don't delay too long. U of Rochester and Case Western Reserve are the two main exceptions.
posted by mareli at 10:35 AM on November 9, 2009

Sure, why not?
A good family friend was first an engineer in his 20s, then went to law school in his late 20s, then went to medical school in his 30s and is now a respected doctor in his 50s.

He was pretty driven though.
What I think is good is that you have a series of checkpoints. If you do pre-med and it sucks, you are not forced to continue.

Another path could be Nursing / Nurse Practitioner
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:36 AM on November 9, 2009

The sad thing is, is that you think you might be too old now. But once you hit, say 37-40, you will realize that you at 27 was still so young, that looking back, you will see that this question is a non-issue. A few years makes no difference at all.

If it would have been a good idea 8 years ago, it is still a good idea now. (even better, considering you have better study habits and a wee bit of real life experience now, and the ability to be more sure of your commitments)
posted by Vaike at 10:36 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to give you another vote of encouragement - I'm going through the same thing right now, and a lot of people think I'm crazy. (I'm an engineer, and 23, so not quite the same)

Almost everyone I mention this to seems to have a friend of a friend who did the same thing, it does seem to be more common to have older people in med school. The biggest hurdle for you might be the pre-reqs, at least in engineering undergrad, when people came back to school after being out for a while, they struggled quite a bit.

Good luck!
posted by piper4 at 10:37 AM on November 9, 2009

I'm hesitant to suggest this because it's a very particular lifestyle, but you could look into being an army surgeon. You'd still have to go to med school, but it looks like the time between obtaining the degree and actually practicing would be much shorter than the traditional route. You'd have stress and problems to solve in spades.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:38 AM on November 9, 2009

At 37, you could easily have a 30-year-long career ahead of you. You're not too old at all.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:47 AM on November 9, 2009

I know many, many people who started med school in their late 20s and early 30s, and a couple of people who started med school in their 40s.

All of them are happy, successful doctors today. On the other hand, when I mentally tabulate the people I knew who did the usual premed in college/right into med school, almost half of them have left the medical profession to do something else.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:00 PM on November 9, 2009

Definitely not too late to go to medical school if you're in your late 20's, but I'd spend some time vetting this as a career before you jump into a very expensive endeavor - medical school at a private school costs upwards of $50,000 per year in tuition; if you do have to take some post-bac classes that could cost 10's of thousands more. Sounds like you've thought about this already from your post but it's worth reiterating.

My best suggestion to you is to find a physician in a specialty that sounds interesting to you, and spend some time shadowing them for maybe a half-day, or just volunteering in the hospital a few times if you haven't done so already. A weekend afternoon in the Emergency Department could be eye-opening and reveal how well you might handle the chaos of the hospital; clinical medicine has its own challenges, too - spending some time in a doctor's office might also be helpful. Having a strong sense for what work as a physician is life can only be a selling point in your application.

I would also consider some of the ancillary health professions - RN's, especially in specific fields such as anethesia/critical care/surgery, have autonomy and pretty sweet hours; their salaries, benefits and employment prospects are quite solid, and anyone will tell you that a good nurse is worth their weight in gold. Their depth of knowledge isn't the same, but an ability to manage teams and to confront stressful situations is absolutely a part of the job. I have much admiration for the scrubs nurses who work in our operating rooms - a good one seems to make things run more smoothly. Perhaps this might appeal to you as a possibility.

Best of luck.
posted by archofatlas at 3:53 PM on November 9, 2009

Another "it's never too late" here; there are several people in my class who are in their 30's and 40's, and the second career-ers seem to do very well for several reasons. 1) They've developed the work ethic and professionalism required in medicine from their previous jobs, 2) They've researched this choice and are absolutely sure this is what they want to do, and 3) Many of them have kids and spouses they left in other states or the made pick up their lives, and that sacrifice drives them to do their best.

If there's a will, there's a way. But I don't know if that answers the other question you had above, will it be worth it. Med school is incredibly tough (can't speak for residency as I haven't done it yet. You will be working 90 hours a week AND still be expected to study 2 hours a day, which is soul-crushing and utter-fatigue-inducing even when you're a young whippersnapper right out of undergrad. There will be moments at 3 am when you cannot believe you are paying to be there. I cannot over-emphasize number two above. You definitely need to do lots of shadowing to make sure this is something you want to do. Even surgeons deal with downtime (the OR isn't ready because the last surgery ran over, CT is backed up, etc.), surgeons do a lot of bread-and-butter surgeries that while technically difficult don't require much innovation. Every specialty has great things about it and unpleasant things. Medicine can be incredibly fulfilling, but you will also meet a lot of burnt out physicians fed up with being unable to deliver the care they want because they lack autonomy or their patients lack resources (whether that's insight into health behaviors, financial means, or otherwise). You need to make sure you have a balanced view before you start, because the "it's my dream!" will only get you so far, and you don't want to be 5 years and $200,000 in the hole when your rose-colored glasses fall off.

Sorry if that came across as a bit pessimistic. Hopefully, after looking into it a little more, you'll still find the idea of being a doctor as exciting as you find it now. I really wish you luck if/when you end up applying to med school!
posted by alygator at 5:10 PM on November 9, 2009

personally, i would rather regret having done it than regret having not done it.
posted by violetk at 11:32 PM on November 9, 2009

Can you start at 27? Of course. Many physicians do start at that age - off the top of my head I can think of one friend who put his wife through law school before he started med, another who worked in research first, another who didn't start med school until he was in his early thirties.

You need to spend some time talking to surgeons and physicians about the satisfactions/dissatisfactions in their careers. It looks totally cool, but a lot of patient care isn't as satisfying as it seems - billing, coding, EMR, etc. Overall physician satisfaction seems to be somewhat correlated to finding a practice model that works for you. Even in the right practice, it's not a thrill a minute if that's what you're visualizing.

Some specialties are more zing than others. Trauma center surgeons have a lot more excitement than dermatologists, but then dermatologists get to go home a 5. There are trade-offs. You can do more routine surgeries which are less thrilling, but also less likely to end in negative outcomes. Doing the high wire act means that you're going to fall (and take a patient with you) simply because the odds are stacked against you. People visualize being a successful surgeon. Few people visualize what it means to feel responsibility for a negative patient outcome. Add in increasing panel size, regulation and malpractice. Being a doc isn't all fun; however, there are many who love it and couldn't imagine doing anything else.

None of this is said to discourage you. Instead, go talk to some doctors in specialities that interest you. I'm betting they'll tell you 27 isn't a problem and they'll give you a bunch of insights.
posted by 26.2 at 9:09 AM on November 10, 2009

You're definitely not too old. I have three classmates in their early/mid thirties, and quite a few in their late twenties.

You don't need a pre-med degree, just the coursework (you can actually even go to med school without a Bachelor degree of any sort; rare, but one of my classmates doesn't have one). You can generally get that done in a year or two.
posted by quirks at 4:28 PM on November 10, 2009

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