How to stay motivated as a 20-something facing years of MORE school?
April 7, 2013 1:43 PM   Subscribe

Problem is that I'm losing steam at this point, facing many more years of school ahead of me if I'm accepted into professional school. How I can shake the feelings of uncertaintly as I keep plugging away?

I'm surrounded by college-aged students, and constantly getting updates from my peers via social media with whom I graduated who are living out their mid 20s in style, galavanting around NYC, traveling the world doing stuff like Peace Corps, dating people... doing all of these things I feel like I'm missing out on, and will miss out on for the next 5 years should I get into medical school. Won't I be in my early 30s by the time I finish school and get married? Isn't it time to start a family then, with no opportunity to live abroad or go out and have those great experiences you can only have when you're young and in your prime? As a woman, I'm anxious about the decison I'm making, and how being a physician will play out with finding a husband and starting a family.

I'm in my mid 20s, pursuing a second Bachelor's in order to complete required coursework for applying to med school. I have a first Bachelor's degree from a prestigious school that ended up being useless, although the intangibles, connections I made, and personal growth I took away from the experience that that academic were invaluable, and will help me to achieve my goal of being a physician. After shadowing a doctor, I realized I can't see myself doing anything else. Every day there will be novel cases to deal with, new people to talk to, new problems requiring innovative solutions... it's all a recipe for not being bored, and helping people out in a huge way, incorporating science and a love of your fellow man.

Not that I'm much of a partier at all. I would rather invent recipes or refashion t-shirts, or get lost in a book than have a night out at a bar or club. I have deep, meaningful friendships with many women, and find them immensely fulfilling. I would really like to date a guy, and I do get hit on quite a bit, but I've never been a fan of the casual hook up culture. Dating seriously doesn't seem to be feasible right now being in this town for only another year or so, with most college-aged guys not looking for what I'm looking for. It would be a huge emotional distraction, too. I get can overthink things easily when it comes to relationships. Perhaps it comes with the sensitive introspective artist territory.

Maybe this feeling wouldn't be so tough to deal with if I weren't pulled in so many directions by my talents and exploratory, inquisitive nature. If I were inept with language and visual-spatial perception, and instead, brilliant with sequential, logical thought.... if I weren't a "people" person... if were a more efficient worker, not having to explore all the nuances of whatever particularly interesting assignment I'm given... I might not feel so restless.

This all sounds totally self-involved and whiny, I know. Woe is me, right?! Man, I sure wish things were harder for me to grasp and I was socially awkward, jeez. It would be so awesome having to work multiple jobs, live on my own, and deal with all this stress! Yes, I have it really good, relatively speaking. We each have our own cross to bear, though.

Hoping that someone else who has faced a similar situation in their 20s can give me some advice on how to deal with these feelings of uncertainty. I work hard and am humble, realizing how good I have it, and how everything could take a turn for the worst tomorrow. However, no amount of rational thought seems to be helping.
posted by sunnychef88 to Work & Money (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think your feelings are uncommon among people who commit to a career that requires serious investment of the entire self for those supposedely fun years of your 20s and 30s. I took a couple of years off along the way to work, but I finished grad school (MS + PhD) at 34 and immediately started my first academic job. Now that I am in the "real world" and finally have friends my age who didn't go to grad school, I am sometimes jealous of their stories about Peace Corps or backpacking around the world or just having a 9-5 job that they like fine but leave at the office everyday and go out at night and have hobbies and "family life" and lots of other things I've never had the chance to do. But, overall, I have the life I always wanted and am in academia like I always dreamed and I can't really imagine who I would be if I had gone that other route. It sounds like medicine really is your dream, and even though those other lives sound cool, they're not the life you want.

People are always saying "No regrets" about their lives. I've never understood that. Of course I have regrets, and of course I wonder "what if" sometimes. But this is the life I worked incredibly hard to get to and it is for the most part exactly what I thought it would be. And I don't know if I really believe people who say "No regrets" all the time.

I don't know how well I've answered your question. If anything, my answer seems to be that those feelings don't go away, but there is also a lot of happiness in achieving a really difficult thing.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:02 PM on April 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

One of the things I have found out about getting older is that I can't run on adrenalin like I used to. When we were 19, it was relatively easy to pull all nighters and cram and burn the candle at both ends, because our bodies and minds are at their peak, so to speak. As time goes on, it gets harder and harder to rely on motivation to get things done.

