What's your life like as a doctor or pharmacist?
August 8, 2011 4:07 PM   Subscribe

You are a Pharmacist or DoctorFilter: What it like to get into (and be) in these professions?

My boyfriend has a BA in history (2010 grad) and has decided we wants to be a doctor. I don't really think this fits his personality at all and I think he is imagining an easy life after residency. I don't think he fully appreciates what it takes to get through medical school and residency and even after that, that 80 hours weeks may likely be the norm.

However, he is an excellent writer and good at chemistry. I think that he may be much better suited to pharmacy. This seems like a profession that would allow him to have a life beyond his career. He craves the stability of a job, having an actual skill (versus paper pushing) and being able to provide financially. He has said that the idea of being an EMT, paramedic or nurse doesn't appeal to him. I have no doubts in his capability to complete the schooling for any of these careers, it's the day to day that worries me.

I've been diving into information for both of these as much as possible but I'm still looking to get a better idea. This question, helped me get an idea of what it is like to be a pharmacist, and this one, for begin a family practice doctor, though lots more input would be greatly appreciated.

Info: We are in the USA, he's working on volunteering in a hospital, I've also suggested job shadowing to him.
(Bonus Questions: Travel is extremely important to me besides Doctors without Borders, how portable are either of these skills? Prohibitively impossible to change countries? What countries would be easiest to move between (any and all are potential options)?
posted by raccoon409 to Work & Money (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm three weeks away from finishing my third year of medical school. One of the most profound things I've learned about the profession this year, being out in the field, is that unless you're working far, far away from patients, your time will never genuinely belong to you ever again. I wish I could have realized this a lot earlier.

This isn't to say that you can't be a doctor and have a nice life. But don't think of it as if you're going to be just like yourself now, only doing doctor stuff. It's a long, long road, and utterly transformative. IMHO, anyway.
posted by greatgefilte at 4:35 PM on August 8, 2011

It depends on the specialty he chooses and even within each specialty, there are numerous options, from private practice, hospitals, academic positions, research...not all specialties require 80-hour weeks, by any means.

Ask him to check out the Student Doctor Network forums, specifically the forums for residents. I think you should do so as well. There is a wealth of information about "lifestyle" there, as well as information about international medicine.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:05 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just recently replied to a post where someone asked about different kinds of jobs within the med field. I touched on the life of a pharmacist within a hospital setting, specifically ones who work within a unit, versus the ones who work for the whole hospital based in a central pharmacy. I'll just copy it over.

"...A fine example were our ICU Pharmacists who had their mini pharmacy right on the floor with us. They rounded with the docs, were consistently consulted and routinely saved lives when things went south, just by being there as human encyclopedias: affirm dosages, confirm contraindications and know whether a suddenly needed drug would interact safely with whatever was currently running on that line, or if a new line was needed. They weren't magic, they just did these checks a thousand times a day and knew it by heart. Having that kind of knowledge base was a substantial asset to us and all the while they never touched a patient. "

It's thrilling and fulfilling, sans the medical school, residency, etc. Hope it helps : )
posted by MansRiot at 5:06 PM on August 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I am not a doctor, but I am married to one. My husband has been in medical training, including med school, internship, residency and fellowship, since 2002, and he still has nearly two more years to go. I think he would still do it all over again, because he doesn't really see himself interested in anything else, but frankly that's a close call. Depending on where you work and the specialty you choose, life can be brutal or less brutal. My husband picked cardiology, which is much more intense than, say, radiology or dermatology... so trying to get a sense of the kind of medicine he'll be interested in is going to make a lot of difference.

I second the Student Doctor Network forums suggestion. I also recommend reading House of God by Samuel Shem. Though fiction, it'll probably give you the best sense of what the emotional life is like. Another recommendation is the blog at kevinmd.com. My husband frequently sends me articles from the blog, and it's a good source for current perspectives on the field.

I would be really cautious about pursuing medicine for the financial security aspect because who the hell knows what will shake out with health care reform. No, doctors probably won't ever be destitute but it's certainly not like it used to be. The opportunity cost of medicine, depending on the specialty, plus the debt, requires careful consideration of long-term salary prospects.

