Does medical school ever pay off?


In an oft-cited psychology experiment from the 1960s done at Stanford, toddlers were isolated in a room with a table on which sat a single marshmallow. If they could resist the temptation to eat it, as they were told by the experimenters, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows later on.

If we replaced these toddlers with medical students as the subjects, the experimenters would have run out of either marshmallows or patience. After all, we medical students are the masters of delayed gratification and would have kept on waiting till we had enough marshmallows to make s’mores.

But that patience can only be stretched so thin. An increasingly common refrain — nay, complaint — among my classmates is that we’ll never reap the rewards. We’ll never make it to real life, as we tend to joke around.

While many of us, in the peak of our twenties, have yet to earn a steady paycheck. And it would appear as if everyone in our social circles outside of medicine — from friends from high school and college to even our younger siblings — are all either getting married, purchasing houses, having babies or doing them all at once. These days, Facebook and Instagram constantly and uncomfortably remind us of how fast and yet time passes unnoticeably during training and how much of our lives have been put on pause.

So the nagging question plastered on the back of all our minds is when we will get our marshmallow.

This month, my classmates and I will start our third year of clinical rotations. To outsiders, it may seem like another typical year of grinding away till we receive our degrees. But for my classmates and me, it marks a milestone in our medical training. No more paid actors pretending to be sick patients. No more practicing physical exams on fellow classmates. No more hypothetical scenarios on paper or pre-recorded heart sounds. From now on, it’s dealing with sick patients with real diseases.

No, it’s not as glitzy as seeing our bank accounts suddenly light up or signing a lease on a new car or apartment. And, most likely, announcing this transition won’t receive as many likes on Facebook or retweets compared to those wedding photo albums. But it’s comparable. Because after years and years (since childhood for many of us, myself included) of enviously watching and waiting from the outside, we can finally help people who will actually need it.

But let’s not be naïve. We’ll still only be third-year medical students, the very bottom of the medical food chain, and many — maybe even most — of our expectations won’t be met over this next year. Some of us will even question our decision to enter this field in the first place. Some of my close friends who have started their clinical rotations have told stories of sleeping overnight in their cars after scrubbing in on a 12-hour surgery or arriving at the hospital to prepare for the next day at 2:30 in the morning.

Perhaps the lesson, then, is that there isn’t a marshmallow at the end for us. That even after all this waiting and training and more waiting and more training, our only reward is another seemingly endless road.

But that’s what makes medicine simultaneously so intriguing, yet so frustrating, and partly why we signed up in the first place. Though we may one day finally attain the status of intern or resident or fellow or even attending there will still always be another patient to treat, another surgery to refine, another milestone to reach.

So no, we probably won’t ever get that marshmallow — but that’s fine. We’ve gained and will continue to gain many more valuable rewards along the way.

Steven Zhang is a medical student who blogs at Scope, where this article originally appeared.

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