Help! Should I Drop Out of Medical School to Pursue Art?
I have been struggling with career indecision since I started college back in 2006. I always did very well in school and was encouraged to look into medicine as a great way to find success and fulfillment in helping people using intellect.
Although I do want my career to be exciting and challenging, I also have this natural pull toward creativity. I never felt convinced that medicine was where I really wanted to be, but I stuck with it since it made my family proud, I was doing well in classes, I had a good reputation among the science community in college, and above that, I had no idea what I’d do instead. So I just kept moving forward and ended up graduating with a 3.96 GPA in Biomedical Sciences, minors in Chemistry and Psychology. How did I do this, since science was never all that interesting to me? I guess I know how to study and work hard, plus had the slight unintentional pressures from family.
Now I’m in medical school, beginning my second year, and I’m concerned that I am continuing down a path (a long, expensive, commitment-requiring path) that I am going to regret. I have been married for three years, and my husband is in medical school with me. Otherwise, I honestly don’t think I would have gone through with it.
Every time we visit friends in a larger city, or I am around creative individuals, it excites me. I don’t want to be a med school graduate, broke, in debt, and not wanting to work in the field I’ve spent eight years (plus four more in residency) preparing for!
I do want a career that will be somewhat lucrative and challenging, but I love flexibility. I don’t want to work night and day, 24/7; I don’t even know if I want to practice clinical medicine at all. I’m already looking at options for when I graduate, for things completely different that I can do once I “have the degree.” I want my career to allow for financial security, give me a creative and fulfilling outlet outside of the home, but being a mom someday is more important than anything. I would love to write or edit or design. I have a special interest in interior design, actually. But I want to be a professional—I want to be good at what I do.
So, my basic question for you is: What should I do now? Stay on this track and see where it takes me? Get out now before I accrue even more debt and hope for the best? It’s just hard to make any definitive changes without even being sure of exactly what I want! I’d appreciate your advice very much.
Well it sounds as if you want everything! And why not? You’ve done everything right, you’re smart and creative, you’ve worked hard, and you have ambition. Now, what you need is a plan, priorities, and a little bit of patience.
Even more important, you need to stop doing what everyone else wants you to do, develop your own path and stick to it, and learn to stand on your own two feet. You also need to talk to your husband about all of this.
But first things first.
Now, there are those who would argue that medicine can be a creative profession, but I think you mean that you long to do something in the arts. If so, I want to gently caution you that going into the arts with the idea that it will give you “financial security” isn’t necessarily realistic. I’m not sure if interior design works the same way as other artistic endeavors, but as a longtime writer myself, let me strike a note of realism here.
Making it to a place in the arts where you have “financial security” is a long shot. Most artists—actors, sculptors, writers, and maybe even interior designers—struggle, struggle, struggle, believe me. I certainly know that with the web, the market for paid writers has really dried up. Most artists do their art for the love of the doing.
Plenty of artists with tons of talent just keep working at it and working at it and even doing really wonderful work, but never make much of a living at all. There are just so many factors other than talent involved in “making it” in the creative (artistic) fields. Persistence and discipline, for one. Luck, for another. Being at the right place at the right time; a big break; getting the “right” people—established, powerful people—to notice your work, and so on. Also, life is long and complicated, life events like motherhood, illness, or loss can derail even an established artistic career.
I was recently accepted into a theatre workshop to try my hand as a playwright after publishing three novels, and there is just so much talent and creativity among the actors, writers, and directors there that it floors me. But do all these people have “financial security” via their art? Hardly. And this is a community of relatively successful artists. Not everyone makes it right out of the box like Lena Dunham.
Interior design presents yet another challenge, I think. If you’re talking about designing beautiful apartments or homes, you’d probably have to live in or near a wealthy enclave where people have the resources to pay an interior designer, where you could establish a reputation and get access to them. Interior design of buildings might work anywhere. But either way, you simply have to pick some artistic modality, study, and practice it in order to get “good at it.” You might even possibly need to go back to school. For interior design, I’d say you also need to apprentice and do whatever is required to get the credentials you need to give you—well, credibility. And that would require a real decision to drop medicine and pursue interior design, another serious commitment.
I feel your pain, and I think you’re right in wondering if you should be accruing all this debt and putting in all this time and effort when you’re not totally settled on whether this is the career path you want. I am also of the old school when it comes to being a physician. You say you want to be good at what you do. Well, I have had quite a bit of experience with doctors both awful and wonderful in my life, and I honestly think you can’t be a good physician unless you have a great deal of empathy, a capacity to listen, and a real interest in caring for and helping people. Do you?
There are, of course, ways you might combine medicine and something else you find more creative. One of the most respected writers of all time, William Carlos Williams, was a physician. And how about the brilliant writer, Ethan Canin, who stopped practicing medicine after his third book was published and now teaches writing? Or how about looking into medical journalism? Or hospital design? Some hospitals and health centers, like Cleveland Clinic, have institutes that teach fine arts as a method of healing; I myself teach writing as a healing art. You might also be creative by coming up with some sort of medical innovation and starting a company around that. Or—as another option entirely—could you be satisfied pursuing art as a hobby and not as your career path?
Truly, you have endless possibilities in front of you. I would encourage you to do some deep and serious exploration—not just the soul-seeking of what you truly want and value, but also taking a realistic look into other career paths and evaluating what they would entail and what they would provide for you, both now and in the future.
I also think you need to hash this all out with your husband, speaking honestly about your feelings, hopes, ambitions, and fears. If he’s happy pursuing and practicing medicine, he will likely be able to support you while you pursue your creative dream, even with the debt he’s most likely accruing. (That said, this arrangement can be tricky emotionally, I think, especially when it’s a woman being supported by a man.)
And finally, on the issue of feeling compelled to do what you think your family wishes for you, I have only one thing to say about that: It is beyond foolish for an adult to pursue something she doesn't want, not to mention rack up tons of debt to do it, just because she thinks it would make her family proud of her. No, no, no. Part of becoming an adult is that you must come to realize that it’s your life, and your (and your husband’s) decision to make, not theirs. I think—I hope—that they’ll be proud of you, no matter what you decide to do.
Best to you and your husband and (future) family, and thanks for asking,
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About The Author
Disclaimer: The advice in this column is Fran Dorf's personal thoughts. It is not to be construed as a professional opinion. Fran recommends seeking the advice of a trained professional for any serious matter. Fran Dorf writes the "Just Ask Me" column at the Daily Muse. Fran is a psychotherapist-clinical social worker and author of three acclaimed novels. Her essays, poetry, and articles have appeared in anthologies, national periodicals, and literary journals, and she's working on a memoir. Fran also writes a blog, The Bruised Muse. In her spare time, she reads everything, rants about politics, Zumba dances, skis, plays tennis, travels, and plays with her grandchild, Maya.