Robert Nanni was in his first year in Western Science when he settled down into one of his first biology lectures. Professor Tom Haffie began by asking the students who want to go to medical school to raise their hands.
Nanni's hand went up along with hundreds of others in the lecture hall. Prof. Haffie then asked all but 10 or so people to lower their hands.
“That’s who’s getting into medical school,” Haffie declared.
This experience stuck with Nanni, who is now a fourth-year chemistry student at Western.
Nanni, like many others, came to Western with the intention of attending medical school. Having always excelled in math and science, medical school seemed like the obvious path for him.
“All my life, I guess I was just predisposed to thinking that a science degree should culminate in medical school,” Nanni says. “That’s what I always worked for.”
The summer after his second year, Nanni spent dozens of hours studying for his MCAT. That August, he wrote the test. But during the process, Nanni began to question whether medicine was what he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing.
Suddenly, despite years of preparation, he realized that although he enjoyed chemistry, physics, psychology and sociology, he absolutely hated biology.
“It was very scary because I didn’t know what else I could do,” Nanni explains. “I had never pursued things outside of science.”
Nanni isn’t alone — many science students who once aspired to go to medical school either change their minds or don’t get in.
From there, their choices may seem limited due to the wide-spread notion that medical school is the apex of science.
This fixation with medicine can create a student culture where those who think outside the medical field are often questioned and insulted for their “less ambitious” goals.
Unlike Nanni, fourth-year medical sciences student, Christina Arsenault, never wanted to go to medical school. She’s had her eyes on optometry since high school.
“I do hear a lot of people who are applying to med school say, ‘Oh, I’m going to use optometry as my fallback,’ and that’s kind of insulting,” Arsenault says.
Over the years, Arsenault has loved every minute of her time spent volunteering at optometrists’ offices and shadowing an optometrist.
“I’ve honestly tried to consider alternatives, but I couldn’t think of anything I would like better than optometry,” she says.
But for those pursuing medical school, the odds are against them.
In 2014–15, only 17.9 per cent of Canadian medical school applications were accepted nation-wide. Western’s Schulich School of Medicine reported an acceptance rate of just over six per cent in 2016.
This means that outside of the small fraction admitted, most aspirants will have to choose a new career path at some point in their degree. And although professors often present research as an alternative, academic research only represents six per cent of science jobs.
A medical (school) mystery
For many students, the pressure to go to medical school is constant from day one.
“It’s an uphill battle for us because it’s cultural – it’s not just the students that want to go to med school, it’s their parents and their grandparents,” says Lauren Starr, a career services officer for science students at Western.
Society, she says, places a lot of emphasis on doctors’ high salaries and job security, as well as their unique position to help people.
“It actually floors me that there are as many people that want to do [medicine] as there are, because I think it’s a really hard job — it’s hard to be a superhero every day,” Starr says.
While not explicitly promoted by science faculties, medical school is highlighted in other ways. In most instances, medicine is used as the default example, Arsenault says.
"That makes it kind of seem like med school is the big, top choice of our program,” she adds.
Madeline Jeffery, a former biomedical sciences student at Western, has witnessed similar behaviour.
“If you’re a competitive person with good marks, you do care about the expectations of others,” Jeffery says, “which I think applies to everyone.”
She adds that students who openly consider alternatives to medicine are generally seen as “taking the easy way out.”
These attitudes, regardless of motives, may have some influence on a student's scholastic decisions.
“I probably didn’t consider many other alternatives because of the social status of those jobs,” says Jeffery, who is now at Ivey Business School.
But Jeffery and Nanni aren't the only students to change their mind about medical school. So where are the majority of science graduates actually going?
The silent majority
In reality, most science students actually end up in (usually) science-based companies and industries.
In fact, a 2011 Statistics Canada survey found that only 16 per cent of workers with backgrounds in biological and applied sciences worked in healthcare, and only six per cent in university research departments.
Starr says many find work in chemical, environmental and bioinformatics firms. Others end up in manufacturing, helping to produce new foods, beverages, paints or biotechnology devices, or developing new kinds of puffers, vaccines or cures.
Students who want to make meaningful contributions to public health can still influence medicine from within these companies, Starr says.
“This idea that you can only help people if you’re a doctor or an academic researcher, that’s not true at all,” she continues.
Ashleigh Lerch, a career counsellor at the Student Success Centre, believes the focus should be on students finding a career that best fits their identity.
“There’s not necessarily a ‘better’ career option, but maybe there is a ‘better fit’ for different people,” Lerch explains.
Western offers many services, events and programs to help science students find the right jobs.
But even for students who seem certain of their career path, having a contingency plan is always a good idea, Lerch says. She has met students who have earned medical degrees and later decided that they didn’t actually want to practice medicine.
Lerch explains that the challenge has always been advertising these alternative careers — professors, TAs, and students alike are already busy enough, so sacrificing class time to discuss alternate career paths isn’t always an option.
“It comes down to balancing different priorities of not only students, but also educators,” Lerch says.
A viable cure?
Jeffery knows first-hand what would have helped expose her to applications for her science degree.
“I think it has to do with getting people’s honest experiences,” Jeffery says.
Jeffery faced a situation similar to Nanni after finishing her second year in science. After an uninspiring foray into research and writing the MCAT, she too questioned her commitment to medicine and science.
One of her professors used their final class to talk honestly about his lacklustre time in medical school.
“I’d never heard of someone having that experience,” Jeffery explains. It was not the picturesque narrative that she was used to.
Drawing from that classroom conversation, Jeffery suggests that more professors should use some class time to discuss a wider range of career paths.
“If you had those experiences more accessible to students, maybe they would realize med school is not a perfect situation; it’s a fit for certain people,” Jeffery says.
Jeffery, during her time at Ivey, discovered a newfound love for finance. She’s much more interested in classes and enjoying her program.
Speaking from experience, Jeffery asks students to be open to switching paths.
“Even if you’ve told all your friends and family for years that you’re going to do this,” Jeffery says, “this is only going to affect you.”
Nanni, too, found a new passion and was recently accepted to Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. For him, law represents the perfect mix of what he loves most about the analytical process of chemistry and the social aspects of psychology.
To all students going through something similar, “embrace it,” Nanni says. “There's more to life than just one path that leads to medical school.”
Editor's note: Robert Nanni was previously an editor at The Gazette during Volume 109.