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My path to graduate school: medicine vs. research

After leaving the California Institute of Technology with a BS degree in biology, I took a relaxed summer in preparation for what is going to be the next 5, 6, or maybe even 7 years of my life – graduate school.

The first step to tackling graduate school starts well before you step through the front doors. It starts in your undergraduate years when you find your passion. For me, that passion was in the sciences. Aided by my parents’ urging towards a career in science, I participated in local science fairs and started research in the latter years of high school at the National Cancer Institute. There, I truly had my first taste of biological research. However, I didn’t expect that I would ever end up in graduate school.

National Cancer Institute at Frederick, MD.
National Cancer Institute at Frederick, MD. Source.

Despite only having experience in research, I never considered it as a career choice. Biology was something that I excelled at, and I knew that I was interested in helping people through medicine. These dreams motivated me to want to become a doctor from a young age. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of as many as I could touch. I was so focused on that path that I never considered any others– blinded to other careers, especially those not in science. To understand how a career in medicine would be, I chose to do an internship at the Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena.

Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, CA.
Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, CA. Source.

For 6 weeks, I arrived at 7:00AM to doctors checking on patients and reading charts. I rotated through different wards including pediatrics, neurosurgery, and pathology. I remember that, on several occasions, I had to stand for 6 or more hours watching surgeries. The doctors told me that they had done the same surgery several times that week for many weeks in the month and many months in the year. But, of course, not all the rotations were so repetitive. My experiences in internal medicine were probably most interesting because I was able to meet different patients every day and see doctors’ diagnoses and treatments. However, what I found after the 6 weeks was most telling about the outlook of my future – I wanted to be a scientist.

For the last 3 weeks of my internship, most of my thoughts led to returning to the laboratory bench. I realized that leading up to this point in my life, I was being trained to be a scientist, yet I was so blinded by the goals set by my parents and myself. I realized I yearned for the creativity that comes with research and the flexibility to take projects in whichever direction was most interesting. The natural curiosity I had about the world around me was repressed by, from what I thought, the monotonous routine of being a medical doctor. Even more telling was the fact that I was at one of the world’s leading research institutions. It’s almost as if my actions knew what I was meant to do, but my mind had yet to accept.

As a young student in middle school and high school, I lacked the wisdom to understand that I should question my motives for wanting to be a medical doctor. Equally or even more important than using medicine to treat patients is to discover those medicines, and that is almost exclusively the job of the scientists. It took me several years to realize that researchers could be as helpful to people as a medical doctor.

Now that I’m in graduate school, I’m glad to be where I am. I go to work every day wondering how to take my science to the next level and think about biology in ways that I had never before. Every day seems like a new problem to tackle, and I appreciate that about research. I realized that being a medical doctor was not something that matched my interests, although it can certainly be the right career for those looking for patient contact and a direct impact on patients’ lives.


Marvin is a PhD candidate at Stanford University in Immunology. He was an editor-in-chief at the Caltech Undergraduate Research Journal. See it at Follow on twitter @Marvzipan.

  1. Good for you! I did a similar thing – I quit med school in order to pursue Biomedical Sciences (Molecular Biology). One of the best decisions in my life! 🙂 Good luck and all the best! M.

  2. “the monotonous routine of being a medical doctor”… this guy clearly did not pass through a neurology department for instance. The boring routine for him was to be watching everyday in the same position. When you are doing a clinical diagnosis is almost as to be creating art, and that is never boring.
    I did not like this blog, should I say as a medical doctor in a lab: “the monotonous routine of being in a bench pipetting” of course not, routine lab activities could be as monotonous as clinical activities, the difference is the interest you have beyond of physical activities. For research is solving research problems, for clinic is solving clinical problems.

  3. Becoming a doctor does not condemn you to quit research. Pathology, Microbiology-infectiology, Endrocrinology, Medical Biochemistry, etc, etc, are residency options that allow you to continue to be a scientist and do research. It is great if you are happy with the path you have chosen, but many doctors do basic research as well, and get MSc, PhDs, etc., and their professional lives are far from boring in my opinion.