I find that I have to approach life more like a job than the fun adventure it used to be. Schedule things, get motivation from the potential future results rather than feeling good at the moment or fear of failure. The downside is that I can't be as spontaneous as I used to be. But the upside is that I can live a much more rich lifestyle. (Not rich in money, but in depth and bredth of experiences.) The faster I can get my stuff done in a day, the more of the day I have to piss around with. (Because I know that if I piss around first, I'll never get my stuff done.)

Going through medical school is an extreme example of this. The rewards are further off into the future than many other professions, and the work is harder.

It might help to envision it like building a house by yourself. You HAVE to plan the work and ration time and money to get the project done. But at the end, you have a house that will last. Same thing with an education.
posted by gjc at 2:03 PM on April 7, 2013

Others are right; you're trading spontaneity and "adventure" for something a lot of those spontaneous kids are really craving-- direction and the results of very hard work. I'm a kid who took a year off after undergrad instead of rushing into grad school, and while I've had fun and had some great experiences, I'm also constantly thinking, "okay, let's get started with real life, here," and feeling nervous that my fun time will run out if I don't get on track soon. So I don't really think your way or my way is better; it's just what's right at the time.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:08 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing to remember is that, among the rewards of the job, there will be adventures of the sort you are tempted by now. No, they won't be exactly the same, and they won't come without strings, but they will be deeper and more engaging for all that. I spent a big chunk of my 20s having the sort of adventures you describe, and while I don't regret it, I also find that they weren't as rewarding as the things that are happening now that I've actually settled to something.

You are building skills that will allow you to live and work in many environments and countries, with people of all sorts. You are evidently determined to do the job, and maybe you're just losing sight a bit of all the exciting things that will go along with that.

And also: family. You can raise a family anywhere you like, and they will thank you for the opportunities that it gives them.
posted by howfar at 2:13 PM on April 7, 2013

much wisdom already stated addition, in my view: ease off a lot on social media. People use that to announce all that they are doing, have done, are accomplishing. Seldom do they talk about the bad side of things. Thus you subject yourself to their boasting of the great times and that puts you ill at ease...I have found when things are truly great I have no time to bother letting others know daily.
posted by Postroad at 2:19 PM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is there a reason you can't take a year or two off before med school? I know you're worried about how old you're going to be when you finish, and as someone who started law school at 29, I get that. But you're going to have 30-40 years to practice medicine. Starting a year or two later isn't going to change that.

You've likely been in school, with breaks no longer than a couple of months, nonstop since you were 5. I think it might help you to take a year or two, work at a job (or a couple of jobs) that isn't especially hard or taxing, and see what that's like. Travel, party, drink too much, date around, live in a share house with 5 dudes you met on Craigslist. Write and make art and go to weird events and live in cities you've always wanted to live in. Whatever the mid-20s stuff you're missing is, take some time to go do that, if only to see that it's probably not as awesome as you're fantasizing it will be.

If you're burned out now, it's only going to get worse from here if you stay in school. A few years off could be really refreshing and let you enter medical school really jazzed about going back to school and starting that career. But there's no reason you have to start that right away when you're not excited about it just because you're going to be thirty someday.
posted by decathecting at 2:21 PM on April 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

You sound a little tightly wound (and it takes one to know one, believe me). Try not to take yourself so seriously to the point that you're watching life go by. I think you need to explore ways to reach your professional goals while still having a social life. You're allowed to go out and get drunk one night, you're allowed to date, you're allowed to travel, you can do whatever you want. People in medical school do all those things, and more (my cousin even had a baby), so I'm not sure I buy the whole "But I HAVE to stay locked up in my room every night if I'll ever be a doctor!" thesis.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:24 PM on April 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Don't eat the marshmallow!
posted by nickrussell at 2:25 PM on April 7, 2013

Maybe have a fun goal for the end of med school? I know the Peace Corps right now is working to start up a program where MDs commit for one year, where they go into the field to help train local MDs in Peace Corps locations (not to treat patients, just to train MDs in newest methods). So instead of 2 years, it is a 1 year commitment and there is some school loan forgiveness too. So you get your adventure, and less financial pressure to boot!
posted by lil' ears at 2:30 PM on April 7, 2013

If you are burnt-out now and want to get off the hamster wheel for a while, I think you should be okay with that and not try to talk yourself out of it or "shake off the uncertainty." Many people in medicine are unhappy because they have been in the grind for a long time and convinced themselves that it was better to keep going than to stop and confront their fears and feelings.