He might also want to consider a physician assistant direction as well. It's doctor lite, so to speak, with fewer years in training and more $$$ than nursing.
posted by emkelley at 5:32 PM on August 8, 2011

I am in my second year of work post-graduation from medical school, although my situation might be a little different, as I am a Malaysian who graduated from a UK university and is now working in Singapore. Regardless of where you graduate and start working, I think the general experience tends to be quite similar.

I get the feeling that your boyfriend is already aware of the kind of hours that might be expected, although this is highly dependent on specialty. Does he have a rough idea of what kind of doctor he wants to be?

Job shadowing is very helpful, but I feel nothing really prepares you for the real thing. As a medical student I have followed doctors on their night calls, thinking "hey, I could do this too!", but when it got to the real thing, it does feel more intense and stressful, mainly because of the responsibility on your shoulders.

There have been points where I was on the verge of wanting to change careers altogether, feeling crippled by self-doubt and suffocated by not having any semblance of life outside of medicine, and I know many doctors who are feeling or have felt the same way. That was me a year and a half ago. Fortunately, I have gone the opposite direction and I can't imagine doing anything else.

What I am trying to say is, if he does choose to go to medical school, know that there may be times when he will feel like he has made a big mistake, but if he sticks to it and can appreciate the many non-monetary rewards being a doctor has to offer, there is really no better job in the world.
posted by ianK at 6:04 PM on August 8, 2011

I am a doctor. Unfortunately, it's really difficult to give you a meaningful answer because what being a doctor is like depends a great deal on the type of doctor you are and where you work. I know physicians who have worked 80+ hour weeks their whole careers; I know other physicians that do 6-8 12-14 hour shifts a month and spend the rest of the time surfing.

I'm not an expert on the subject, but my sense is that the portability afforded to physicians is crummy. If you're willing to subsist on per diem work, you can move around within state easily(licenses are state-limited) but it's hard to call that a career, and you usually won't do as well financially. Working in another country is a royal pain unless you're doing relief work like Doctor's Without Borders, or what amounts to third world volunteering.. Remember, this is a career that requires a considerable amount of accreditation, background checks, and certification processes that are state controlled, and are usually a bureaucratic nightmare.

If you have specific questions, I'm happy to answer them here or in MeMail.
posted by drpynchon at 6:48 PM on August 8, 2011

I am an undergrad considering medical or pharmacy school. I have been able to shadow both doctors and pharmacists, and I think it has given me some perspective. Many doctors and pharmacists are more than happy to have people shadow (though I think it helps if you're young) so I would urge your boyfriend to send a few emails.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 6:58 PM on August 8, 2011

My sister is a pharmacist at a small community hospital. Her experience is very similar to the story that MansRiot except that I don't believe she regularly does rounds. She does however respond to codes that happen in the hospital. Because of the rapid change of pace in literature and the small number of staff doctors, she is likely to be the person in the hospital that knows the most about what drugs work best in a given situation, the proper does and what not to mix them with. It is a highly valued and appreciated skill.
posted by mmascolino at 8:00 PM on August 8, 2011

Hospital pharmacist since 1994 here, and my sister (who I am very close to) is a family practice doctor. We both practice in the SF Bay Area.

We basically make the same salary, but I work only 25 hours a week (part-time) and she sees patients for 32 hours/wk, but then has to chart (ie write patient notes for each appt/code what she did), so that's another 5 hours or so a week. And then once a month she's on call for the entire weekend, in addition to weekly call one night a week (8pm - 8am), and 6 hours one Saturday a month for her.

I just got lucky, there was a pharmacist shortage, that's why the pay is so good right now. However, *everyone* knows about the good pharmacist pay these days, and the biggest thing that stuck out for me is that your boyfriend was a history major. Unless he also took general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, biology, physics, and calculus, (the other basic science classes), he has a couple years of pre-reqs to get through before he can even *apply* to pharm or med school. Just wanted to point out that it's really tough to get into either professional school right now, so maybe his decision will be made for him.