  4. I think this guy forgot the monotony of pipetting, aliquoting, preparing plates for cell culture. Everything in life has a Little bit of monotony and exciment, but in medicine you can have an immediate impact (result) in many cases. What is more challenging is to do both (basic science and clinical work) in translational research.

  5. I liked this blog, thanks for sharing! I understand that not everyone might agree with him and medicine might not be routine for everyone. But it’s all really a matter of taste and opinion like with anything. The moral of the story is just to pursue your passion in life; that’s where you’ll find true happiness–as opposing to just blindly following your parents’ or society’s pressures in what careers you should do.

  6. Hello

    Few people are suitable to become a medical doctor at a hospital or clinic as the knowledge, skills and people interaction do not suit all potential doctors. Well done for achieving your goals thus far. Medical research does not necessary require good people skills and tends to be less time constraint as apposed to being on duty in an emergency department.

    As a no medical person my viewpoint in the importance of doctors has come from past medical treatment. Yes, a prestigious profession and long hours. After a motorcycle accident where I was hit by a car I know the importance of the years of treatment I received to half recover. A qualified doctor has a good standing in the community and can help doctor to further their aspirations outside of the medical professions.

  7. OMG.. This explains my feelings exactly.
    I just could not decide between Medicine and MBiolSci!!
    This helped.. thanks ^_^

  8. As much as I’d like to agree, a doctor’s work is very monotonous (for me). I left medical school because of that precise reason.

    Let me elaborate. During my years at medical school, I A: crammed knowledge into my head, much like cramming recipes into my head, which was a bore, and B: it was a repetitive routine of Meet Patient, Make Diagnosis, Dispense Treatment. There wasn’t any feeling of an overall progress. Research has a very long span, and it’s like running a marathon. Clinical work was more like a 2 minute run. Rinse. Repeat.

    I don’t condemn physicians. Two of my best friends are now working as doctors (I’m still in school…). But it was just that: boring. It was SSDD, and I felt like I was working in a diner. Make this dish, make that dish. I wasn’t working on a project to perfect that one entremet like Pierre Herme did.

    Some people would like a bunch of mini projects. I didn’t. I’m happily a neuroscience student.

  9. You have NO idea how many end up in that path. Most of my professors in medical school had Ph.Ds, not MDs. Most of my professors now have Ph.Ds, not MDs.

    Medical school is like engineering. You’ll learn a lot more applied sciences, and after that, most go into clinicals and not research.

  10. Wow really, I am in residency in ophthalmology in Nigeria I am exactly thinking of going into molecular medicine. .

  11. It’s good to find people of like minds here…I m kind of tired of endless repetitions to patients , I seek creativity , stimulation and innovation

  12. Yeah its true , I think the difference may also come from personality traits, for someone like me i get bored having to talk to patients after sometime and medicine demands quite a lot of that , I am more of nose in books kind of a person, I m seriously considering moving out , though medicine has a good stable income but I m still kind of dissatisfied.

  13. Yeah its true , I think the difference may also come from personality traits, for someone like me i get bored having to talk to patients after sometime and medicine demands quite a lot of that , I am more of nose in books kind of a person, I m seriously considering moving out , though medicine has a good stable income but I m still kind of dissatisfied.

  14. Being in a lab all day can be regarded as monotonous for some as well. The differences are in your knowledge base. If you are not a clinical doctor or know the speciality you are interning in then you will never get the most out of your elective. As with anything the more you know and educate yourself the more fascinating it becomes.
    I honestly think both can be equally rewarding and along with my clinical work in the hospital I am always looking into the academic side of things and exploring research opportunities.

  15. Thank you for your amazing article, I was kinda up in the air cuz I think I’ve always loved both medicine & discovery, but now I know that I want to follow the curiosity about research and change the world to a better place, I still love helping patients thought!

  16. I think you should follow your heart really because no matter how much you make, if you don’t feel any sense of fulfilment doing what you do then you’d never be truly happy

  17. But, why not be a physician and researcher? I finished my undergraduate degree in medicine in Colombia. When I was in the third year of study I met the amazing world of research. Today I strongly believe that the two things can complement each other perfectly.

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