As an economics major entering med school, I was intimidated by a sea of classmates who had a deeper understanding of s-enantiomers than me. Once I hunkered down through first-semester biochemistry, the practical tools developed in an economics program have brought dividends throughout the rest of my career. Since it’s about time for another crop of frosh and sophomores to start thinking about their futures, here are a few points in favor of studying economics for pre-medical school undergraduates.
1. Economics, like medicine, analyzes human behavior. Medicine is the practical modification of the human organism, including its behavior, to promote health and reduce disease. This is true whether you are a surgeon asking your patient to show up for a brain MRI, or a public health professional trying to solve the obesity crisis. If you want to change people (physically, emotionally, or socially), you should study people, not molecules.
2. Incentives are everywhere – but you have to know how to look. Without a deep, organic understanding of incentives, the world of medicine is a confusing and often maddening place. With that understanding in place, many aspects of medicine are demystified.
3. Cost-benefit decision-making is vital in medicine. If you don’t understand how to think about risk, probability, and magnitude in a rigorous way, you’ll be swayed by your last complication, or by a patient’s optimism or fear, rather than keep a clear-eyed perspective.
4. Economics encourages the application of quantitative methods to solve human problems. Sure, I did more stats in my engineering or math classes, but where did I learn to collect, analyze and interpret large datasets? You guessed it …
5. Economic analysis encourages systems-level thinking. Ever tried to understand why a business or a hospital or a state government does something? Ever think that those actions might have a profound effect on your career? Maybe you should understand them.
6. A little econ goes a long way. Learn more than a little chemistry, and then what? Perhaps if you get a bunch of Bunsen burners and those analytes, you can recreate some of your experiments? With a modest (e.g., undergraduate) level knowledge of economics, you have a powerful portal into complex worlds that you inhabit on a daily basis.
7. Economics is a diverse field with something for everyone. Whether you’re a poet or a hard-core hacker, you can find a sub-field of economics that interests you. In fact, every facet of human life involves tradeoffs, incentives, and decision-making: That’s all economics is.
8. Economics courses are filled with people who have different career goals (not pre-meds). This is important for several reasons:
- College is your last best chance to find intellectual and experiential diversity. Don’t waste that time hanging with the same crowd you’re gonna spend the next 40 years with.
- Someday you might want to start a company. Guess who you’re going to ask for advice (a.k.a. money)?
- Someday these people will start companies, some of which will be in medicine. Guess who they’re going to ask for advice (a.k.a. give money)?
- Spiritually, being surrounded by pre-meds can be soul-sucking.
Most importantly, economics taught me that I didn’t have to culture cells in a dish to do interesting and life-changing work. I built a habit of being inquisitive and intellectually curious about the world around me because I learned in undergrad that our human, flawed world contains elegant experiments, puzzling oddities, and fertile ground for inquiry. That profound change in mindset is the most important lesson I could have learned from my undergraduate major, and I’ll always be a grateful ex-economist.
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