Is medicine for me?

Young doctor
Becoming a doctor is incredibly popular, but you’ll be choosing a lifestyle rather than just a job. Make sure it’s right for you before committing to five or more years at medical school.

‘Should I do medicine?’ Consider carefully! Being a doctor is a unique career that brings a demanding lifestyle and plenty of stress, while not being the best paid graduate job. It requires spending at least five years at university, then completing a challenging series of training programmes that combine full time work with further study. These will take you at least another five years, and could be more than ten. You’ll need to be genuinely interested in medicine and motivated to do the best for your patients in order to feel that it’s worth the hassle. ‘Be prepared for the fact that it’s a life, not just a job,’ says Dr Sheena Sharma, a GP partner and trainer at Bartlemas Surgery in Cowley, Oxford. ‘You’ve got to love it or it’s not worth the stress.’

Read on for more insights from Sheena and from Dr Heather Thomas, a paediatric registrar (ST4 – specialist trainee) who works in a hospital. You’ll discover:

Elsewhere on site you can find:

  • our guide to medicine degrees, including what to expect at medical school and how to get in
  • an overview of how to become a doctor, covering the entire qualification process, plus explanations of key terminology and medical specialties.

If you’ve only just started researching medical careers, you’ll find it useful to take a look at these so as to understand the basics of the qualification process before reading on.

Can doctors choose where in the country they’re based?

If you want to be a doctor, you’ll need to be flexible about where in the country you work. This is particularly the case if you want to train as a hospital doctor, though it’s also a consideration for would-be GPs.

When applying for the two-year foundation programme after university, you’ll need to rank the different regions of the UK in the order in which you’d like to be based there. However, places are allocated on a competitive basis. All eligible applicants are given a score out of 100 based on factors such as their academic achievement, and the higher your score the greater the chance of getting one of your top preferences.

Once you’ve been allocated to a region, you’ll then need to rank the individual placements available in the different towns and cities – again, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the ones you want. You’re also very likely to do your different placements in different locations within the region – six four-month placements over the two years is typical – so you may need to keep moving house or be prepared for some long commutes. Regions vary in size but most cover several counties; Scotland is a single region, as are Wales and Northern Ireland.

Likewise, when you apply for speciality training, or specialty training for general practice (the next step in your training), you’ll get to rank your geographical preferences, but again may not get one of your first choices.

Heather comments: ‘Geographical location of your work is often out of your control. Applications for specialty training can be competitive, with no guarantee of getting a job where you want to be. Even within a training programme, you might have to work in five different hospitals that are many miles apart. This means moving house often, or commuting long distances.’

Sheena explains that at the moment the situation is better for would-be GP trainees, once they have finished their foundation programme. ‘When applying for GP specialty training it is currently quite easy to get the area you want, as most areas end up with spare places (London and Oxford are the exception, as they are very popular choices) – but this may have changed by the time today’s school students reach this point.’ She adds: ‘The geographical areas in which you are based are quite small – a lot smaller than for specialty training. For example, within Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire there are about 15 areas. Generally you’ll get placements near where you live and will only typically have a 30- to 45-minute drive to work.’

How much do doctors earn?

Doctors earn a good salary, especially once they are a consultant or fully qualified GP. However, if earning a high salary is your main reason for considering medicine and you have the grades to get into medical school, there are other careers that will get you up the salary ladder more quickly. For example, becoming an investment banker, city lawyer or management consultant is particularly lucrative; other areas of finance plus IT and engineering also pay well while typically offering better work/life balance. Read up on I want to be rich – which jobs can I do?’ for more detail. Some of these jobs only require you to have a three-year undergraduate degree (four years in Scotland) before you start work, so not only can starting salaries be higher but you’ll be earning them at a younger age.

Also keep in mind that doctors often work quite long hours (as do some of the top-paying careers listed above). Sheena comments that being a doctor ‘isn’t very well paid for the number of hours you work’.

How many hours do doctors work and what other commitments do they have?

Under the European Working Time Directive, doctors’ hours are limited to 48 per week on average (or 56, if they decide to opt out). However, given that this is an average, they may work longer some weeks and less on others, and it’s possible for these to creep up if not carefully monitored. Many doctors also need to work shifts, including overnight. On top of these hours, doctors often have other commitments – for example, junior doctors need to study towards becoming fully qualified, GPs and consultants need to keep their skills and knowledge up to date, and there may be other calls on their time too.

Heather comments: ‘Shift patterns vary hugely. One week you might have four 12-hour night shifts, and the next week you might have five 9–5 days. Children often get unwell in the evening or overnight, and paediatrics does involve a lot of out-of-hours work, right up to consultant level.’