I'm not sure where you were going with him being an "excellent writer," but there isn't a huge need for that in pharmacy. More so in hospital pharmacy, if you happen to have a job like mine that involves writing audit reports, but that's more of a technical kind of writing. Less so for a CVS/Duane Reade/Walgreens pharmacist. Math and chemistry are what are important, as well as plain brute force memorization and recall (there's no rhyme or reason to drug names).

What someone wrote upstream about being an ICU pharmacist is true, though there aren't many positions like that one. The important thing to know about working in a hospital is that it's open 24-7, so when you first start out, you are working the undesirable (read: non-day ) shifts, and probably every other weekend for the rest of your life. Being a pharmacist tends to be very repetitive, it's the same day over and over again.

My sister is generally happy with being a family practice doctor (finished residency 1999), but she too is overwhelmed at times at how it dictates her entire lifestyle. She likes to travel, also, and did a year of locum tenens specifically to travel, and spent three months in Hawaii. The thing about locum tenens is that it's usually in "undesirable" places that can't attract a doctor to live there full-time. And she's mused what else she might do as a profession, but knows she won't, because of all the years she spent training. She doesn't just leave it at the office when she goes home, like I do. Once my shift is over, I'm done.

Health care is well-remunerated, but it certainly takes its pound of flesh. Good luck to both of you! It is said that health care is the only industry that will grow in the US in the future, due to the aging baby boomers.
posted by honey badger at 9:04 PM on August 8, 2011

Fourth year medical student here. I love medicine and could never see myself doing anything else with my life. Grew up in a healthcare family, but will be the first doctor of the bunch. Went about getting in to med school the very traditional way. Plenty of my classmates did not, though, and many had other academic backgrounds and other careers before entering.

The best thing your boyfriend can do right now is shadowing in a variety of fields, including pharm and doctoring - maybe even a few different kinds of docs to get a good feel for what a variety of specialties. I have lots of friends and classmates who didn't realize when they got in that they were not the kinds of people that enjoy direct patient care and then have to slog through the match in the less people-intense specialties.

You also have to be the kind of person who can stand up to a lot of criticism, constructive or otherwise, and accept the fact that most of your time is not yours anymore. Your fate more or less lies in the hands of standardized tests and computer algorithms that will decide where you do residency. You often have to be comfortable with more than a modicum of uncertainty in your personal and professional life. Can your boyfriend be comfortable with these things?
posted by honeybee413 at 9:22 PM on August 8, 2011

I'm an emergency medicine doctor, and I love what I do. However, I've known a lot of people along with me on this ride who don't love it, and wish they had never done it. And there are definitely times, not terribly infrequently, maybe once every couple of months, when something really horrible happens on the job (I'm watching a young person die while a group of 20 other patients is becoming angry that they are not being taken care of quickly enough, or someone starts screaming at me and threatening to sue me because I can't do what they want me to do for them, or I am so busy on my shift that I have to stay hours afterwards to finish and I miss some important personal event). At those moments I do find myself questioning why I ever got myself into this. But that's part of the job, and I get through it. I would also point out that I incurred over $175,000 in student loan debt during medical school and that's a big hole to dig yourself out of (and my debt is typical of anyone who maxed out their Staffords)... even after 1 year of medical school it's really hard to turn back because you've already spent tens of thousands of dollars (usually over $40,000 per year)

I would agree with the fact that shadowing is very important, and I would urge him to try to set up shadowing with someone working in an academic medical center, like a resident. See if he can stay with them on an overnight call, or at least for their entire daily shift on a core rotation, like internal medicine or general surgery. He needs to see the paperwork, the at times drudgery, the unglamourous side of medicine, and he needs to love it enough despite that to want to do whatever it will take to get into medical school. Regardless of what he wants to do after residency he should understand what medical school and residency will be like, because they take many years to get through. I also second the forums at Student Doctor - they're great.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:24 PM on August 8, 2011

p.s. it can be very difficult to change countries after medical training. It depends on the country and the specialty. You might be able to just get licensed, but you also might need to take a big exam, or even go back and do residency-style training in order to get licensed in another country. The USA is one of the hardest countries to move in to, so if you're starting in the USA, it will be easier to move someplace else, but 'easy' is relative. If you really want to do it, it can be done. MeMail me if you want more info, I could go on further.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:26 PM on August 8, 2011

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