Is Medical School for You?

Studying to become a doctor is no easy decision. Nor should it be. Treating and caring for patients is a big responsibility. The more information you have before starting medical school, the more confident you will be that you made the right choice.

And many students are taking the plunge. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), almost 42,231 individuals applied to attend medical school in 2008.

Higher enrollment numbers are good news for the medical community, which is facing a shortage of doctors.

"The Council on Graduate Medical Education (COGME) has concluded that if physician practice patterns remain as they are, demand for physicians would exceed supply by 2020," says Judi Engle. She is the director of public relations at Wright State University in Ohio.

But just how hard is medical school?

"A major difference between medical school and undergraduate work is the amount of material students must master," says Engle. "Academic preparation, motivation, perseverance, time management and good study skills are critical."

Thomas Koenig is the associate dean for student affairs at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "It's a demanding course of study not just in terms of time, but emotionally and physically," he says.

"Students should realize that medical school is different than other types of study. There is a patient waiting at the end that needs to know you have mastered the material to a level to be able to care for them."

Shauna Nast is a third-year medical student. She expected to devote most of her time to studying -- and that's what happened. "No more cramming right before exams, that's for sure!"

However, there were things she didn't expect. "I didn't realize how extroverted the educational process would be. Most of my time at school or at the hospital is spent communicating with other students, doctors, patients and staff. As someone who has always enjoyed her time alone, this has required some personal stretching."

Medical school is pricey. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, in 2004-2005, the average tuition and fees for first-year medical students at public schools was about $19,000. For students at private schools, average resident tuition was $35,000.

Then there are books, housing and other living expenses.

"State-supported schools are becoming more expensive as the cost burden is shifting from the state to the student," says Engle. "Financial aid, in the form of scholarships and loans, is readily available, however."

Nast says her school was pretty up front about tuition costs for each year. And she found ways to save in other areas.

"I did find that it was possible to 'cut corners' with books and supplies. All the 'required' texts are available in the school library, the Internet is a phenomenal medical resource, and all one really needs in terms of supplies is a stethoscope," she says.

The Association of American Medical Colleges found that among med school students who graduated in 2007 with a loan, the average debt was $139,517.

It helps to remember that in the long run, most doctors are able to pay off those debts. But that doesn't mean it'll happen right away.

"Regardless of what specialty one enters, one will have the ability to pay off loans and live comfortably," says Engle.

"Medical school is followed by three to seven years of residency or specialty training, so one should be prepared to delay financial rewards.

"Resident salaries are modest but comparable to income levels for college graduates entering the job market...On average, doctors make about $160,000 a year, but this amount can vary depending on where physicians live and what type of medical specialty they practice."

Quoting a recent survey, a Virginia Business online article says that specialists in fields such as radiology or orthopedic surgery are getting salary offers as high as $500,000.

But money shouldn't be your only motivation for entering the field.

"Without commitment, students may clear the academic hurdles but wouldn't be successful in the broader sense within medicine," says Koenig. "We need smart, excellent students, but we also need excellent people."

If you're considering medical school, be sure to think about whether you are suited to the life of a physician and all that it entails.

"Pursuit of knowledge, shouldering responsibility of caring for others...this is what students need to look at in themselves," says Koenig. "Those are the things I question people about."