She continues: ‘Antisocial hours can be exhausting and can make relationships and family life difficult. This is definitely improving and many people now work less than full time (including myself), improving the work/life balance. However, it is still hard to work evenings and nights for most of your career, which is the reality in most specialties.’

In terms of other commitments, Heather explains: ‘There’s a huge amount of work expected outside working hours – including revision, courses, research and audit. You have to be willing to spend lots of spare time studying, and also be aware that you will be taking exams into your 30s, unlike friends in other careers.

‘For example, by the fourth year of paediatrics training you are required to pass four exams to become a Member of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (MRCPCH). This requires a lot of studying. Throughout training you also have to complete a training eportfolio demonstrating that you are furthering your knowledge with courses, further reading, teaching students and colleagues, and taking part in audit and research. In reality most of these activities take place outside working hours.’

Sheena adds: ‘Being a GP is hard work. You can work 10 or 12 hour days with no break. You’ll probably have lunch while in a meeting or in the car between home visits. At my surgery we have a 20-minute ‘coffee’ break each day when the doctors gather together, but this is used to discuss patients.’

How clever do you have to be to be a doctor?

You need high grades to get into medical school – see our medicine degree guide for more detail on what’s required. If you’re clever enough to meet the requirements, you should be clever enough to succeed in medical school and as a doctor.

Sheena comments: ‘You don’t really need the grades required. That is, you only need the grades that medical schools ask for in order to get in, as it’s very competitive – you don’t need to be an academic superstar to be a doctor. So as long as you can get into med school don’t worry about whether you are clever enough to progress from there.’

Heather adds: ‘To pass and enjoy a medical degree you have to be motivated, enthusiastic, hard-working, reasonably good at science and have good communication skills.’

You can also find more information from medical students on the difficulty level of their courses in the medicine degree guide.

What type of personality do you need to be a doctor?

As outlined by Heather above, motivation, enthusiasm, communication skills and willingness to work hard are important. However, she doesn’t feel that you need a specific type of personality to succeed, commenting: ‘Medicine is such a huge and diverse career with so many specialties, that I think many different personality types would be suited to a career in medicine if they are keen and motivated to do so.’

Sheena feels that people skills are important. She states: ‘You need to love people and care about people. It’s not just scientific all the time. However, there are directions you could go in if you just want to focus on the science, eg pathology.’

How stressful is being a doctor?

Doctors need to be prepared to deal with stress and with upsetting situations. Heather explains: ‘It is a hugely responsible job and can be very stressful. Many departments are currently understaffed relative to the volume of work, and it can sometimes feel very difficult to keep on top of everything.

‘Unfortunately we do also have to deal with some very challenging situations. One of these is child protection – identifying children who may have been abused and reporting it to social services. As a doctor it is horrible to have to suspect that someone may have harmed a child, and it is stressful to go through the legal proceedings involved in these cases.

‘It can also be very hard looking after children with life-threatening or life-limiting conditions, and it is devastating for the whole team when a child dies. It is, however, our role to ensure that children have minimal suffering and that families are well supported in these awful circumstances, and it is a privilege to help them in any way possible.’

Sheena feels that the element of risk can be stressful, commenting: ‘You make life-and-death decisions, and most decisions you make on your own. This can cause anxiety. Also, you never feel like you know enough.’

What are the best things about being a doctor?

In terms of being a doctor in general, Heather describes the rewards as follows: ‘There’s huge job satisfaction and a feeling of working for a good cause. It is a privilege to work with people at some of the hardest times of their lives, and there’s the opportunity to do research and advance the field.

‘There’s a variety of work available and working with colleagues in a multi-disciplinary team makes an enjoyable and dynamic environment. Day-to-day work will never be boring. You are very rarely sitting at a desk! It is a busy and practical job and there will always be new challenges, new treatments and new and interesting patients.’

As regards her specialism, Heather comments: ‘The best part of being a paediatrician is seeing children recover from illness and bounce into the playroom. Children are so resilient and as soon as they are feeling a bit better they are keen to play. I also love seeing babies finally leaving the neonatal unit after being born extremely prematurely. These babies have so many huge challenges in the first few months, and seeing them finally go home is amazing. It is even more amazing when they visit the ward several years later as boisterous children, especially if you have looked after them as a tiny baby in an incubator.’

Sheena finds life as a GP very rewarding. ‘You build relationships and get to know people and the community’, she comments. ‘Also, GP surgeries have a nice, supportive, family-type environment – more so than hospitals. And there’s flexibility, for example working part time if you have children. ‘There’s a lot of variety – for example you may go from dealing with an emergency such as a heart attack or attempted suicide to dealing with a rash. Finally, there are good opportunities for career development, such as training and courses that are available even once you have finished training.’

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