Medical school is a hectic time — possibly the busiest four years of your life. After a blur of exams, rotations and new personal relationships, before you know it the dean will be shaking your hand, you’ll have that medical degree on the wall and you’ll be a practicing physician.
Right now, it may feel like all you can focus on is the next study topic or test. But even at this early stage, long-term professional and personal goals for medical students should be on your mind. Whether you’re thinking five, 10 or 20 years ahead, having a “north star” can motivate you in the face of challenges and help you make difficult decisions, dramatically increasing your chances of success.
Where Is Your Career Heading?
No doubt the biggest decision you’ll grapple with during the earlier years of medical school is what specialty you want to go into. It’s also a decision that plays into other questions you’ll want to answer about your future career.
For example, are you more inclined toward the inpatient or outpatient environment? Some doctors enjoy the hustle and bustle of the hospital, whereas others are more comfortable in an office setting. Do you want to be in a field like internal medicine where you’re purely in patient care, or do you like the idea of the practical skills involved in surgery? These answers will obviously have a considerable bearing on what specialty you choose.
When it comes to practice setting, are you attracted to academics at a large tertiary care center, or do you see yourself in private practice at a smaller community hospital? Do you want the option of climbing the healthcare administration ladder or even being in a specialty where you have more nonclinical options linked to industries like technology or pharmaceuticals (think radiology or general medicine)?
These are important considerations when thinking about long-term goals for medical students. Most students are only really certain once they’ve done some clinical rotations and gotten a better sense of what any specialty truly involves. It should also go without saying that it’s wise to speak with as many practicing physicians as possible. They can guide you on the decisions that will set your professional course as well as help you build a network of connections you can go to for any further advice or ideas. The elephant in the room is your salary goal, which we’ll talk more about below.
What Are Your Goals Outside of Medicine?
Most people reading, I’m assuming, will want a life outside of medicine. When you imagine the future, do you see yourself living in a big city, the suburbs or out in the country? How would you like to spend your free time? What are your family goals?
Unsurprisingly, these questions will be intertwined with your professional goals. If you can’t bear the thought of a lifetime of overnight pages and weekends on call that will take time away from your family, for example, think twice about becoming a general surgeon. If you like shift work, emergency medicine or hospital medicine may be more appropriate for you. Outpatient medicine is also more likely to involve regular office hours. For many busy doctors, spending quality time with family is something that’s nonnegotiable. Will this also be your desire in a few years?
Having a solid long-term financial goal — and a strategy for getting there — is the final crucial pillar of good planning at this stage. Thoroughly research and plan your finances as early as possible. Be honest with yourself about your yearly salary goals. It’s OK to have high expectations! You’ve seen the sobering statistics: The median U.S. medical school debt was $200,000 in 2018, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges. One of the biggest mistakes medical students make is not having a full awareness of the different loan options and interest rates available, along with a plan to pay off this debt.
As you target where you want to be, you also want to know what monthly income you can expect during residency training and beyond, and roughly calculate your expected outgoings in terms of loan payments, housing costs and other personal expenditures. Write these down so you have an idea of how much you need to earn to afford the lifestyle you want — and in turn, how this desire may work for or against the others described above. Don’t forget to factor in savings, too. Start investing in your retirement funds as soon as you can to take advantage of compound interest. And it’s never too early to speak with a financial adviser.
Dealing with some of the questions above may seem impossible so early in your career, but it’s worth as much time as you can make for it. Having a vision is the first step in knowing how to get there.