Featured image from premedrevolution.com
THE HOLY GRAIL
For as long as I can remember, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” was the most important question I had to contemplate. To achieve a definitive and attainable answer was, to me, the Holy Grail.
During the pinnacle of my kindergarten year – graduation – the students were arranged in a circle. One by one, each student stood up and, at the grand old age of four and a half (or, if you were lucky, five), announced their future career path.
My last name of “Sun” rendered me dead last in this recitation process, and a knot of panic began steadily forming in my stomach as each of my classmates rattled out their futures with ease. “Dentist” followed “Firefighter” followed “Banker” – each announcement was proceeded by applause, beaming parents surveying their offspring’s foresight with pride.
After Aiden Simmons (“Engineer”) finished, all eyes turned expectantly to me. My cheeks were redder than the setting sun (no pun intended) and the knot in my stomach had turned into a fully fledged pit of snakes. I had to think of something – anything.
Shocked silence. One look at the horror on my parents’ faces told me everything.
I was mortified.
After that (extremely embarrassing, never-live-it-down) moment, I knew I had to redeem myself with something respectable, impressive, and most importantly, real. And so, being four-and-three-quarters years old, I latched myself onto the best thing available to me: my eleven-and-three-quarters-year-old sister’s dream.
I decided I wanted to be a doctor.
Never mind that I had only the vaguest inkling regarding what a doctor was, let alone what the job itself entailed. However, my parents – Asian-American immigrants with my best interests at heart – were delighted with my aspirations.
And thus my path was set. Erika Zhuting Sun wanted desperately to become a doctor.
I was a bright child. I loved to read, I was eager to learn, I was strong-willed (or incredibly bossy, depending on how you choose to look at it – I, personally, prefer strong willed), and most of all, I was ambitious.
Even before I entered high school, I was relentlessly pre-med. When I reached the age at which I should have just begun thinking about my future career in terms of my personal propensities and passions, I was instead observing my sister’s pre-med track through college.
I took notes on her successes and vowed to learn from her mistakes. I planned my middle school classes around the ones my sister was taking her sophomore year of college, and celebrated with her when she received acceptance into medical school.
However, watching her struggle through the MCAT daunted me. I began to question whether or not there was an easier way.
And I stumbled upon what, at the time, seemed like the gold mine of BS/MD programs.
Thus, from the end of my sophomore year of high school, I had only one goal: get into a BS/MD program. More specifically, get into Northwestern University’s Honors Program in Medical Education (HPME).
Why? It had what, to me at the time, seemed like the best qualifications: the best undergraduate ranking out of any school offering a BS/MD program, and the best medical school ranking as well. Best of all, they waived the necessity of taking the MCAT, and their GPA requirements were astonishingly low compared to those normally required for admittance into med school.
These rankings were, of course, obtained via U.S. News and World Report (what rankings aren’t?). I was apprehensive to realize that the acceptance rate to HPME was less than 0.02% (In comparison, Stanford University’s is ~4%). However, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, I rationalized that I should still give it a shot.
And so the quest began.
I had already attained leadership positions in my high school’s orchestra and newspaper programs. I had always been a high achieving student with straight A’s, and through hard work and mindfulness managed to retain that record throughout my entire high school career, despite the rigor of my school’s International Baccalaureate program.
I immediately began researching and shadowing as many hours as I could, and studied relentlessly for the SAT and SAT subject tests that BS/MD programs – in particular HPME – required. I scored perfectly, and exceeded beyond expectations in my extracurriculars.
And so senior year, I held my breath and submitted my application.
I screamed in elation when I was offered an interview on Feinberg School of Medicine’s campus.
I beamed when said interview went well.
I cried when I received my acceptance letter.
I had done it. The Grail had been achieved. Erika Zhuting Sun was going to become a doctor. Draw the curtains, no encore necessary.
THE PART AFTER THE QUEST THAT NO ONE REALLY TALKS ABOUT
So here, at last, I reach my point. I detailed my journey because I think it’s an important one, and I think it’s one many people can relate to.
Why is it important, you ask?
Because looking back, I realize how haphazard my decision to become a doctor actually was, and even more importantly, how my stubborn adherence to that decision was very much like a horse running with blinders on. Except I’m not a horse, and choosing a career is most definitely not a race.
Because when I closely examine the true reasons behind why I personally chose to pursue medicine as a career, I realize that despite what I might say to try to convince myself otherwise, I have very few reasons to do so besides the fact that medicine is one field where working hard consistently and for a very, very long time will guarantee me stability, a fat paycheck, and an even fatter ego boost. I deeply fear volatility and instability, and medicine as a career allows me to circumvent those two all-too-common pitfalls in the modern economy.
