Want to Be a Doctor? Myths and Facts About Medical Education

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High School. Her column appears weekly.

Ask a young child what he or she wants to grow up to be, and the response you’ll get as often as any other is “I want to be a doctor.”

As they grow older, most children discover other interests and career goals, and “playing doctor” is just a childhood memory. But for some, the fascination never goes away, and they plan all the way through school to pursue medicine seriously.

Unfortunately, many of these would-be doctors know little about the what it takes to capture that prized medical degree. Some common misconceptions about medical school may wrongly discourage students, while others wrongly attract them.

Here is a look at some common medical school myths. Some contain a germ of truth, but if you’re interested in a medical career, you should know the real story behind them.

Myth: Medical school takes forever.

Reality: Eleven years is not quite an eternity. If you genuinely want to be a doctor, it will be worth the investment. But it’s a sizable chunk of your life to spend on something you’re not absolutely sure of.


The program includes four years for a bachelor’s degree, four years of medical school, and then three years of residency to gain on-the-job experience.

“You’re in arrested adolescence for a long time,” says Dr. Alison Erde, a Santa Monica family practitioner who finished her residency at UCLA just last year. “You come out of it and you’re thirty-something and the other 30-year-olds have been out in the real world for 10 years.”

Myth: You have to major in a hard-core science to get into medical school.

Reality: Applicants must fulfill the standard undergraduate requirements for American medical schools--two years of chemistry, a year each of biology, physics and English, plus an optional (but strongly suggested) year of calculus.

Beyond that, though, there’s room to study the subject that interests you most. And while biology and biochemistry remain the most common premed majors, many medical schools now look favorably at applicants with more diverse interests, according to Lynette Metza, coordinator of preprofessional and pregraduate advising at UCLA.

Some admissions committees will consider a non-science major with knowledge of the humanities and social sciences to be “a more people-oriented person than a tunnel-visioned scientist,” she said.

Erde, a philosophy major as an undergraduate, agrees. Study what you enjoy as an undergraduate, she advises, because medical school is “pretty regimented and you don’t have a lot of time to study other things.”

Myth: You need straight A’s in college to get into medical school.

Reality: Good grades are important, but B students are not automatically out of the running. Most American medical schools require at least a 3.0 grade-point average (the equivalent of a B) for Anglo or Asian-American applicants--groups that are already well represented in med schools. Applicants from under-represented groups--blacks, Latinos, American Indians, for example--will sometimes be considered with averages as low as 2.0.

Besides grades, the other “magic number” considered by medical schools is your score on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), a nine-hour exam of scientific problem-solving.

But medical schools also consider other factors in the applicant’s background. “They look at clinical work like volunteering in hospitals, research that the student has done, family background and various different kinds of disadvantage,” explained Metza.

Myth: Medical school is just for rich kids since it costs a fortune.

Reality: Medical school expenses can be managed, even if your name isn’t Rockefeller.

In fact, California’s public medical schools are an amazing bargain because they cost about $1,700 a year for California residents. In contrast, private and out-of-state medical schools can cost between $20,000 and $30,000 per year.

“The way you finance it, by and large, is by loans,” explained Metza. “So it’s not at all unusual to come out of medical school with $100,000 to $140,000 owing.”

Erde puts the figure closer to $200,000, once living expenses are added to the books and tuition.

Myth: Medical students don’t sleep or socialize because there’s too much studying to do.

Reality: There’s a lot of truth to this one. There’s an extraordinary amount of material to master, and learning just an adequate chunk dominates the lives of many medical students.

“The amount of work is usually a surprise to them,” said Metza. “They can really be knocked off their feet by that.”

“You study all the time,” agreed Erde. “You have a lot of labs and lectures, (and) every day you study at least three or four hours after being in class all day.”

But, she added, how rigorously you may study depends on how compulsive you are and the limits you set for yourself. “Some people think they have to study nonstop, get two or three hours’ sleep a night and cram for exams, but some people don’t.”

No matter how much sleep you allow yourself in medical school, you’ll still give up a lot of it during your internship--the first year of residency in which you are on call about every third or fourth night. “You’re basically pulling a 36-hour shift every two or three days, so you’re extremely sleep-deprived,” said Erde.

Myth: Being a doctor is a great way to get rich.

Reality: This is not as true as in the past. Metza predicts that most new physicians are more likely to end up working as salaried employees of health maintenance organizations (HMOs) than as highly paid specialists in private practice.

“It’s really going to be more difficult to get into the $200,000-a-year bracket,” she said, “much more difficult than it used to be.”

A typical Westside HMO family practitioner, for example, earns about $60,000 to $100,000 per year.