What I wish I knew before becoming a doctor

By Kristen Fuller, MD
Published May 27, 2022

Key Takeaways

My reasons for becoming a doctor were steadfast: I wanted to help people, I loved science, I enjoyed being challenged, and I wanted a stable career.

And although medicine’s an extremely rewarding career, it’s not for the faint of heart. There are so many things I wish I knew beforehand and wished I’d done differently before jumping in.

I don’t regret my decision to become an MD, but I wish there were more resources out there that could’ve equipped me for my future. I hope that anyone considering a medical career will speak with a practicing physician about the job’s deepest, darkest secrets. Here are some that took me by surprise.

There is a ton of paperwork

"You’ll spend a ton of time on office-related tasks that have nothing to do with clinical medicine."

Kristen Fuller, MD

I had an attending in medical school who branded the words "document, document’ document" into my brain. She wanted us to document every conversation with patients and families, every procedure, and every physical exam.

Although I thought it was overkill, it was one of the best learning tips I acquired. You’ll spend many hours each day documenting, making phone calls, and filling out paperwork—regardless of your specialty.

You’ll become competitive—even with friends

Most people who decide to practice medicine are, by nature, type-A and competitive—in other words, "gunners."

Throughout medical school and residency, you'll still compete with friends, because you’ll be critiqued in front of each other often. It may seem like their success means your failure, which can quickly result in low self-esteem.

It took me nearly a decade to drop my competitive edge in all facets of life, most likely because I felt the need to be competitive throughout medical school and residency. But ultimately, nobody remembers who had the highest board scores, worked the most hours, or did the most procedures during that time.

You’ll no longer be the smartest person in the room

"There will always be someone more intelligent than you."

Kristen Fuller, MD

The good side of this: You’ll learn humility, and will always have someone to learn from. It's your decision how to use this to make you a better doctor.

You’ll not make as much money as you imagined

Being a doctor is a very stable career. However, there will be high overhead costs such as malpractice insurance and massive student loan payments that many of us don't consider until we are elbow-deep in finances.

You’ll most likely make a healthy, stable income, but you'll work hard for every dollar. And your expenses may be much higher than you imagined before settling into this career.

It will break your heart

"You will experience horrible cases that will wreck you emotionally."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Death and dying, child abuse, elder neglect, poverty, and the healthcare system’s broken aspects are just examples.

Being a physician teaches you how unfair and cruel the world can be. At some point, you will likely break down from a broken heart.

You’ll experience burnout at some point

Long hours, stress, physical exertion, mental exertion, and heartbreak will lead to burnout. Nearly every physician will experience this at least once in their career.

Often burnout presents itself in many unhealthy forms, such as anger, depression, and numbness—as well as misusing alcohol, drugs, and food to fill a void or self-medicate.

Therapy can be your best friend

"I wish I had gone to therapy sooner—like before entering medical school."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Therapy is not just a treatment for those with mental health or substance abuse disorders. It can be a preventative measure to help you cope, learn, and grow through challenging problems.

I believe that every resident physician should undergo mandated therapy to learn healthy coping tools to deal with the dire situations they’ll encounter during their careers.

Patients will challenge you

We go into medicine to help people, provide a service, and be a guiding light. We spend decades in school and training to provide the best care to patients, only to be told we’re wrong because they found something on the internet that says otherwise.

Medicine is special because it provides a unique opportunity to intimately connect with other humans personally and help them in their greatest moments of need.

However, patients will challenge you, become angry with you, question you, and disrespect you. Learning how to deal with this is very challenging. It will require your humility, empathy, communication, and patience.

Read Next: Real Talk: When your career ruins your personal life

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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