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  • Writer's pictureSociety of Bioethics and Medicine

The Uphill Battle to Becoming a Doctor: Just Scratching the Surface

Written By - Sanjana Ahmed, Edited By - Lok-Yee Lam

It is largely understood that doctors go through challenging academic careers to gain their highly respected and sought-after titles. It is important to note that this difficulty does not always begin while pursuing undergraduate careers. Many begin their uphill battles in high school with no tangible end in sight.

Those who aspire to work in medicine are often associated with a strong work ethic that emerges in high school. In addition to taking accelerated and/or high-level academic courses, students often pursue volunteering and research opportunities to begin gaining relevant experience in the field. Moreover, prospective college applicants involve themselves in a variety of clubs and other extracurriculars to build out their resumes for a competitive edge in the application process. Although being a well-rounded student makes an ideal candidate, the reality is less than ideal. Students can struggle to maintain their grades and even place their own physical and mental health at risk.

As students progress through their academic careers, more problems can arise. For those on the typical pre-medical track, they go through four grueling years where they must demonstrate excellence both academically and within their extracurriculars. They must also find a way to stand out amongst the rest of their peers when applying to medical school. In the pursuit to be a desirable medical school applicant, many students overwork themselves and throw the idea of self-care aside. This issue is only compounded by the competitive, and at times cutthroat, nature of the academic environment they are in. This does not only refer to competition between peers but also added stress from stereotypically negative advisors and professors who seem to take pride in teaching seemingly impossible courses.

Like a convoluted sitcom, the problems do not stop there. Once a student enters medical school, they are given an intense amount of information to learn in a short period of time. In fact, this is so well known that there is now a common saying that being in medical school is like trying to drink water from a fire hose (Spears). Their relief of being accepted into their school is also short-lived as they must begin preparation for things such as the USMLE Step 1 exam, an assessment on their ability to apply foundational concepts of science on a clinical level, and mentally prepare themselves to work with cantankerous attendings during the clinical portion of their education (Spears).

Another issue lies in the exorbitant cost of attending medical school. By the time some students are at this stage, they are also dealing with the economic burden that their undergraduate years left them. This issue escalates once they enter medical school. They can also do little to help the situation due to the time students devote to studying. Thus, it is nearly impossible for them to take on even part-time jobs to help alleviate some economic pressure. Usually, this results in students having to receive assistance from family or loved ones to help pay their tuition. For those without that ability, they are often left with taking out loans to pay for their education that can lead to them having large sums of debt to pay off later on.

The issue of residency is one that has also been a hot topic in the community. Every year, there are fewer residency placements open than there are newly graduated doctors (Heiser). That being said, for those who enter their residency, they face off against draining schedules and oftentimes being treated poorly as they are the ‘new kid’. There has also been more light shed on the fact that many residents are not paid a livable wage, one that does not often even match their state’s minimum wage, or just slightly exceeds it (Landi).

That all being said, it is a bit odd that the very people responsible for the care and well-being of others seem to be put into circumstances where they cannot even care for themselves as they pursue their goals. While motions have been made to assist those in need with their mental health, such as free services, it seems that the system is really made to break students rather than weed them out (Espinal). And given the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a greater acknowledgment regarding the shortage of doctors in the United States due to our increased need for them (Heiser).

The issues discussed thus far barely scratch the surface of the issues plaguing the career. It is vital to acknowledge that we did not even account for other factors that have been known to cause more difficulties when pursuing this career such as racism, sexism, environmental factors, and so many more. It is completely fair to want the best of the best to have responsibility for the care and wellbeing of others. However, it is evident that the path that those very people take to obtain that role seems to be working to demolish their mental and physical health and essentially set them up for failure. For the well-being of future doctors, it is clear that something needs to change.


Cilligan, James F. “The Pre-Med Problem: News: The Harvard Crimson.” News | The Harvard Crimson,

Espinal, Nelson. “Questions Are Being Raised about Pre-Med Mental Health.” UCSD Guardian, 21 Dec. 2020,

Heiser, Stuart. “AAMC Endorses Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2021.” AAMC, 18 Mar. 2021,

Jubbal, Kevin. “Premed Advisors Are Misleading You.” Med School Insiders, 9 July 2020,

Landi, Heather. “Most Medical Residents Are Dissatisfied with Their Salaries. Here's How Much More They Want to Be Paid.” FierceHealthcare, 25 Aug. 2020,

Lofti, Ali. “Challenges with the U.S. Health Care System Premeds Should Know.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report,

Miah, Sabreen. “The Cut Throat Pre-Med Culture.” Her Campus,

Spears, Jason. “The Fire Hose Is Real - How to Survive Your First Year of Medical School.” DoctorPremed,


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