science and art are pretty much the same thing in my eyes
June 19, 2015 6:26 PM   Subscribe

Career-advise me! Fellow mefites who enjoy both the humanities and the sciences: which did you pick for your career, and why? Or: were you able to somehow combine the two? Bonus points if you have experience with the medical field.

I'll get my MD in a year or two, then presumably go on to residency (I'm thinking psychiatry or internal medicine). But I still feel lost career-wise, because I feel like I could go in either direction-- humanities or basic sciences. I'd enjoy a basic science research career more than I would doing clinical medicine full time, especially if I were able to incorporate chemistry, physics, or computer science into my work. Clinical research doesn't appeal to me as much because it seems to ask "what" more than "why." Along those same lines, I enjoy humanities because it similarly asks "why?"

Psychiatry seems to attract artistically-inclined types, and it seems to be very compatible with arts and humanities. But I worry that I'll leave behind the part of me that loves the hard sciences forever if I pick it as my specialty. I already miss thinking about chemistry and physics, and I'm only two years out of undergrad (I have a science degree). Do people who leave behind careers in the hard sciences in favor of careers in social sciences miss using that part of their brain?

I feel a bit directionless. Most of the physicians I know go through medical school, then residency, then fellowship, publish a lot, and then settle down and have a family. Some do have outside hobbies, but I'm not exactly sure how they were able to improve and grow (for example, as a musician, or artist). I have a ton of interests outside of medicine. I want to live abroad, I want to improve my languages, I want to get back into playing music, I want to devote substantial time to making art and writing. I enjoy teaching and I care about social issues. I'm certainly not opposed to completing residency and having a family, and I do like medicine, but the prospect of following this long march and focusing my sights only on the next rung of the ladder sometimes fills me with dread.

What am I supposed to be doing now to figure out how I can craft a career that caters to my diverse interests? If you have had to make a similar decision, how did you decide on what your life's work would be? I don't feel like there's a lot of advising for people who might be possibly interested in "alternative" paths after medical school. I'm looking into residency-PhD programs, and thought about pursuing a MFA for a while (too expensive), but I'm not sure that the answer to my question is moar school.
posted by gemutlichkeit to Work & Money (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Have you read up on any medical anthropology? It's a fascinating area that combines the two in all sorts of different ways. One of my two friends who are medical anthropologists also has an MD, and the other began as a nurse practitioner. It's a whole lot of school, however, but whether or not someone in your shoes would want to actually go into it, I think you'd get a lot out of reading the literature produced within this subfield.

I'm an ethnomusicologist but I am gingerly making gestures toward medical anthropology by researching an article about how voice teachers talk to their students about vocal health, with the thesis that discourses of health are being used to defend musical genre boundaries ("Don't sing jazz! It'll give you nodes. Stick with classical").
posted by umbú at 7:08 PM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Is medical practice itself an art or a science? I agree more school may not be the answer-my personal choice was to not pursue med school at all as I didn't see it allowing the life I wanted to live. I suggest finding a mentor/role model (hopefully reasonably local) who can encourage you along this path-it's incredibly important that you not become burnt out and the arts have long time been a refuge for physicians. Not quite sure the following is answering your question but ...if you want to involve chemistry in a med practice, then perhaps pharmacogenetic aspects of specialties such oncology or maybe variant curation/functional assessment as a side line to genetics? If you want to be an MD with an interest in the arts, then there's a much broader range of role models including authors (such as Sacks, Gupta, Crichton) or photographers or musicians. If you want a medical specialty that allows more wide ranging "softer" practices, then you could be the oncologist/ob/peds/gerontologist who does not become a jaded beaurocrat but enjoys all the diversity that comes by and empathizes with/assists with assessing alternative treatments/therapies/practices.
posted by beaning at 8:17 PM on June 19, 2015

Awhile ago I listened to an episode of a podcast called "Entitled Opinions," and they interviewed a Stanford professor, Larry Zaroff, (now sadly deceased) who was a cardiac surgeon and later went and got a PhD at Stanford and became a professor in medical humanities. You can download it in itunes, but here is a link to the podcast website.

I'm in a somewhat similar boat to you, not quite as far along (about ready to apply to medical school, always found myself torn between interest in science and humanities). For what it's worth, I've come around to the fact that when it comes to work, I'd rather be doing science, and I'd rather save the humanities stuff (reading, writing, music) for my non-work stuff. But it's still something I struggle with, so I'll be reading this thread with interest.

