I’ve had a few people ask me to write about this, so here goes. First off, my story is just that – mine and potentially not entirely applicable to others looking to change careers, but nonetheless I’m going to attempt to pull out the pearls and advice that I can. Here’s the step by step process I took to a total career and life change, from President of a boutique Interactive Advertising Agency, to Emergency Medicine Physician, in the span of 7.5 years.
STEP 1: Recognize you need a change
Sometimes the need for change is obvious – if you find yourself counting down the clock to the end of your workday, then something is likely wrong. What’s harder is recognizing the need for a career change when it’s less obvious – when you like the job you have, but you have more passion for something else. That was the case with me. I’d been fortunate enough to have great success in my last career. I was well-paid for doing interesting work with cool people. But, I had been volunteering with the rescue squad for 3 years and had gone back to school to get my Advanced Life Support (ALS) certification. I felt alive and intellectually stimulated in the course. I was finally getting to learn the deeper pathophysiology behind what I’d been seeing in my patients for the last 3 years. And, instead of volunteering the required 48 hours per month with my rescue squad, I was logging somewhere just over 100 hours per month. I was about to cross a threshold where I was spending just as much time pursuing my passion for Emergency Medicine as I was in my professional field of Interactive Marketing. That’s when I first had the idea of a career switch. That was October 2007.
STEP 2: Mull it over
A career change isn’t the kind of thing you should decide on a whim. So, do yourself and those around you a favor and take some time to digest the idea. One of the smartest things I did was asked my friends what they thought, “Could you see me as a doctor?” “Do you think I’d miss marketing & technology?” “When do I seem most happy?” If you have great friends & family like I do, they’ll have noticed this and be willing to share. For the record, my parents did ask me the night of my EMT-B graduation (December 2004), “Are you sure you don’t want to go to medical school?”
That said, be prepared that this is the stage where the naysayers also come out. I can’t tell you how many people said to me something along the lines of, “So I guess you don’t want marriage and kids then, huh?” To which I wanted to reply, “No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that.” The implication is reasonable though, and certainly something I took into consideration. At the time I was 27 and single with no kids. If I was accepted to medical school, would I ever have time to date? Even if I met the right person, would I be able to balance marriage, babies and a life as a Med Student/Resident?
But at the same time, was I going to put my dreams and my life on hold waiting for a theoretical knight on a white horse that might never arrive? I saw myself 10 years later without my knight or my dream career in medicine. I most certainly didn’t want to come up empty handed on both counts.
What about the financial implications? Here’s where it helped that I was single with no kids. Supporting just myself, I’d been able to save a decent lump of money while working. I was in a position to quit working and go back to school full-time (more on that in a bit). And if it meant going back to eating Ramen Noodles, it was just me who would have to suffer.
STEP 3: Gather Information
Having not been a pre-med major, I had no idea what the rules were for medical school. For example, would they even accept someone over the age of 30? What prerequisite courses are required? Does it matter that I majored in Computer Science, Marketing & Spanish and not Chemistry or Biology? What’s on this MCAT thing? Every career field will have some of these rules, written and unwritten. You need to know what you’re up against.
Do yourself a favor and do what I did. Make some appointments to meet with the people that matter. I had two major challenges: 1) identify and take all of the prerequisite courses and 2) understand admission requirements for medical school and assess my competitiveness. So, I knew I needed to talk to someone at an undergraduate university and at a medical school. Because I wanted to stay local, I set up appointments with the Dean of Sciences at Old Dominion University (ODU) and the Dean of Admissions at Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS). Getting the appointments was much easier than I had anticipated. I simply filled out contact forms on the websites for each school; they emailed me back within 48 hours. That was November 2007.
Also, this is a great time to network. On a side note, coming out of undergrad I was very hesitant to play the Networking game. I naively wanted to feel like I achieved everything I had on my own, without “cheating.” After working for a few years, I learned that success is actually a combination of three things: hard work, luck and help from those around you. Your neighbor may have gone to college with the Hiring Manager for the job you have your eyes on. Ask your Facebook friends if they know the people in charge at the place you want to go. Did you know you can search Facebook for people who work at specific companies? Simply type in “Friends who work at ________” and you might be surprised to find that someone you know works at the company or school where you need an “in.” Here’s an example from my page of “Friends who work at Google.”
The last thing I did as a part of my information gathering was organize what I had learned about the situation. A pro and con list if you will. It looked something like this:
STEP 4: Pull the trigger
This was actually the easiest step for me. By the time I reached the end of my Information Gathering stage, my decision was essentially made for me. So many people have barriers to making a big career change – no money for classes, family commitments, you name it – I had none of those things. I knew and still know so many people that would kill to be able to pursue a new life dream but can’t. Most of my CONS were just related to money. I couldn’t NOT do it.
STEP 5: Enjoy the ride
While med school was downright miserable at sometimes, ok many times, one thing I can say about this whole journey is that it’s been an amazing experience to help me grow as a person. I’ve learned a ton about myself, what motivates me, what I can survive. And, I feel true to my soul having pursued what at many points felt like an impossible dream. Oh, and the icing on the cake, I met and married my best friend.