I graduated med school in my mid-30s, but I had a nice life in my 20s that was a mixture of school and working. I had worked in healthcare for a long time and had a very clear idea of what med school and residency were going to be like, and it was still much harder than I had expected. The combination of fatigue, competitiveness, hierarchy, and the deep and wide fund of knowledge you are expected to master is really, really hard. And the whole process is long. At a minimum, you are talking about 7 years between med school (4) and residency (3+).

I am sure you have good and heart-felt reasons for wanting to go into medicine, but I will say that your explanation raised two red flags for me. Your belief that medicine is novel and is "a recipe for not being bored" is an understandable outsider's perspective, but is not the way much of medicine actually works. Most physicians see the same core group of problems over and over, the nature of problems varies by specialty, but there is a lot of repetition. It isn't boring to you now because you are new to this, but that's not to say that it will never be boring. You should go into it expecting that at least 90% of what you see will be routine.

My other red flag is that you said you can't see yourself doing anything else. If you are in your 20s and have been in school most of your life, you may not be able to see yourself doing anything else because you haven't yet seen enough of what life has to offer. I would bet money that there are many things you would be happy doing, and this is a great time in your life to explore the options. Again, I know many people in medicine who sold themselves on the idea that medicine was the only option, who have persisted in it and are unhappy and burnt-out.

My advice: take a break for a while. Med school will always be there. And if you have a gunner side that worries taking a break will harm your application, take the time to get a job working with patients. It will give you more confidence that you are really meant to do this, and it will improve your admission chances.
posted by artdesk at 3:07 PM on April 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

Youre catastrophizing here. I did postbac work in my mid-twenties and started medical school at 28, so I know that sense of "omg, my real life isn't going to start for 10 years!", but it's not like you're going into solitary confinement for the next decade. Med school is a lot of work, but there's certainly plenty of socializing that goes on--lots of people date, meet their life partners, get married, etc. during training. I met my now-spouse during my 1st year of med school and got married during my first year of residency. Many of my friends had kids during med school and residency as well.

Also, medical schools offer a lot of opportunity to travel and do useful work. There are plenty of opportunities for international rotations, and the structure of medical training is such that it's very easy to take a full year after 3rd or 4th year to do research, volunteer, etc, or after residency, and then seamlessly transition back into the system.

Finally, medical school is school, but residency and fellowship are really a lot more like... having a job. Yes, you're still in training, but...if someone is working at a consulting firm and it's understood that their projects will be supervised by someone more senior, and that the goal is to make partner but you need to work your way up for several years getting incrementally more experience and one would ever describe that as "school". Residency is essentially the same thing. Think of it as having a busy, demanding job for a few years, which is basically the truth.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 3:10 PM on April 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'd agree with the taking a year off. A doctor who only knows how to go to school isn't really going to be the most effective at dealing with patients--and while excitement exists in Emergency Medicine, but grueling boredom will alternate with that.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:10 PM on April 7, 2013

I don't think you should worry too much about the "finding a husband" part of it, because you never know when you might meet the love of your life, and going to med school won't necessarily delay that process.

I was in a situation similar to yours -- in my case, hanging out in my hometown for a year before going off to law school -- when I met my future husband. I had planned to date casually during that period, but as they say, people make plans and god laughs. I ended up falling completely head over heels for him, and we started dating seriously.

As it turned out, he had just left a job he hated and was looking to take his life in a new direction, so when we had been together for about six months, he decided he would move with me to the opposite side of the country when I started school that fall! He was my rock throughout law school, and now that I've graduated, we are going on even more fun adventures together.
posted by Carmelita Spats at 3:20 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can have anything you want, but you can't have everything.

