July 22, 2021 3:15 PM

Advice for aspiring doctors

Four physicians share their personal stories about pursuing medicine and give advice to incoming medical students.

man holding white coat in hand with business shirt and tie on in blue
Michigan Medicine

First-year medical students at the University of Michigan Medical School will soon embark on their journeys as future physicians. Their first step in the process will be marked by the school’s White Coat Ceremony, a tradition in which each student will be presented with a white coat and stethoscope.

However, the beginning of any lifechanging experience may be riddled with anxieties about the future. So, Michigan Health Lab recently spoke to four members of the medical school’s doctoring faculty about why they pursued medicine and what advice they can offer aspiring physicians. 

Steven Gay, M.D., interim associate dean for Medical Student Education

Not every school has a white coat ceremony, so I didn’t have the opportunity to experience one until I participated in the tradition as a dean at the U-M Medical School. However, I can say that even then, all the emotions and feelings that I felt on my first day of school, and throughout my own medical school journey, came flooding back. It’s always quite extraordinary. The hopefulness, excitement and mild anxiety (for those experiencing the unknown) is always there.

When I think back on why I decided to pursue medicine, I think it was a combination of being a science nerd and wanting to further connect with people. I realized that as a physician, I would get to know others and be a part of their lives. Medicine seemed like the only thing in my youth that connected all these things that I enjoyed so much. 

My advice for our incoming medical students is that this journey is like no other you have experienced. No one walks it alone, so make sure to count on the people around you as a support system. There will always be great successes and significant challenges and struggles along the way. But remain open and care for those around you, while allowing them to do the same. You will both learn from this and find you are sustained by it.

Kristina Gallagher, M.D., an assistant professor in Michigan Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine

In my eighth-grade language arts class, I was assigned a “destiny project,” in which I was tasked with writing about my future career. I decided it was my “destiny” to become a plastic surgeon because I wanted to help burn victims and other people with physical deformities. After starting medical school, my specialty changed to Family Medicine. However, my calling to help never wavered.

My message to incoming medical students is this: There may be times, especially during your first year, when you will think, “This is rough. Is all of this studying really worth it?” Well, I promise you that it is. Your answer will come to you like a bolt of lightning the first time you see gratitude in your patient’s eyes.

Christina Chiang, M.D., an assistant professor in Michigan Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine

When I was younger, I knew that I wanted to pursue a profession that would lead me to opportunities where I could make tangible – and positive – differences in the lives of others. I also wanted to find a profession where I could possibly travel overseas to help communities on a global scale. And medicine encompassed all of these things.

I think it’s important for our aspiring physicians to always remember what drove them in their pursuit of medicine. Find a way to connect whatever it is you are doing and/or learning to this foundational goal. Medical school is hard, for all sorts of reasons, but really trying to see the method in the madness can help keep you going.

Also, make sure to revel in the greatness of learning from your peers. You can only gain insight from listening to, learning from and being humbled by their life experiences and perspectives.

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Lastly, the bar in medical school is very high, as it should be. Patients will ultimately trust you with their health and sometimes, even their lives. With that being said, students matriculating to the U-M Medical School are selected because we believe in their abilities to succeed. And we are always here to support them in their journeys.

Jason Kahn, M.D., an assistant professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at Michigan Medicine

I loved science in both high school and college, as well as teaching and tutoring. I realized that a career in medicine would allow me to use science on a daily basis. It would also provide me with an opportunity to work with people and incorporate teaching in my daily life.

Further, my father was a nephrologist, and I remember joining him at the hospital or in his office growing up. I would observe the relationships he had with his patients and how well he knew them. They were always so grateful for his care. He actually wanted me to be a chef because he loved to eat! But he was extremely proud of me when I decided to go to medical school.

Believe it or not, medical school and residency go by very quickly. So I would advise this incoming class to consciously take time to reflect on life and take care of themselves. Take time to grow your knowledge base and skillset, but also your friend circle. Some of my medical school classmates are still my best friends to this day. And they were instrumental in helping me through the pandemic.

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Always stay curious. Almost everyone at the U-M Medical School wants to help you succeed. So, ask for help when you need it. And give help when you can. You are here for a reason and have what it takes to become a great doctor.

I always remind myself that being a physician is an incredible privilege. We get to meet and work with so many different people. I love getting to know my patients beyond their diagnoses. This is especially rewarding to me because it allows me the opportunity to become a better physician.

While medicine will become routine to you at some point, our “work world” is often a very confusing and scary place to our patients. Remember this. And try to always act with kindness and compassion.

Even on your first day as a medical student, you can give something to your patients. I love this quote from Edward Livingston Trudeau and try to embody these words in my work: “To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.”