Opinion: The pre-medical and biological hype among high schoolers

It is very likely to have heard high school students say that they dream of going into the biomedical field or of becoming a doctor.

On platforms like Confidential college and Reddit, it is not that difficult to see discussions related to the competitiveness of entry into the biomedical field. In fact, even a simple Google search for medical and high school leads to a plethora of recommended searches such as “what courses do I need to take to become a doctor”, “average GPA for medical school” and “I don’t know not why I want to be a doctor.”

Sooyeon Lee, who is a student counselor in Los Angeles, gave her insight into this creeping interest in medicine among students based on her 25 years of college counseling.

“When students come to me and I ask them what they want to do, 8/10 is biology and medicine,” Lee said.

Biology is still one of the most popular college degree choices. In 2019-20, biological and biomedical sciences were the second most popular major nationwide with 169,876 degrees awarded, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In addition, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in health professions and related programs increased by 94% between 2009-2010 and 2018-2019, rising from 129,600 to 251,400 degrees.

“Students with outstanding GPAs, high test scores, and rigorous pursuits all automatically plan to conduct medical research and work in hospitals over the summer,” Lee said. “It’s as if medicine is still the go-to choice for these high-achieving students.”

In order to build a strong resume which showcases potentials and abilities in the field of medicine, many high school students participate in prestigious scientific research competitions, rigorous hospital internships, and selective pre-medical summer programs.

Sooyeon Lee explained his experience in finding medical activities for his students who aspire to pursue medical studies.

“Many of my students get so caught up in collecting awards and recognition that they lose sight of their main goal. It’s as if becoming a doctor isn’t really their real dream, but the confirmation and final reward for having worked hard and studied hard.

In support of what Lee said, experts offered potential reasons that could explain why students are pursuing medicine when it is not their true passion.

First, the most common, classic case researchers see is parental pressure. Often, exceptionally talented STEM students – but without a clear future plan – are pressured by their parents to enter the biomedical field. Too unsure of their true passion to resist this promising and financially rewarding path, many students give in to the pressure to become doctors.

Another possible explanation is that a healthcare career offers the opportunity to earn a higher salary than is offered in some other industries. The median annual salary for medical professionals was $66,440 in 2018, which is significantly higher than the median annual salary for all other professions, which was $38,640.

A relatively new proposition is that the leadership and dedication of healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an increase in the number of students hoping to study medicine, in the same way that the 9/11 incident resulted in an increase in number of applicants to the US Army. Because doctors are hailed as heroes, students feel inspired to achieve a similar status in society, applauded and appreciated by many.

But parental influence, admiration for doctors during the pandemic, and the traditional belief that “doctors make a lot of money” are not enough to explain the recent increase in preference for medicine among high school students.

Essentially, the hype of biology among high school students is accompanied by a narrow understanding of what “science” entails and an inability to distinguish between “profession” and a “vocation”.

Science is a broad subject that consists of many subtopics. Even biology itself is a scientific field that includes a wide range of subjects such as paleontology, zoology, and astrobiology. However, the limited prospects among adolescent students make medical sciences, such as neuroscience and pharmacology, only appear as attractive options.

For example, a group of wildlife biologists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology developed a computer technology which listens and identifies bird sounds to determine which species are changing due to human-induced habitat loss or climate change.

Subsequently, a team of researchers in Japan has developed an enzyme that breaks down plastic in days – much faster than the hundreds of years that plastic usually takes to break down. Astrobiology researchers cooperate to launch space mining – an industry that aims to save humanity from extreme resource depletion in the future earth.

Surgery and treatment of patients are of course vital and heroic practices that improve the lives of many people. But there are other innovative ways to use biology and science to promote the well-being of the world, as evidenced by the various advances made in recent years.

Subsequently, the strong favoritism towards the medical field is attributable to the fact that students do not recognize that becoming a doctor is a “vocation”.

“Work” is a task or work that is done for a living. “Vocation” is the occupation that enables people to become the most ideal version of themselves. A job can provide status, money, and security, but it cannot provide the motivated mindset to persist in the dynamics of life. In the “hyper-competitive world” of medicine where even those with the skills and mindset are struggling to enter, there is even less room for those with the skills but a moderate mindset .

Becoming a doctor is a really long and exhausting journey that requires many sacrifices. Desiring to become a doctor just for the value and pride of the name is too weak a motivating force to sustain a person through the countless hardships along the way. The strong mentality that makes these sacrifices bearable comes from unconditional dedication to the tasks one is called upon to do.

It is not true that “doctor” is the most lucrative and admirable profession. On the cover, the doctors look like heroes: learning important lessons through hardship and ultimately emerging more mature and successful. However, late night calls, endless paperwork, impatient tutors and hectic appointment schedules are not easily manageable challenges without sincere and wholehearted commitment.

Thus, it is unreasonable for talented, science-loving students to automatically think of ‘surgeon’, ‘dentist’ and ‘anaesthesiologist’ as the most rewarding and worthy career choice. These “pre-med obsessed” students should venture out and explore other areas of science where many amazing STEM brains are needed.

If medicine really sounds like a vocation, they should well consider that the psychological pains beyond the door of the clinic make “doctor” a job with the highest suicide rate of any profession.

“There are countless career opportunities out there, and all of these students must have their own perfect match,” Lee said. “I don’t want superficial or superficial imagination on the part of doctors to prevent them from becoming what really suits them.”

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