Why Medical School May Be the Worst Mistake of Your Life

What do you do when you get to class (or in my case, rotations) way too early?

It was a dreary, freezing day in December. I showed up exactly at 8:00 AM for my pain and palliative care rotation. No one was around. There were no other medical students. There were no doctors. So logically, I pulled out my smartphone (alright, it is technically an iPod Touch) and began surfing the internet.

I typed in something about medical school not being worth it and came across a very, very accurate article titled, Expert’s New Career Prescription: Forget About Becoming a Doctor.

I seriously could not write a better article detailing why going to medical school will be the worst mistake of your life, if you are not passionate about medicine.

Here’s why …

5 Reasons Why You Should Not Go to Medical School

1. Medical school costs way too much money, and will saddle you with an enormous amount of debt.

“The cost is too great, and it’s a lousy job,” he said. “The minute you say to me that you want to be a physician, it’s tantamount to saying you want to be an indentured servant.”

Jones said he feels so strongly in part because medical school tuition can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars …

“Most people think physicians overwhelmingly are rich,” he said. “But many of them are saddled with an enormous debt load that takes years to repay. Some never make up the ground.”

2. Medical training takes way too much time (and pays way too little).

… and the time investment, depending on whether the student wants, for example, to be an internist or surgeon or orthopedist, can consume years of his or her life.

“Then after medical school, you’re working 80 to 100 hours a week for about $40,000 a year as a resident,” Jones said.

Residencies are usually three to seven years, depending on the specialty.

3. You are not guaranteed a residency spot after medical school. Without finishing at least one year of residency (or more, depending on the state’s medical law), you cannot practice medicine.

Jones said another major problem is that there are fewer places for students to do their residencies. In February, the American Medical Association asked Congress to retain Medicare funding for residency programs and increase the limit on the number of available residency slots to address a shortage of doctors.

Last spring, about 900 U.S. medical students weren’t matched to a residency.

And, yet, the number of students graduating from medical schools has grown steadily. The Association of American Medical Colleges says that a decade ago, there were 15,531 graduates from U.S. medical schools. In 2012, there were 17,341 graduates.

“You have to do a residency to get a license,” Jones said. “There are fewer residency slots available to finish your training today than in 1975. It’s a regular supply and demand issue. And hospitals get to pay people what they want and work you however they want.”

4. There isn’t a physician shortage. Thus, there is a chance you will not get a job, even as a doctor.

There has been a lot of talk about the need for more doctors, particularly in light of the health care overhaul. I asked Jones whether the Affordable Care Act, which is expected to bring an estimated 30 million more patients into the health care system, changes his perspective regarding medical school as an option for his students.

He said it doesn’t. Although the health care system will need to be revamped in many ways, he believes that physician assistants and advanced practice nurses will help take up the slack. Over the last decade, the number of physician assistants has more than doubled to about 93,000 today, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, which expects the number to continue to rise dramatically.

5. Technology may make doctors obsolete in the future.

“The cost to go to school is just going to get higher,” he said. “Besides, the technology is moving so fast. As more and more procedures are being done by robots and computers, there will be less of a need for humans to do this. It’s a trend that will only accelerate.”

Become a Physician Assistant Instead

If you want to make decent money in medicine, without all the disadvantages of being a doctor, become a physician assistant (PA).

First, school is shorter — it will only take you 3 years to become a PA, instead of 4 years to become a MD or DO. Thus, you won’t have such a huge debt. And you can make money faster.

Second, you don’t have to do a residency. Therefore, you can make more money right out of school. (And as a side note, isn’t it a bit strange how newly-graduated physician assistants, who has less schooling, make more money than newly-graduated doctors?)

Third, whatever physician shortage there may be can be easily filled by PA’s.

Fourth, physician assistants can perform the same quality of care, even though they have less training, due to the advances in technology. Who’s to say that medicine won’t be automated in a future, with robots doing most of the heavy-lifting.

(If you’re a nurse, you can become a nurse practitioner instead of a PA.)

Jones said this is a good alternative for students who love medicine and want to help heal people.

“Many physician assistants already do what physicians do and, in some cases, do it better,” Jones said. “Their patient outcomes can be better and they go to school for fewer years and don’t do residencies or have the same debt. A lot of them don’t even need to consult with anyone to manage care.”

Listen to Jones. He knows what he’s talking about.

You have been warned.

This article is part of the Get into Medical School series. Click on the link if you want more tips and hints about getting accepted into medical school.


  1. Disagree… Man, you’re too pessimistic. Some of my friends woke up at five y/o knowing they wanted to perform surgeries. What’s wrong with that? PA/CNP education focuses less on principles and more on facts. You can easily explain the concept of a car without knowing how to drive one. Visit a CNP/PA program and get back to us on the rigors of training….

    PAs have it worse than doctors for two years. I taught anatomy and they beat the hell out of those kids. If they’re late 3x to class, it’s an automatic failure. Medical students don’t even have to go to class at most schools!

    CNPs can’t practice in all states and there aren’t any guarantees their scope will increase.

