THE BLOG
08/21/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Thoughts for First-Year Med Students

August marks the time that first-year students begin medical school at my alma mater. This year I was asked to host one of the groups at a lunch and answer any questions they might have about medical school (and life beyond).

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I've done this before, and the experience always gives me a lot to think about. I reflect on the questions they ask, the conversations we have, memories of my own medical training and the various twists and turns of my career. It's been quite a ride -- not exactly what I expected, but in many ways even more than I could have hoped for.

What I wanted for my life, in my choice of career, was a way to live a meaningful existence. Not have "just a job" -- something that I had to do for money to survive or thrive, but rather a fulfilling of a calling. A way to find purpose by leveraging my talents and gifts into a life of service, helping others help themselves. Yes, that's what I got.

I am fortunate that my dad is a great role model in the land of health and wellness. A family physician, he showed me by living example that a career in medicine can and should be a lifelong learning and sharing exercise. And that the way other people do it doesn't mean that's the way you have to do it. You are the captain of your own ship -- steer it in any direction you wish.

Some other lessons I've learned and hope to share with incoming students, so full of optimism and hope (as well as some anxiety and lots of unanswered questions):

1. You chose well. A life in medicine is still one of the most rewarding career life choices I can imagine. Yes, you will hear grumbling about how it isn't like it used to be and you may wonder if you should have chosen elsewhere. And, yes, there are a lot of other options out there besides medicine where you can make a difference and not deal with the challenges of medicine in today's world. But every sector has its own challenges. While medicine is no exception to that, it is also still full of reward. It offers the opportunity to connect and serve in a way that is truly unique. I choose to focus on that. And it's also a healthy dose of good news that you will always be able to find a job. It's also good to know that having a mentally-challenging job may keep your brain sharp after you retire.

2. You can construct your career any way you want. Being a doctor can mean a million different things. There is no one-size-fits-all. You can choose the type of medicine you want to focus on, the setting where you wish to practice it, and how you want it to fit in around the rest of your life. Did I plan my whole course prior to or in med school? Not a chance! I thought I had it pretty well mapped out, but the changing landscape of medicine, and of life, took me in a few different directions. And that's been a learning opportunity to pass on as well. You won't have all the answers, now or ever. You can't plan for everything, all the time. And couldn't it be that this is part of the beauty of the experience? Plus...

3. You can change your mind! If you find that what once interested you doesn't so much anymore, you can reframe your career pathway. Sometimes that means more training, such as in switching specialties. Sometimes it means a sabbatical to find your next passion. Sometimes it means a career shift into using your degree and training in another form of service.

4. If/when you think you know it all, you just became dangerous. Although my dad is a family doctor who (in my mind) knows a lot about a lot, he taught me that one of the most important lessons to learn is that no one knows it all. Questioning, continuous learning, and reaching out for a second opinion on your clinical judgment are all key strategies for best practice. "I don't know, but I will find out and get back to you" is one of the smartest things you can say.

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5. Lose yourself to find yourself. I love this one. In fact, it was on the T-shirt of one of the new students in my group and it sums it all up pretty well, in my opinion: To find yourself, lose yourself in the service of others. I try to remember this/learn it and relearn it, again and again. Here's hoping I (and you) never forget it.

Oh! One more thing: Don't forget to take care of yourself to ensure you are able to care for others. Self care not only allows you to function at your best for others, increasing available evidence shows us a healthy lifestyle also helps secure healthful aging, even at the cellular level... a gift that keeps on giving! To help you in this, check out one of our recent HealthDay Living videos on finding healthy grocery basics on a budget.

Welcome to the next step on your journey. Welcome to the land of medicine.