Odds are, at the path you're going down now, you're not going to spend a couple of years living in a small town in Korea teaching English or working as a barista in Brooklyn to pay the bills while running your Etsy store. And that's ok. You probably did lots of other neat things before doing your second bachelors.

And in my experience, people who want to do adventurous things somehow ALWAYS find a way to ft adventurous things into what you would think would be rather staid professional paths. Maybe you'll find a way to finagle your way into doing a public health study in Nicaragua while you're in med school or do a clinical rotation in London. If you seek after adventure even within the confines of your main goals, you will find it, as long as you don't get caught up in the tunnel vision of your path.

But as I said, you can't have everything. One really hard thing I had to do was turn down a prestigious postdoc in an exotic city that would have been a fun adventure in my late 20s or even at 30 but in my mid 30s interfered with my other goals ("savings" and "a house"). But I've had my share of international adventures (see my Flickr account linked to from my profile)., and if I look hard enough, I'm sure I can find some other adventures to go on that I may have missed out on that don't interfere with my other more practical professional goals.

And don't look at it in terms of, "my life isn't going to start for 10-15 years!" Your life is happening right now.
posted by deanc at 3:33 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I went to medical school. It's a slog but you certainly don't have to do it straight through with no breaks. In fact, you could look for a medical school that has the option of a year off (usually taken between the 2nd and 3rd years) to pursue other interests like global health, research, or whatever (I knew a person who used it to hike the Appalachian trail).

You also can use the summer after 1st year of your med school for whatever you like (I suggest travel!) and you will likely be able to travel at least 1 month of 4th year.

During med school I traveled to east Africa, Chile, New Zealand, Aruba, and British Columbia (twice!). It is what you make of it.

Like the Elusive Architeuthis, I met my now spouse in first year and got married at the end of med school. as well. I also knew people to have kids during it. So, no, you won't necessarily be old and gray before you have a family, any more so than you might be otherwise. Just remember to take time to enjoy life, as artdesk said, or you will burn out and you will burn out hard. And what will all that time spent training straight thru with no breaks be worth if after 5 years out of residency you are a hardened cynic who can't stand to see another drug seeker or fill out another medical clearance form?....
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:29 PM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

P.s. I'm an emergency physician and although I see many different, and oftentimes new types of cases.... Yes, it can get boring. My specialty has amongst the highest rates of burnout in medicine, and medicine has one of the highest rates of burnout of any profession.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:35 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

First, there might be shortcuts to what you want to do. You say that you shadowed a doctor and that's how you know it's what you want to do. But did you try shadowing other medical professionals? My cousin is a physician assistant and her day-to-day sounds a lot like a physician's (I'm sure there are differences, but I don't know what they are). She was practicing within 3 yrs of her undergrad.

Second, I second and third all those above who describe training as being very similar to a job. And the opportunity to have your life and romance and meet people while you are in the program (I happened to have met my husband in undergrad, but I was an anomaly - most of my classmates met their spouses in grad school and/or broke up with whomever they had shown up with.)

However, a big difference is that you are going to need to commit to that sort of 'job'. I had your uncertainty and an incredibly strong "OMG, I cannot do school anymore forever' feeling as I approached my B.S. I took a few years off after undergrad before I felt like I could commit to a PhD program. And it was still torture for me. I hated the feeling of being tied to the same place for so long, even though it was ultimately successful for me. (I even miss some things about it.) The commitment really weighed on me. Also the uncertainty of when I could be unleashed, since PhD programs can be so open-ended and so dependent on your PI. I don't know how much of that there is in your desired training regimen...

