Minding the Meds

To understand how the future physician pool feels about the prospects of a career in medicine, I sent a survey to 290 of my current and former students at Columbia University.

The survey was far from perfect. Respondents ranged from sophomore-year undergrad students to early Ph.D. candidates, and the respondents were drawn from the group that had chosen to take my Entrepreneurship in Biotechnology class.

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The brightest students are not as attracted to the medical field as perhaps they once were. But what other career tracks are they taking?

I knew from email correspondence and from office hours that many of my students were or had been premed, but I thought that even a biased sample might turn up some interesting answers.

The survey consisted of four questions, and a total of 105 students responded. The first question revealed that 60 percent of respondents had labeled themselves “premed” at some point before, during or after college. Of this group, 72 percent no longer considered themselves premed.

The ex-premed group was then given a choice of nine factors that might have played a part in their decisions to drop out of premed. The respondents were asked to choose as many reasons as they thought reflected their feelings.

The results were:

60% — The career track is too long.

54% — Being a doctor would be great, but I found other things that interest me more.

28% — Doctors who I know have discouraged me.

28% — I don’t think I would get into medical school.

28% — It is too expensive up front.

23% — I worry about making a living as a doctor after borrowing money for med school.

19% — Doctors no longer have the autonomy I thought that they did.

19% — A doctor’s lifestyle is unattractive.

5% — People do not respect doctors the way they used to.

My final question was: If you were premed and no longer are, what are your plans?

The answers were:

27% — Enter the job market.

23% — Ph.D.

15% — Business school.

14% — Master’s program.

8% — Start a business.

2% — Not sure but definitely not medical school.

2% — Law school.

We can speculate that a similar survey 10 or 20 years ago may have given similar answers, or that a larger survey in a population more representative of premed-age students might produce different results today.

That said, it is notable that for a variety of reasons almost three-quarters of a group of future doctors changed their minds. 

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