Pre-med or English?

Hi there...

I know this isn't quite a "health" question per se, but as it has a lot to do with my mental health at the moment and I'm hoping you can point me in the right direction. I graduated from college last year with a B.A. in English, and I'm currently working on a Masters. However, now that I'm here and I'm starting to envision life as a grad student, I'm feeling kinda shaky about the career path I'm pursuing.

I started off my undergraduate career as a pre-med/English with the idea of going into public health. Pressure on women being what it is I ended up just studying English. I love literature, and always will, but now that I'm in a two year program doing it I'm starting to realize that, maybe, I made the wrong choice when I gave up the pre-med part of my program.

I guess what I've discovered is that I think I really would like to be a doctor but I'm not sure where to go from here. I don't have any of the pre-med requirements and I've already got $50,000 in loans. However, I really think this is something I would like to do. I've thought long and hard about it for years and I guess you could say I'm ready. I'm not sure of my options for how to fulfill the pre-med requirements, and as I'm currently pursuing a Humanities degree I'd like to finish, I know it will be at least another year before I can start such a program. Is it possible for me to follow this dream and where can I go to find out how to fulfill requirements? Are there summer programs of this sort? I hate feeling like my past will make me lose this. Please give me any advice, encouragement, etc. This is a hard decision and right now I'm feeling a little trapped. I know what I want to do, I just hope it isn't too late.


K turn

Dear K turn,

It sounds like you’ve done quite a bit of thinking and that’s great! Informed decision-making is crucial to planning your future. What’s more, you may find it reassuring to know that people’s life trajectories range from squiggles to zigzags to loops and there’s no “wrong” path to take or an expiration date on your goals. It’s also not uncommon for someone to feel like they’re stuck in a commitment. At the end of the day though, only you can decide what’s best for you and your happiness. The good news is that there are options for those who wish to prepare for medical school that didn't take the required pre-medical courses as an undergraduate (more on that in a bit). As you determine what that is and what it looks like, taking some time to reflect on your options and consulting some resources may help you feel more confident about a direction moving forward.

Periodically evaluating where you’re at and where you want to be is wise — and deciding to change direction isn’t always clear-cut or easy. More to that point, staying committed to something that you’ve already invested your time, effort, or money into that isn’t or hasn’t been rewarding in the way you had hoped, rather than cutting your losses and moving onto something different is a real psychological phenomenon, known as the sunk cost fallacy. It especially impacts the decision-making process for younger people — a fear of changing, quitting, regretting, and not succeeding with another opportunity causes some to stay on their current path. What’s more, this phenomenon is also associated with an inability to anticipate what opportunities and advantages may arise after breaking a commitment, which may hold someone back.

In your case, feeling pressure to stick with the English degree you’ve already invested in and seeing it through to the end may potentially overshadow how you really feel about the degree itself. At the same time, completely changing trajectory to pursue medical school can mean that you won’t finish the degree program you’re currently in, and thus, may not see any pay-off for your investment. But, if continuing your current graduate studies isn’t your passion anymore, it’s worth reflecting on what you stand to gain (or lose) by sticking it out or changing your course. As you continue to consider what to do next, you might ask yourself a few questions: What would it look like to stay on your current path? What would it be like for you to change paths and go in a different direction? What factors are influencing your feelings about change? Do you feel you need to prove something to yourself? Are there other factors, such as burnout, that may be influencing your decision? Are you concerned with how others may view your choice to stay as is or change? What might your future look like if you continued with the current trajectory versus if you switched paths to pursue medicine? Taking the time for some reflection may help you see how moving towards your passions can be the ultimate pay-off — both professionally and personally — even if that means quitting and starting in a new direction that’s more closely aligned with your new goals.

On a more practical note, it’s also helpful to point out that medical school isn’t meant only for those who’ve been on a pre-medical track all along or for those straight out of college. Many schools recognize that not all students neatly fulfill pre-med requirements in their undergraduate studies, so there are many post-baccalaureate (post-bacc) programs available. These are programs in which students can enroll after having already received their bachelor’s degree (in any area of study) that specifically offer the prerequisite coursework necessary to become eligible applicants for medical school. Each post-bacc program differs in their connections to medical schools, research opportunities, application due dates, duration, and preparation for qualifying exams. To investigate further, you might contact your school’s pre-health professions advisor(s) to discuss your options, or you can contact the programs you’re interested in directly for more information. Feel free to check out the Association of American Medical Colleges for some more in-depth articles on the topic and student experiences as well.

K turn, you also mentioned your existing loans. Financial considerations are a valid concern when deciding to pursue another degree or making any life trajectory change. Luckily, there’s a wealth of resources available to help you plan and navigate your finances as a student. Post-bacc programs list their cost of attendance online, but you may also want to contact each school’s financial aid office for more information on scholarships, stipends, work-study, and other funding opportunities. In addition, it may help to speak with a student currently enrolled in a program you’re interested in to gauge the cost of living and inform your own budget. Down the line, when you have to repay any loans you may have taken out, Federal Student Aid has a handy guide for that as well! 

In the midst of all the academic and financial logistics, it may be beneficial to set aside some time for your mental and emotional well-being. Contemplating and designing your future is no small feat, and it can certainly take a toll. If you feel overwhelmed or lost, you may find support in friends or family. You may also decide to seek services from your school’s counseling center.

Regardless of the path you choose, best of luck! 

Last updated Jan 01, 2021
Originally published Oct 01, 1993

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