So besides the duration of your program, what do you think about these other aspects? Commitment, uncertainty, an inherent surrender of your mobility, etc. etc. On the other side though, I agree with others that you have an advantage over your peers in having that strong direction, and in having a strong pull to do something so pragmatic. It is highly likely that you are going to get a job with your intended degree. My sister-in-law with a liberal arts degree and a plan to next get a masters in history doesn't have a pull towards the type of job she wants; she just knows what she likes to study. This seems like even worse torture to me than the whole commitment problem I had with grad school. So, toy with these kinds of possibilities, and listen to all those above who are telling you how it's ok to take a break if that's what you need to do.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:38 PM on April 7, 2013

I'm a med student in the same sort of position. I'll graduate at 27.
- I worked in an office job for a few years before getting into med. This reinforced my choice of med and I'm not sure the slog of med school would be as bearable if I was thinking about what my other options are all the time. I was also able to save up some money and this means that studying for so long won't have as much impact on my financial future. I'm still saving for retirement and a house, just slower.
- I am planning trips and holidays, including my elective term, so I feel I am not missing out on travel; there's heaps of volunteering and community involvement options in med because you're developing useful skills. There are scholarships or loan options for these.
- You can date. Many people date other people in med - see 'medcest'. There are people in my class who are pregnant, marrying, raising children.
- When it comes down to it med school and/or residency becomes just another full-time job. People with full time jobs date, have hobbies, raise families. You do have do be more selective about what you do - I think I can usually manage the equivalent of 1.5 full time jobs, or med school, a SO, and a hobby.
- I get the hope that med will alleviate being bored. I've been there. A lot of it is boring, amongst learning new things; just like anything else.
Feel free to MeMail me.
posted by quercus23 at 7:52 PM on April 7, 2013

I'm just Nthing decathecting here. Not sure what you want to do? want to go out and adventure and try things? do it. Don't talk yourself out of it as being a "waste of time" to have no clear plan, or that you're somehow screwing yourself over by not just going straight back in to school and using a year or two for something else. Which is, self improvement.

I came in to "getting out of undergrad" age feeling this way. With similar friends who had bailed on college or never gone constantly posting about their adventures, going on tour with their musical projects(to the point of some of them getting signed), all the way up to crazy "i'm riding this motorcycle through the middle east right now here's photos, now i'm staying a monastery for a month" type stuff.

I took some time off and just decompressed, and did most of the things he said. Went on adventures, moved in to a crappy share house full of wackos, etc. I figured out at least broadly the path i wanted to set off down and not only what i wanted to roughly do in life, but how doing that was going to enable me to do all the cool things i wanted to do in addition to that.

And now i'm not going on any of those adventures right this moment, but i'm working towards being in a position where not only will i be able to do so but i'll actually be building myself up for the future. And i have some nice souvenirs from the time i spent doing that. From stories, to a great partner, to an old city bus sitting in the back of a storage lot.

If i had just pushed on through school, when i really didn't want to i know i would be horribly unhappy now. Having done it i have a newfound calmness and focus in general on what i want, what i don't, and an appreciation for just sitting around and having downtime.

Maybe you'll realize med isn't what you want to do. Maybe you'll realize that what that brings will allow to have even cooler adventures. I pretty much realized after having more than a few crazy adventures and dipping my feet in the career i thought i might want, that the two were intertwined and the money from the job would allow me to do what i really wanted. And in addition to that, go try things out to find out what i really wanted to do when i wasn't working. I think you'll realize after living that life style for a bit that it isn't really that disconnected from the other life you were thinking of. It's just people who haven't sampled both who think it is, and sadly a lot of people who just go school>job think they somehow chose "track b" and can't ever jump back over to "track a". The people who have done both realize that they all exist in the same universe, and that doing what you originally intended with newfound drive to finish will just enable you to better do the things you saw possible when you went and tried that lifestyle out.

Also, fuck, get out and date people! there are plenty of guys in their 20s, even early 20s who are looking for what you're looking for. There are plenty of people who don't buy in to "hook up culture". I could write paragraphs on this, but i think you're doing yourself a great disservice by just going "i want to do this, but i'm not" when it comes to that kind of stuff. A year is quite a bit of time. I've watched a couple friends, which is way too many talk themselves out of dating like this. Unless you actually have no interest in it i always think it's pretty fucked up to essentially leash yourself off from it.
posted by emptythought at 3:00 AM on April 8, 2013

Rest assured that many of those people having fun on your news feed are secretly harboring doubts obverse to yours. I wussed out of graduate school and often worry that I have permantently missed out on the experience of being a grad student, or that my pitiful B.S. will limit my future prospects, or that I sold myself short to drink beer and galavant around Europe. The grass is always greener.
posted by deathpanels at 9:09 PM on April 8, 2013

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