Despite an ever-expanding list of ‘reasons not to join medicine’, the profession still remains a popular career choice.

Broadly speaking, doctors are well-respected in many cultures. They enjoy financially stable careers, and there is certainly a sense of fulfilment in the knowledge that one’s work is contributing toward the progress of the surrounding community.

Yet, it is equally well-documented that the daily grind of a physician is certainly not all positives, and the hazards inherent to the job are also hard to overlook.

Thus, what drives a person to endure the long hours and spend years paying off debt for an intense, laborious career?

The path to becoming a doctor is challenging

Medical training is no walk in the park – it requires at least 11 years of post-secondary training and, depending on subspecialty, can go up to 17 years. As Matthew To, a medical student at Dalhousie University in Halifax says, “You’ll still be in school when your friends tell you about their children.”

Completing training is also merely the beginning of an intense career, and for most students taking up student loans, the beginning of paying off debt.

“For our newest trained doctors increasingly saddled with nearly insurmountable debt, the lure of medicine is waning. For those already in the pipeline, the reality of what’s coming when the loan bills come due is inevitably going to be turning our next best hope for medicine’s future away unless the cost problem is fixed soon,” says internist and cardiologist Dr Westby Fisher.

In addition to a skewed work-life balance, junior doctors spend many years with low salary, compared to their counterparts working in other fields.

But it is absolutely worth it

Despite the negatives, career in medicine is an opportunity to do something out of the norm, and that can involve incredibly meaningful work. “Journeying with those who are sick is an incredible privilege,” said To.

According to Akhilesh Pathipati, fourth-year medical student at Stanford University: “My third year clinical rotations were full of moments that will stay with me: frantically compressing a patient’s chest until we finally restarted his heart, trying to comfort an inconsolable parent while my resident did a brain death exam on his son, or running around the labor and delivery floor to deliver six babies one night.”

“Perhaps even more significant were the less dramatic moments: counseling a patient about salt intake after a heart failure diagnosis or playing with a kid during a well-child visit.”

Furthermore, unlike most other jobs, physicians are in a position to make meaningful impacts – be it through daily patient interactions, making life-saving scientific discoveries or redesigning healthcare systems.

Earning an MD or an MBBS is also a social status boost that helps establish credibility, making it easier for physicians to launch other ventures. Demand for healthcare is also unlikely to dwindle, thus a job in medicine is likely a stable one.

“A less frequently discussed lifestyle advantage of a career in medicine is that physicians have considerable flexibility in where they choose to live,” said Pathipati.

Even with medical school debt, the average doctor rakes in a higher income than the average business or law school graduate.

“Medical students are still going to be able to live a comfortable lifestyle if they make smart financial decisions,” Ashley Bentley, student interest strategist with the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) said. “Every single graduating medical resident needs to be smart with their money.”

“The best investment I ever made was to borrow that money,” said Cornell University President David Skorton, who took two decades to pay off his college and medical school debt.

“I ask myself every day is it worth it? Yes, because primary care is my calling,” said family physician Dr. Marie-Elizabeth Ramas. MIMS

Read more:
Doctors: How to stop second-guessing your medical career path
5 upsides to every doctor’s career
Doctors among highest paid professionals