Posted by: angmlr007 | 05/04/2011

Why I chose (not) to be an M.D. – Weighing down the Realities of the Medical Profession

In my previous post, I’ve written An Unofficial Guide to Admission to Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. This is somewhat a continuation from that post. In this article, I will discuss a bit about my personal experience with my application to NUS for Medicine, and explain my reasons for eventually choosing to reject the honor to study this prestigious course.

Early Days – An aspiring doctor-to-be

When I was in school, I was dead certain I would eventually become a doctor in future: I loved human physiology and anything medically-related, I performed quite well academically, and I was aiming for a high-paying job in the future. Throughout the time when I was in high school, I did everything necessary to create a strong portfolio so that I could be considered favorably for the course, from scoring straight A’s for sciences to getting an attachment at a local hospital. I pull out all the stops to get it done right, but there was something I couldn’t change, and that was my character.

Turning Point – Attachment at SGH

Looking back, I guess the point where I started doubting my decision to do medicine was during my short attachment (or rather, job-shadowing) at Singapore General Hospital in June 2008. I was attached with a neurophysiologist for 2 days, and got to witness what life is like as a doctor. To keep this article as neutral as possible, I will not disclose the details of what happened during the attachment (you may, however, sieve through my old blog for posts in June 2008 and see if I have written anything about my attachment). After those two days, I learned a couple of very crucial things about doctors: 1. you spend more time with the sick than you do with yourself. 2. You are working in a clinical environment, not an office environment, or a laboratory environment. The feel is different. 3. The ‘responsibility’ of being a doctor is much higher than that of any other profession, since you have the lives of patients in your hands.

It got me thinking if I was prepared for such a lifestyle in the years to come. Since then, I started to reassess and weigh my options again.

What it Takes to be a GOOD Medical Doctor

I’ve narrowed down the traits of a good M.D. into these couple of points (I’ve used ‘he’ for the subsequent points. So sorry girls):

  1. He must be passionate about the human body, illness, and anything medically-related. He must love what he studies, otherwise he will be suffering together with his patients for the rest of his life, like a chronic disease that refuses to go away.
  2. He must place his patients’ welfare and well-being before everything else, and dedicate his all to not only curing the illness, but making it as bearable as possible for his patients. A doctor without a heart for his patient will bring more harm than good.
  3. A good doctor must be able to handle immense amounts of psychological and emotional stress. In a span of 5 minutes, the doctor can determine the life and death of an accident victim that has been rushed into A&E. A good, stable head coupled with a high tolerance against panic and mania
  4. A good doctor must be optimistic! Nothing kills a patient more than a doctor who keeps telling him that he is not going to live past tomorrow because his cancer is in its terminal stages.

What you should NOT join Medicine for

  1. Prestige. Seriously. If you want prestige, go do something extraordinary and win an award for it.
  2. Money. If you want more money, go do business. More green, less effort. And guess what? Most of the people around you will be doing the work for you!
  3. Status. If you want social status, you get more being a politician.
  4. Because you don’t know what else to apply for, and Medicine sounds cool. If you fall under this category, I STRONGLY ADVISE you to get an attachment at a local hospital, or do some volunteer work before you make the decision.

My Eventual Choice

I knew that I loved science – particularly biology, and human physiology. I always knew with certainty that science will accompany me for the rest of my life, along with a life-long exploration for knowledge. But medicine will not fuel that thirst for knowledge. It won’t keep me satisfied. I knew that if I were to become a doctor, I would no longer have the time for myself, and the freedom to pursue the different types of things to learn in the world. I loved biology, but I also wanted to learn more about physics, cosmology, maybe even history, economics, and theology. I want to indulge in education, and medicine was definitely not the best choice for it. Also, I knew that I did not have much compassion and love for the patients I will eventually deal with (though of course what I said in my interviews was the more ‘politically correct’ answers, but that I preferred to stay in the research labs to do clinical research), hence I wouldn’t make a good doctor.

In the end, I rejected the offer from NUS. Instead, I decided to pursue a life of scientific research by taking up a scholarship from the Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and going to Brown University to study biology. Hopefully, the time I spend there will allow me to broaden my intellectual horizons and experiment new things. I know I am not going to regret this decision for the rest of my life.



  1. Sorry dude but I’m gonna have to disagree with you there. The truth is that the medical profession, especially in this day and age of ageing populations and increasingly drug-resistant microbes and ever more punishing diseases, the needs as many of the best and brightest minds it can grab; even then, you don’t have to be the best just to be in medicine. Primary health care is especially important and you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to do that.

