As a student at NHHS, I have noticed that peers interested in medical careers tend to have romanticized ideas about what it will be like. To shed light on the reality of such careers, I have spoken to Ms. McCroskey’s mother, Dr. Debra McCroskey, who is a Medical Director of the Vanderbilt Urgent care clinics in Nashville, TN, and Ms. Nikhita Jain, a current student at University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB) about their past and present experiences in medical training. In addition, I have talked to Dr. McCroskey about her subsequent career in the medical field.
When students think of medical school, some think of it as being a regular 4 year program depending on what field. And then there are some that think of it as being around 10 years of college.
According to Dr. McCroskey, however, “There are 4 years of college, then 4 years of medical school, then 3-5 years of residency. Some specialties like primary care need 3 years, but specialties like surgeons need 5.”
Ms. Nikhita is currently done with her schooling, which she is excited about; however, she still needs to complete 5 years of surgical residency before she can continue on into a career in Otolaryngology-- head and neck surgery.
Students also don’t seem to realize the kinds of classes they will need to take. The majority understands there will be science-related courses but have no idea what kind.
Dr. McCroskey tried to shed some light on the topic by explaining there will be courses such as, “Biology, chemistry, [and] physics…” which can be “more time-consuming than regular college courses because they had both a class and lab.”
According to Ms. Nikhita, “In [undergraduate school], it's important that you take all your ‘core science’ courses. That includes General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, Biology, Anatomy, [and] Physics. I was an international studies major, so I didn't do much more than this, but other people interested in medicine often do Biology or Chemistry Majors and delve deeper into advanced science courses.”
Although time-consuming and sometimes difficult, Dr. McCroskey said she very much enjoyed the courses.
When Dr. McCroskey was asked what she felt the hardest part of schooling was, she responded, “It takes a lot of discipline to stay with it and do well in tough classes. The last couple years of college were pretty structured. Friends took a lot of easy classes but pre-med students have to be disciplined. Pre-med students have to do well on the MCAT (national exam to get into med school), so they can't coast in classes-- they have to learn the material.”
Ms. Nikhita shares that, “The hardest part of college, specifically as an individual pursuing medicine, was committing to life decisions way earlier than my peers. I was making choices as an immature 19- or 20-year-old that would impact the next 5-10 years of life. That's scary! Because there is not a lot of flexibility in the medical curriculum, you don't have the luxury of ‘changing your mind’ as much as I think you could in other careers. There isn't as much fluidity-- especially if you are interested in a really competitive field. You barely survive your first few years of college, and then you better start thinking about your MCAT so you can get into med school! Then you somehow make it through your first year of medical school, and then you're already having to anticipate what sort of medical specialty you want to pursue-- so that you can prime your resume, your research, your grades, for residency applications a few years later. The entire process forces you to construct some sort of foresight, that honestly, I wasn't mature enough to come up with. I think that's why a lot of people in medical school are people that took a lot of time to just grow up and experience life. I, on the other hand, went straight through high school, college, med school, and now residency. So juggling ‘being a college kid’ with ‘being a future doctor’ felt difficult at times.”
When Ms. Nikhita was asked if all of the hard work was worth it, she responded, “Absolutely. You build quite a bit of resiliency through the slow, steady burn of training. I think it can break some people, just because if you stop and take a breather, the dismay can sometimes be crushing. Because you'll realize the opportunity cost of pursuing medicine over and over again-- you'll compare yourself to your peers who are moving on with life while you're in school, or having ownership of their time when you have to work weekends and study as soon as you get home, etc. I would preface that by saying, I think, to some degree, that happens in a lot of other early careers as well. Work is just hard. School is hard. No matter if it's medicine or law or education or anything else. But I think the sheer number of years you have to experience the dismay is unique to medicine. You just have a lot of years to stop and think about what you're missing out on.”
She continued: “So instead, you don't stop. You don't take breathers, and you focus on one day at a time. And somehow, the time goes quicker, you get better at balancing your other priorities (friends, loved ones, family, hobbies) because you're forced to be efficient, you feel like a million bucks! Because you finally, unbelievably, found the Holy Grail you've been seeking out in high school, college, and med school. It's an incredible accomplishment.”
Ms. Nikhita went on to say, “I am currently in the field I love, in an amazing new city, with amazing colleagues, and even though I'm sleep-deprived or overwhelmed at times, it all seems like a culmination of years of work.”
As Dr. McCroskey was discussing how long it took her to get a career after her schooling was complete, she pointed out that “doctors are in high demand, so most [including her] have a job set up during [their] last year of residency.”
When I asked Dr. McCroskey what her normal day would be like on the job, she answered, “When I was in the clinic, I worked [three] 12-hour days a week plus one weekend a month. I saw patients constantly for [those 12] hours, occasionally taking time to do paperwork. Most paperwork was left until the end of the day, so it added another couple hours after patients left. I also supervised nurse practitioners, answering questions and helping them with patients. Now that I do mostly administration, I have meetings and visit the clinics frequently but don't see many patients any more.”
As Dr. McCroskey looked back on what her expectations were for her career, she explains that “it is actually better than [she] thought; [however, she] got burned out after 20 years of seeing patients, so the administrative part of [her] job is more desirable.”
When discussing the hardest part of her career, Dr. McCroskey stated, “As an MD for 25 years, I have seen a change in patients. They used to have a lot of respect for doctors but that has changed. With the internet, advertisements for prescription drugs, [and a] decline in manners in society, patients are much ruder and less patient when they don't get treatment that they think they should get. Antibiotics and narcotics are good examples-- people think they need them but they can be harmful. Patients get very angry if I won't prescribe them.”
As you can see, the path leading to a medical field career can be difficult. However, the hard work and the long hours are worth it to those passionate about their career.