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  • Writer's pictureSociety of Bioethics and Medicine

Investing In Your Future: The Sunk Cost Fallacy in Medicine

Written by: Roger Chavez

Edited by: Joey Huang

With whatever dreams and aspirations we may have in mind, it is always important to remember that achieving our goals isn’t something that happens overnight. Time, money, resources, sacrifices, and the dedication of our lives are necessary to make our dreams a reality. For some of you, this may mean becoming a lawyer, becoming a successful entrepreneur, or owning your own cafe; the possibilities are endless. For those who are pursuing careers in medicine, there is a massive amount of work that is required for someone to have a chance to get into institutions like medical school. After all, the average acceptance rate for individual medical schools in the United States is only around 5.5%, with the 2022-23 cycle having around 55,000 applicants in total, equating to about 2,750 people out of 55,000. 

You have to spend all of your time split between focusing on doing well in classes, getting clinical hours, conducting research, volunteering in your community, gaining leadership experience, and much more to even be considered a competitive applicant. At some point, many students start feeling burnt out and lose their drive for a career in the medical field because of the realization of how competitive it really is. Despite the difficulty, for some reason, many people will continue down this path and begrudgingly try to get into medical school. Why is this?

Throughout the four years of college, a phenomenon called the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ will begin to manifest itself for countless students. A simple definition of the sunk cost fallacy is that when someone spends an enormous amount of time and resources to try and achieve a desired result, they are very reluctant to abandon it or to change paths. For pre-med students, this is a widespread issue because of the different aspects of your life that you have to be “excellent” in, like school and extracurriculars. But, at the same time, letting these standards consume your entire life will just make you miss out on other things, like spending time with family and friends, being able to enjoy your hobbies, and maybe even exploring new opportunities for a different career path that you’re more passionate about. For those who continue down the path and persevere, once you finally do get into medical school, you’ll see the sunk cost fallacy come into play again, potentially causing an even bigger burden this time because of how much money you will be paying for your education, as well as weighing the judgment of others on your shoulders when you consider abandoning medical school altogether.  

With all this in mind, it’s very important to take a step back and reflect on the progress you’ve made so far in your journey. One crucial aspect to consider when looking at a career in medicine is whether you have clinical experience. Since your job is mainly going to be in a clinical setting, having this experience will be one of the biggest indicators as to whether you truly care about the profession. And it’s completely fine if you find out that it really isn’t something you want to pursue further. It’s better to discover it earlier in your journey, rather than years down the line when the sunk cost fallacy really becomes apparent. Having ups and downs throughout your years of preparing to become a doctor is completely normal, and you should always try to overcome any challenges that come your way. But when you start to notice that it’s becoming something that you dread, rather than something that you look forward to, try to understand why that may be happening.

References Medical School Acceptance Rates by Race, Major, MCAT/GPA. (n.d.). MedEdits.


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