Because despite all my rationalizations and rhapsodies over why medicine is the best career path for me didn’t prepare me for the one realization that hit me like a sledgehammer in college: people change.
I had lived almost my entire life in the comfortable suburbia that is Bothell, Washington (pretty idyllic place if you’re looking to move somewhere. 10/10 would recommend). I was successful in the comfort of my hometown, with the support of my parents and familiar surroundings. I was even what you might call socially sheltered (awkward) because most of my time was spent reading, studying, or participating in extracurriculars and that didn’t leave a lot of room for friendships.
Nothing about my existence prior to college actually prepared me for college. For the rush of people your first quarter, for the fast-forming and dissolving friendships that are the hallmark of freshman year before you actually find your true friends, for the difficulties of grade deflation and the quarter system. I flailed around for familiar surroundings and found none.
Freshman year was the hardest year of my life.
And it made me question everything. I wanted to be a psychiatrist because I thought I could help people by doing what I do best – talking. But I realized that psychiatry involves very little talking and quite a lot of pill popping. I realized that a lot of the doctors I spoke to and interacted with were either burnt out, insufferably arrogant, exceedingly rude, or some combination of the three.
Simultaneously, I realized that my sister, after a long struggle through medical school, was undergoing an existential crisis in residency as she realized what I was slowly coming to understand: while many enter into the field with starry-eyed idealism, medicine is a time-sucking, soul-sucking endeavor in which you live to work, not work to live.
Being a doctor doesn’t exceed expectations, it doesn’t even meet expectations – it turns your expectations upside down and laughs at them as they wither and die. Idealism is replaced with resignation, compassion is replaced with detachment – or worse, callousness – and sleep is replaced with triple shot espressos.
Being a doctor consumes your life in a way that many, with their eyes on the mid-to-high six figure annual income and job security, don’t realize until their lives are already consumed. It is a decision you should go into with your eyes wide open, after signing a 150-paged consent form that you are required to read word-by-word.
This is because being a good doctor, a compassionate doctor, a doctor who cares about their patients over their paycheck, requires a level of emotional maturity and fortitude, as well as a healthy dose of masochism, that I can honestly say I don’t possess.
Becoming a doctor is not a decision I was qualified to make when I was four and three quarters years old. It is not even a decision I was qualified to make in college. The doctors I saw who truly exemplified the qualities of compassion, selflessness, and insight almost all took years, if not decades, to arrive to their decision to pursue medicine.
Why, then, were my middle and high schools encouraging students such as myself to choose their career paths (among whom many of us chose medicine)? I realized that in doing so, in my youth I likely possess a level of arrogance unbecoming of a truly great physician. And perhaps this is why that very same arrogance is exemplified by many of the practicing physicians and academic physicians I myself have observed and worked under.
Perhaps this is why many doctors I myself have been treated by are preceded by a reputation for egotism and insensitivity (from online reviews), when they should cultivate exactly the opposite. Perhaps this is also a reason that medicine – an inherently selfless practice – has evolved into a largely profit-driven endeavor that caters to the wealthy and denies access to the less fortunate. I recoil in horror at the possibility that I could become such a physician; yet, when I again examine my motivations for entering medicine, I realize that possibility is an imminent one – and almost certainly one that will come true should I continue down this path.
If I could tell my high school self one thing and have it stick, it would be to wait before deciding to apply premed alongside 70% of the entering college class, and especially wait before committing to HPME.
Because people change, and very few changes are more drastic than uprooting yourself and attending school thousands of miles away solely with other people your age.
I tell my story now because I stand at a crossroads: become a medical physician, and therefore choose a safe (if life-consuming) career that is virtually above reproach? Or forgo an opportunity many people (myself included) would kill for in order to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology and eventually become a psychotherapist (something I’ve always dreamed of)?
I am incredibly grateful to have had my blinders removed, grateful for the perspective college has granted me in a way my high school self could have never understood, grateful to have the opportunity to determine whether what I should do and what I want to do are really one and the same.
My high school self would call my college self insane. But I think it is testament to how much I’ve grown that I’m even considering relinquishing the security I’ve worked so hard to attain.
Thus, I say to my 17-year-old self: There are plenty of other interests to pursue, there are many other job options to explore, and if you continue to wear those pre-med blinders, you might just miss some pretty fantastic scenery along the way.
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