(Adapted from Iserson’s Getting Into a Residency: A Guide for Medical Students, 8th edition, Galen Press April 2013. http://bit.ly/17iIQAd)
Medicine, more than any other profession, tenaciously hangs onto its practitioners. Physicians are expected to remain committed to the field until death or voluntary retirement, either through a sense of altruism, because of the benefits they gain, or simply because they believe that their focused education precludes other forms of employment. Each year, however, about 3% of U.S. medical school graduates leave medicine to pursue other careers.
They are following a well-trod path. Numerous physicians have successfully either combined other careers with medicine or switched completely. Most of these individuals’ names are well known to you, although you may not know that they were physicians. These include:
• Philosophers: John Locke and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
• Astronomers: Nicholas Copernicus (physician to the Heilsberg Bishopric)
• Scientists: Luigi Galvani (Italian physiologist), Carol Linnaeus (Swedish taxonomist), Thomas Huxley (English biologist), and Hermann von Helmholtz (physicist)
• Politicians (famous and infamous): Jean Marat (French Revolution), Georges Clemenceau (World War I French Premier), Sun Yat Sen (first president of the Chinese Republic), and Che Guevara (modern communist revolutionary), William Walker (Nicaraguan dictator), Radovan Karaǆić (war criminal), Francois Duvalier (Haitian dictator), Salvador Allende (Chilean dictator), Michelle Bachelet (Chilean president), Bashar Hafez al-Assad (Syrian dictator), Howard Dean, Ron and Rand Paul, Ayman al-Zawahiri (Al-Queda leader)
• Writers: Arthur Conan Doyle (who patterned Sherlock Holmes after one of his teachers and Dr. Watson after himself), Tobias Smollett, A.J. Cronin, Thomas Campion, Lewis Thomas, William Carlos Williams, Charles Krauthammer (political columnist), Anton Chekhov, Johann Schiller, John Keats, William Somerset Maugham, Robin Cook (Coma), and Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame)
• Comedian/Actor: Graham Chapman (Founding member of Monty Python), Haing S. Ngor (Oscar winning actor)
• Others: Galileo, Pope John XXI, Charles Darwin, Peter Mark Roget (lexicographer), Jane Addams (social activist), Maria Montessori (educator), Armand Hammer (entrepreneur), and Gertrude Stein went on to fame after dropping out during medical school. (In Ms. Stein’s case, it was during her 4th-year OB/Gyn clerkship at Johns Hopkins.)
So there is life outside medicine. One of the most common alternative careers that physicians now consider is the law. The AMA estimates that there are as many as 6,000 physician-lawyers in the United States. Each year, many physicians enter law school for uncertain reasons, but drop out because they find it tedious or boring. If you consider changing from a medical career, don’t just run away—go toward a positive goal.
You might also consider that medicine offers such diverse opportunities that you can fulfill almost any personal goal within one or another of its niches. Personally, having done academic Emergency Medicine for more than three decades, I am fulfilling my personal goals by now practicing Disaster and International Medicine (on all seven continents!).