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If your dream is to become a doctor, a common pathway is to jump into a scientific research role first – before embarking on the challenges of a medicine degree.
While some people strategically plan their career path this way, many others start out with a research career as the end goal, but later decide they’d prefer to be wearing a stethoscope.
So if you have a background in research, does it make sense to go back and study medicine?
We asked three Deakin medicine students, who all switched from careers in research, about their experiences.
After studying science/arts after high school (dropping the arts section along the way), Amy Rogers completed her honours in biochemistry, before working as a research assistant at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
For three years, she worked on projects involving cancer immunology and acute myeloid leukaemia.
Rogers, now 26, said during her first uni stint, she half-heartedly considered studying medicine.
But those going down the path to become a doctor seemed very different to her. ‘The other students trying for medicine during my undergrad were a more type-A, very studious, highly focused on medicine.’
It was her colleagues that inspired Rogers to study to become a doctor.
‘They (the doctors) had a clear link back to their patients in their research goals,’ she says. ‘I was impressed and inspired by the clear compassion they had for others. I felt like I wanted that sort of meaning in my own career.’
While her research role was very specific, Rogers says the content of the medicine degree is quite broad.
However she believes her experience helped her develop a willingness to ask questions, while also improving her research and general organisational skills.
Her advice to others interested in both research and medicine?
‘Research is a difficult and competitive field that is worthwhile pursuing in its own right, so I don’t think anyone should go into research with the goal of using it to get into medicine,’ she says.
‘People in the medicine degree do well with various backgrounds. Research worked out well for me, though.’
Anastasia Sizemova’s career goals have shifted markedly from her early days studying science/arts.
‘Initially I wanted to do arts because I wanted to be either a journalist or a translator – my background is Russian,’ she says.
However like Rogers, Sizemova decided she was more interested in science.
After her honours, she worked at the Australian National University for two years in a laboratory focused on sensory processing.
‘It was a neuroscience lab and we did experiments on mainly rats and mice, looking at how their brain processes the movement of whiskers – or how the movement of whiskers is coded in their brain,’ says the 29-year-old.
'They (the doctors) had a clear link back to their patients in their research goals. I was impressed and inspired by the clear compassion they had for others. I felt like I wanted that sort of meaning in my own career.'
Graduate, Deakin University
Then it was off to a Sydney lab focused on dementia research. ‘People would donate their brains after their death and we’d store them and process them and we’d send tissue out for research.’
Two things prompted Sizemova’s decision to switch to medicine: the desire to interact with more people – and to have a stable job.
‘I think I always wanted to work kind of on the interface of nitty gritty science-y things but also something with a human element,’ she says.
‘With research itself, you can still work with people, but you’re still working with the same team all the time. Basically you write papers and then you present them at conferences and then you apply for funding and try to convince people that your research matters.’
Seeing one of her supervisors going through the stress of applying for grants cemented her desire to switch away from research as a full-time career.
Vanessa Rivera initially enjoyed the field of research, particularly during her honours when she focused on metastatic breast cancer.
After that, she worked as a research assistant in the area of molecular parasitology for three years. ‘The lab itself was looking at treatment for a type of parasite in south east Asia,’ she says.
However she wasn’t overly passionate about the topic and the job, by its nature, felt a little isolated.
‘You’re reading a lot of papers so you’re learning a lot and you’re still in a field where you’re surrounded by academics. But in terms of the research part itself, doing the actual lab work, it’s a very solitary job,’ says Rivera, 26.
‘I really like doing things that are methodical … but I just didn’t like not being able to talk to anybody.’
Rivera believes there is some crossover between her previous work and the medicine degree, particularly on the immunology side.
‘So I felt like I had a bit of an advantage, but at the same time I have never done anatomy before or physiology,’ she says.
Rivera’s advice for people trying to decide between a career in medicine and research?
‘It’s a difficult decision to make, and I don’t think you’re ever going to know unless you try,’ she says.
If you wanted to combine both interests, Rivera suggests studying medicine first and then using your patient base to undertake research later.
‘But if people are deciding which one to do and they’re not sure, it’s not actually harmful to do research first and I think it’s probably easier to do that and a lesser commitment.’
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