You should definitely listen to the podcast, and "medical humanities" might be a good search term if you want to read up on related stuff.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:33 PM on June 19, 2015

Was in a similar space. Decide on whether you can decide on the individual or the population.

It'll make your decisions easier.
posted by porpoise at 11:13 PM on June 19, 2015

I was in a similar situation. I've always been very drawn to the arts, and in particular photography and writing. I was a chemistry and English major in college, and struggled with the idea of medical school. I have joked with my friends that if I'd come from a wealthy family, I'm pretty sure I'd have been a writer. But I don't, so I didn't. Instead I went to medical school and did something along the lines of the career-family route. Here are a couple of early morning pre-coffee thoughts I have...feel free to contact me if you need extended rambling.

Medicine is, overall, a very stable job. Yes, there are ongoing pressures from insurance companies, nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, etc but there are not many physicians living in cardboard boxes under the freeway overpass. You can find employment. The same cannot always be said for careers in the arts. Once your loans are paid off, your medical career can comfortably finance whatever art endeavors you are interested in.

Medicine is a career field that has more flexibility than I realized. Finish your core rotations (i.e. 3rd year at most schools) and see where you feel like you 'fit'. If you like surgery, there's certainly an art to physically repairing and rebuilding, for example. Or maybe the 'art' of psychiatry will be more up your alley -it's hard to tell without actually doing the rotations, unfortunately. You can find jobs that include clinical or basic research, or jobs that are just clinical, or just teaching, or some mix of all of it. And whatever you do, you can find a way to do it part time and leave yourself some free time for outside pursuits, if that's what you want. You can go into internal medicine and do a lot of locum tenens work - work hard for a month or two, make a bunch of money, and use it to go travel or goof off as you see fit.

Personally, I think the MFA sounds unnecessary, and you really only need the MD-PhD programs if your goal is to someday have your own lab. And even then, I am willing to bet there are plenty of MD-only lead researchers writing grants for basic science.

If you don't have a family, look into joining the health service core or the military - they pay off a large portion of your student loans in exchange for a few years of indentured servitude. But if you are looking for a little adventure, it's not a bad way to eliminate debt and go see part of the world for a few years.

You still have some demanding times ahead of you - 3rd year of med school is tough, and residency is a slog. Depending on your chosen field of medicine, and the particular residency program you end up in, it will be hard to have time to sleep and eat, let alone have any continuity with outside work except in fits and starts, but you don't have to let it die. Medicine is, not unlike life in general, what you make of it. So make it what you want. Good luck with your decision.
posted by jhs at 4:26 AM on June 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was an engineer and became a writer who, mostly, tells stories about technology. That's given me a life which has (so rar) worked out pretty well, letting me scratch that creative itch while giving me access to a much wider and richer landscape of science and tech than I'dve had if I'd stuck with the specialism alone.

The good thing about cultivating commercial writing while following another profession is that you get the freedom to develop the one side at whatever pace you find desirable and manageable, with the stability, career options and satisfactions of your main job. I transitioned from one to the other over about ten years, as I learned more about myself and the world, and (in the UK at least) professional journalism does not expect (or particularly prefer) you to have academic qualifications in that direction. I never had to create the space in my life to do a solid year or two of study, and in fact hardly anyone goes back to school to learn journalism. (Plenty of superannuated hacks go back to teach it, mind, but that's another story...)

It's not a particularly easy path, especially at the moment, because the Internet has disrupted most of the old distribution methods whereby writers got paid. But if you're an expert in a field of popular interest, the opportunities are certainly there.

I wouldn't recommend anyone else do what I did. Many of my career decisions were nothing of the sort, and certainly nothing that stands scrutiny as the careful execution of a well-formulated plan. But it's let me mix my fascinations and skills across the boundaries, and has kept me in beer and good company, and I hope done no harm and some mild good in the process.
posted by Devonian at 11:10 AM on June 20, 2015

Think Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sanjay Gupta. Scientists who bring scientific information to the public have a lot of opportunity for artistic expression.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:54 PM on June 20, 2015

Finish all of your clinical rotations before you jump the gun.

It's possible to do a categorical, combined residency in both IM and psychiatry, you know. There is plenty of science in psychiatry, particularly in the areas of pharmacology and pharmacoepidemiology.

Irrespective of whether you end up with either psych or IM, consider signing up for the National Health Service Corps. They give out scholarships to both M3s and M4s, I believe.
posted by aristotlefangirl at 5:37 PM on July 22, 2015

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