“Why do you want to be a doctor?” It’s a question that many medical applicants are urged to have an answer for as they prepare to be interviewed for entry into medical school. In our 50th episode of Sharp Scratch, host Nikki Nabavi was joined by two past Sharp Scratch hosts, Laura Nunez-Mulder and Anna Harvey, as well as expert guest Declan Hyland, a consultant psychiatrist who is involved with medical schools admissions at the University of Liverpool, to discuss their own motivations for wanting to study medicine, and how this might change throughout medical school and life as a doctor. The team also heard from some very special guests about why they chose medicine.
The episode kicked off by discussing some of the “cliches” associated with answering the question of “why study medicine?” Nikki cited themes she had come across on Twitter, including the statements all medical applicants are advised to avoid such as “wanting to help people” and “being interested in science.” But why shouldn’t these be excellent reasons for wanting to become a doctor? Laura agreed that when she was applying to medical school, these were big reasons for her own interest in medicine as a career, but felt that “they weren’t good enough reasons,” and that to stand out in applications and interviews, she had to come up with “something that was still true, but was a bit different.” Many of our expert guests agreed that these two “cliches” were still true for them, with BMJ Editorial Registrar and surgical trainee Clara Munro reflecting that part of what keeps her in clinical medicine is “having a real curiosity and genuinely caring about patients, and enjoying engaging with them on a human level.”
Another theme Nikki raised from responses on social media was another “cliche,” of medical students “wanting to be a doctor since they came out of the womb.” Portfolio GP and media doctor Zoe Williams wanted to be a doctor since her third birthday, when she was bought a toy doctor’s kit by her grandmother, who was a midwife. “One of the reasons I wanted to be a doctor is because I found the human body fascinating.” But those dreams weren’t realised until many years later, when Zoe was one of the first students to have the opportunity to transfer from her Biomedical Sciences degree to Medicine. Declan discussed his similar pathway, highlighting that medicine isn’t just for those who learnt the brachial plexus before they could walk!
So with applications for medical courses up by nearly 5000 in the 2020-21 application cycle, what are admissions tutors looking for when asking applicants these questions at interview? The panel turned to Declan, who has had experience interviewing potential medical students, for his take. “Enthusiasm is one of the key things, and that usually comes across pretty quickly,” he said, continuing, “[applicants should] justify why medicine is more suited to your interests, rather than any other particular career within the health service.”
The variety of work that is available to those with a medical degree is another factor that guided our panel members towards medicine, with Laura explaining that one of the reasons she chose medicine over other careers she considered was that “there’s not just one job within being a doctor that would interest me, there’s lots of jobs, and I would leave that choice open for longer.” Anna agreed, remembering comments she had received when applying for medical school from people concerned that making such a decision during her last years of school meant she was boxing herself into medicine, and not leaving enough options open. “But I don’t think I could have picked something at the age of 18 that could have given me more options.” Declan, speaking on his own career, said: “I’m fortunate that I have a lot of involvement with Liverpool medical school, which is entirely different and separate from my clinical work. It’s something like that that keeps you really inspired, refreshed and stops you burning out.”
Anna also spoke about her desire to be part of something that is bigger than just herself: “I think a big part of it for me was wanting to have that community, and that agency; because you do have agency as a doctor that you might not in other professions.” Declan agreed: “It goes without saying that it’s still a very respected profession.” And it can’t be ignored that, for all the debate over hours and training, the career is one that can be lifelong, and provides reasonable stability in terms of salary.
For our final reflections, we turned to perhaps the most famous doctor in the UK – the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty. Reflecting on his career, he said: “like many others, I have changed my mind multiple times, and the only thing that ran through all of it was clinical practice, which I still do. I’ve done various jobs, all of which I have enjoyed, many of which I would only do once, but I enjoyed that once.” He continued, “the reason to do a job is because you wish to do it, and if you manage to do that, medicine is a fantastic career.”
As Zoe highlighted, being a doctor is not just about the skills and knowledge you acquire throughout your career, but also how you feel: “It’s not just what I do, it’s who I am.”
To readers and listeners: why did you want to study medicine? Have your reasons changed throughout your career? We’d love to hear from you on social media using the hashtag #SharpScratch
Anna Harvey is a final year medical student and soon-to-be junior doctor in North Cumbria. She is a past Editorial Scholar at the BMJ and sits on the Steering Committee of the MedEd Research Collaborative, where her interest in identity is indulged through qualitative clinical education research.
The Sharp Scratch Panel:
Nikki Nabavi, The BMJ, University of Manchester
Anna Harvey, Final year medical student, King’s College London, past editorial scholar, The BMJ.
Laura Nunez-Mulder, Final year medical student, Cambridge University, past editorial scholar, The BMJ.
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