The (Wrong) Reasons to Become a Doctor: A Medical Ethicist’s Perspective

This post is written from the point-of-view of pre-medical students, but I believe the issues and topics that I discuss can be applied to any undergraduate student who has a desire to learn. 

As we search for meaning in our lives, we worry most about “Why do we want to become a doctor?” Indeed, as our fragile souls are knocked and swayed by existential crises and moments of doubt and insecurity by the overture of every Chemistry exam or weekend of volunteering, our searches for meaning and satisfaction ultimately leave us with only our constructed answers. Though it would be ridiculous to make decisions of the rest of our life in response to the temporary moodiness that mark any neophyte, whether we like it or not we, undergraduates, are forced to ask ourselves what we want to do with our lives and why. It’s important to put things into a bigger perspective that, while we are here to learn about ourselves and the rest of the world, we should not feel pressured to forget about our purpose.

You’ve probably heard the far too-oft repeated buzz-purpose “to work with people” or “help people.” I mean, it seems like an easy option, right? Despite its banal general feeling, wouldn’t want to work with other people or help others? It seems to be the prime quality of an empathetic, righteous human being. Throughout volunteering, extracurriculars, research, and whatever else we do, we find ourselves doing things out of a love of helping others and working with people. Digging deeper, we ask ourselves what it really means to “work with people.”

Yesterday, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, Medical Ethics Professor at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, and ask him if he had made any observations about the motives and purposes of medical students in their work. I explained to him how I have already spoken with several different professors about how our motivations for why we learn and behave may have significant implications. Specifically, I asked Dr. Sulmasy about our pressure to act and do things for “utilitarian” purposes, rather than finding a “truer” meaning behind the things we do.  He responded that there was indeed a difference between students pursuing actions for “Intrinsic”, rather than “Instrumental” purposes. One can imagine that studying for an exam because learning organic chemistry reactions has an intrinsic value that chemists and scientists truly appreciate may be more helpful and successful than students studying for the sake of obtaining a decent grade on an exam. Perhaps we, pre-medical students, should use these intrinsic values of our academics to find deeper meanings beyond “a desire to work with people.” As another example, we find students who want to study poetry for the sake of satiating a desire to understand the human condition and the beauty of art at odds with students who study how to program software that can detect viruses in human DNA. Sulmasy continued that the battle at the hands of our motives and purposes is a test of sincerity that is very often showed in graduate & medical school applications. And one does not need to throw away the motive of “utilitarianism” altogether. We could argue that, if students approach their studies for more “intrinsic” purposes, then society will have more motivated and mindful scientists & doctors that would provide a greater practical benefit for everyone. And, of course, these issues are exhibited among all students, not just pre-medical students. Aside from the amusing alliteration, his comparison drew from examples of doing things for the purpose obtaining a reward out of their pre-medical/medical experience exhibited by his students.

Back to the troubling idea of the proper reasons for becoming a doctor, we could choose to say that “we want to solve the problems of the world.” No matter whether you’re studying theoretical mathematics or creating irrigation systems in Sudan, the world has a lot of problems. And the “problem-solving” rhetoric has pervaded through all of society, especially in STEM fields. But what is “problem-solving”? This seems clear enough on the surface. The college education allow students to approach different types of problems. Who wouldn’t want someone to be able to think through problems for them? We hear about this a lot, especially in mathematics. We talk about how the U.S. needs more problem-solvers, how STEM is going to gift us with these important skills, and even how our medical schools place a huge emphasis on it. But what does “problem-solving” really mean? 

While it is true that the pre-medical career and STEM courses give us amazing problem-solving abilities, the rhetoric for pursuing these opportunities is written with a solid practical underline. But let’s not write this off so quickly as a meaningless materialism. After all, we do want students to become scientists, engineers, and doctors so that they will help solve the problems of society. And this desire to help society may stem from humane virtues of empathy and love of what humans do. But, in reality, I do not believe it is even possible for students to learn how to solve the problems of society during our four years of sitting through lectures and laboratory discussions. Even for the most professional jobs, the administration of academia can’t reasonably give us the specific skills to solve problems that the world will face tomorrow. And I do worry, though, that our overemphasis in the rhetoric of these values of a STEM education causes us to lose sight of the similar values that can be obtained from studying the Arts & Humanities (similar to my previous comparison of a student studying poetry vs. a study studying software engineering). After all, while a Computer Science major may know how to write lines of code that can develop the next Uber, the English major will understand the complicated “expectations vs. reality” of Silicon Valley that will tell us what the good ideas are. It is still unclear how we should look at our education as a way of developing problem-solving skills because we don’t have a good idea of where those problems will lie now or in the future. With any doubt, we know that the liberal arts education must be protected to ensure students can obtain the full value of the disciplines and material that we choose to study.

Is our notion of “problem-solving” too broadly defined? If we look at our college education as a way to learn how to solve problems, then this certainly seems to satisfy both a utilitarian purpose that will help us in future careers and a more “scholastic” purpose that will do justice to the reasons why we should learn. Is this why we struggle to find meaning in our college education? All we know is that we must go beyond the superficial feelings of desires to “work with people” and “help others” of the American education system to know what we really want to know.

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