"There have always been highly capable women wanting to be scientists." Rita Colwell, PhD
The Debate: Physician or Scientist
September 14, 2021
For years I was a hardcore, ambitious premedical student. I lived and breathed medicine and I had only one ambition - become a physician. And then, I began working in academia and it opened me up to a career I hadn’t yet considered, a PhD. For the last two years, I constantly debated Physician or Scientist to the point where it actually kept me up at night. It was really hard for me to find different perspectives of the two career paths so I hope if you’re having the same dilemma this blog post might help.
First, let me begin by stating that you don’t have to choose! You can do both and work towards an MD(or DO)/PhD dual degree. But for those of you who are not interested in the 7+ year long dual degree and then residency, you may end up debating what career path is best for you. You can also be a physician without a PhD and still do research! Either way, I cannot make this decision for you. At the end of the day, you need to reflect and decide “what do I want”. But I can tell you why I realized a PhD was a better fit for me than an medical school.
In college, I dreamed of becoming a physician and alleviating patient suffering. After I graduated, I decided to pursue a one year masters in anatomy to up my resume for medical school applications, which I’d be applying to the following year. I was also hired by my masters program to serve as a faculty member teaching anatomy at Eastern Virginia Medical School to medical and health professional students. The two years I worked in academia changed my life. This position allowed me to both teach and conduct my own research! I finally had the opportunity to explore the scientific literature, develop project ideas, and see them through to publication. The more research I did, the more I found myself wishing I had more time in each day just to read scientific literature. I distinctly remember one conversation I had with my mentor. I told her that I wish I could start the first several hours of each day just reading the literature because I just didn’t have time to read everything I needed to in order to keep up with the research ideas we were creating. She told me that’s what all the big laboratory principal investigators (PI) do. This made me start to consider that perhaps my ideal career was not a career as a physician, but as a PI instead. I also learned that I was good at finding problems and figuring out ways to explore them within the resources available to me.
While working in academia, I saw many physicians who both saw patients and performed research as academic physicians. As an academic physician you are typically expected to teach, conduct research, and see patients. This used to be my dream career but as I self reflected, I knew this may not work best with my personality. I am an extremist. When I do something, I put 1000% of myself into that activity. If I decided to be an academic physician, I worried that it would debilitate the extremist in me. I cannot be pulled in too many directions and do productive work. It completely stresses me out! But there are many people who thrive in an environment that allows you to do everything. It is up to you to decide.
Being a scientist is a little like being Sherlock Holmes. You basically create a crime map and explore how to find your answer. This labyrinth of work will always create more questions than we can ever solve. But I like questions. In fact, I am always asking questions and thinking about ways to find the answers.
When deciding Physician or Scientist, one of the major decisions to make is do you want to directly care for patients. By pursuing a PhD and a career as a scientist, I knew I would not be directly caring for patients; however, the research I do and the papers that I will write will be the ones physicians read to advise them on new ways to care for their patients. Even though I will not directly be touching the lives of individual patients, I hope to indirectly change thousands.
Neither field is better than the other. In fact, both need compassionate and empathetic individuals to change people’s lives. I have always been fascinated with asking questions, finding holes in the literature, and exploring ways to fill these gaps. By becoming a scientist, I can do this 24-7. I can live and breath science!!