    The kind of life you’ve described really applies only to a particular few specialisations. The majority of GPs will never have to deal with such high stress situations. You work a nine-to-five job and that’s about it. It’s only those who are actively looking for the challenge who go into the tougher areas such as emergency medicine and surgery.

    The truth is that prestige, money and status and very important in the psychosocial wellbeing of most individuals. Everyone requires validation and economic viability; being a doctor is one of the easiest and most straightforward ways to achieve that.

    You’re right when in what you describe a GOOD doctor requires? But the current state of events is that if you have the ability, you really should consider Medicine. Why does the world need another politician or banker when there are people out there who need healing, yeah?

    • Hi Bryan,
      Thanks for sparing some time to pen down your thoughts. It’s valuable to have the opinion of someone who is going to be a doctor himself. =)
      Allow me to make some clarifications:
      1. I have absolutely no doubt that this world needs as many doctors as we can get. The fight against the world’s most deadly killer diseases (influenza, cancer, HIV, etc.) demands that society requires all the help that they can get. But make no mistake; in no way was I insinuating that you ‘have to be the best just to be in medicine’. All I am saying is that it is a tough and academically rigorous job, and you definitely require some standards to complete the training.
      2. Perhaps my ‘high stress’ example was a little misleading. Granted, not everyone will go into A&E, but the M.D. faces psychological and emotional stress from many other areas in his job too, especially if you work long hours in a hospital and have to continually face the sick and dying in the wards. These are very subtle things that many medical students never experienced before they made up their minds to join medical school, only to realize and regret later. Which is why it is important that people do an attachment with their local hospitals before deciding if they should join this worthy cause, lest they cause themselves (and their future patients) more harm than good.
      I think it’s a bit misleading to say that most GPs ‘will work a nine-to-five job and that’s about it’. Everyone will serve in a hospital at some point in their lives, since it is the starting point for most doctors. I doubt the work hours and conditions there are anything like working in a private clinic.
      3. You are right when you mention everyone requires ‘validation and economic viability’. But this ‘validation’ should not become the central focal point of becoming an M.D. Passion for Medicine and love for the patient should always come to the fore when an M.D. goes about his work, not ‘prestige, money and status’. I have no doubt that society should grant this recognition to doctors for what they have done, and the sacrifices they have made to join this worthy cause, but we should do well to remember that is a privilege, and not a right. At the end of the day, the patient always comes first.
      4. You’re right again. The list of traits I wrote down are the characteristics of a GOOD doctor. There are loads of people who can be one, no doubt, but whether they are good, and actually make the difference to the lives of the sick ‘in this day and age of ageing populations and increasingly drug resistant microbes and ever more punishing diseases’ remains to be seen. And if I ever saw someone with those traits, I would strongly encourage him/her to enter Medicine.

      Don’t get me wrong. My post was merely describing the thought process which I went through that eventually caused me to reject NUS’s offer. In essence, I knew I wanted to be the best in everything I do, but I could not bear to shoulder the responsibility that comes with being the best of the best of doctors in hospitals, thus I opted to pursue the other things I love: academics, and a life-long endeavour in teaching and learning. I hope that you’ve found your calling in servitude to your patients. It is a noble profession, and I respect that. =)

  2. Yeah Roy, agree with points in your post. I haven’t took up an attachment at a hospital but you knew that I did one at animal clinic cos I wanted to do veterinary.

    It really affected me for the rest of the day when owners rush in with their pets in a horrible condition, and these pets die or get euthanized (I’ve seen one). And as a vet you deal with all sorts of surgeries, no specialization, I’ve been through an eye removal surgery with the vet. These are the kind of things that got me thinking if I wanted to continue to pursue a career in veterinary. But I thought no one will be able to bear with these with they are true animal lovers when they just started, they just have to keep telling themselves what they are doing ultimately is to help the animals..well.

    Back to the topic of HUMAN medicine, if I go into that, I won’t be doing surgery or emergency for precisely the reasons you’ve stated. And totally agree with you about what makes a ‘GOOD’ doctor. Money, prestige and social status should never be the reason why you join medicine, it drives your patients away from you. And, by being a good doctor, those things will come in naturally, right? Hehs.

    I think a good doctor also needs to know if they want to be a GP, specialize in something, or have target groups. That’s what drives them to continuing the professional with passion…personally, I was looking at working in Children’s hospital if I end up doing human medicine in the end. Haha.

  3. Big big decision but a brave and cool headed one. Knowing yourself and acting on that knowlege is your path to true success. Wishing you the very best ! : )

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