    As a med who considered dropping out and going the PA/CNP route, I can tell you the value of putting yourself through such rigorous training can’t be in a paycheck. For me, it comes from understanding the principles underlying most natural phenomena… I find now I can often look at something and know how it works.. human or mechanical. There’s a reason doctors who don’t practice are usually very successful in spite of not ‘using’ the degree for it’s intended purpose… and it’s the same reason they’ll continue to be relevant: doctors are among the smartest and hardest working professionals today. If something is broken, well… you fix it. Medicine is on the mend.

    • Alex Ding says:

      Hey Jtron,

      Interesting comment.

      There is absolutely nothing wrong with people who knew they wanted to be doctors ever since they were young. If that is what they love, then they should go for it. But they shouldn’t expect as much tangible benefits as doctors have had in the past.

      It maybe true that PA programs may be very strict. And it is true that NP / PA programs are less rigorous academically. But this article focuses on the external rewards and external costs: money, job security, time, etc.

      When you say, “the value of putting yourself through such rigorous training can’t be in a paycheck,” I ask, “Why not?”

      Sure … you get some kind of internal reward, such as feeling good about knowing more. But why shouldn’t more knowledge and the application of more knowledge translate into more money?

      Doctors are book-smart (not street-smart). But many of them fail to see the bigger picture, beyond that of graduating medical school, residency, and fellowship. They fail to see the game being played around them. That is why doctors are politically weak. That is why in the healthcare environment … insurance companies, lawyers, government, pharmaceutical / medical device companies … are making out like a bandit, at the expense of health providers and patients.

      Doctors are hard-working, but that benefits those who set the rules. Doctors are so hard-working, they can jump through so many hoops. Administrators and other third-party entities must love doctors.

      Is medicine going to get better in the US? I don’t know. Around my area, lots of small practices are bought up by hospitals. They are trading control for security. How much can they fix when they answer to bosses?

      But I want to hear your story. What stopped you from dropping out and going the PA / NP route?

  2. Don’t post inaccurate information. The law caps hours at 80. If you say, well, not all residencies follow that, then they are BREAKING the law.

    • Alex Ding says:

      Hey Eve,

      You’re right. Some residencies break the law.

      The information about 80 – 100 hours a week is a direct quote from another article.

  3. Hi Alex,

    What an interesting article, and I appreciate your commentary. I’ve commented before on your blog, and am STILL trying to figure out what to do! Things like this are helpful in giving a more broad perspective. Do you feel (at this point in your training) that the intrinsic perks (e.g. knowledge, experience, etc) will ever outweigh the extrinsic factors (e.g. time, quicker income, less debt)? Another point to be made is that PA’s/NP’s who’ve worked for a extended stint of time are likely more learned than many people realize. Just like there are those who’ve applied themselves to learning various disciplines (e.g. auto mechanics, electricians, plumbers, carpentry, cooking/baking) or subjects (e.g. mathematics, chemistry, physics), many midlevel providers are consistently learning and investigating the depth of physiology and disease, and slowly gathering the knowledge and experience to POSSIBLY someday be as knowledgeable as a physician.

    Anyhow, very interesting topic to discuss. I’m just not sure whether or not I, personally, am so in love with medicine that I want to go through the entire medical process. Time will tell.

  4. Belgrade Glendenning says:

    PAs will one day end up like dinosaurs. The single biggest threat to them comes from nurse practitioners because the public understands what nurses are. Furthermore, the nursing profession is making a doctoral degree not only optional but an entry point.
    Two universities offer a doctoral degree for PAs but this strategy will never work. Dr. Stead did not design another type of physician but rather a subservient profession.
    Anybody picking this profession is playing Russian Roulette because there are too many PAs and the profession is totally obsolete anyway.

  5. john cusker says:

    Great article. Thanks for the info

  6. Sad Med Student says:

    Most accurate evaluation of medical school I’ve seen.

    Heed his words. Med school ate my soul, and has left me, as the author so aptly put, as an indentured servent. Please follow your real dreams instead, and hopefully someone WILL invent a robot to do this job, so no more slaves can be trapped.

  7. Kelsey Barker says:

    I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was a child. But I have doubts about my abilities, I’m not smarter than the average person, I don’t have a great memory, etc. I’m also Deaf and have epilepsy (very well controlled), so I feel like that’s more a reason to believe I lack the capabilities for success. I just keep coming back to this dream/passion because I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

    As hard as I am willing to work (I love talking/studying about the human body and its functions), I also want to ensure I’ll have time (during and after residency) for taking care of myself. I’d still like to live a life, exercise, travel, etc. I wonder if doctors are so trapped by their long hours that they aren’t able to take enough time off to pursue hobbies or families.

    One last thing, I read about the issues with matching doctors with residencies (too many doctors). What about certain specialties? I want to go into pathology, either clinical or forensic, likely the latter. I have read that there is actually a shortage of forensic pathologists (M.E.s, coroners, etc). Would I have a better chance of scoring a residency in that field?

  8. Harpo Marx says:

    I hear this argument often: PA school = less debt, no residency, thus start earning faster. It never makes sense to me. It’s very short sighted, unless you’re a woman with a ticking biological clock who has other priorities. Otherwise, what is another $50-$100k of debt if you stand to make significantly more money year upon year as a doctor over the next 30+ years?

    When you’re 15 years into your career as a PA finally peaking at $130,000, you may think the extra year of school plus residency would have been worth making $220-$500,000.

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