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Don’t Go Pre-Med: My Advice to a Yale Student Worried About Her Future

A Common Query

Earlier this fall I received an e-mail from a rising freshman at Yale. It read, in part:

As college draws nearer, I am growing increasingly concerned about what I’m going to do with my life.

Most of the people around me seem to think that the safest route for me is to go pre-med, because it is a well-defined path that leads to a stable career.

The thing is, I don’t really want to do pre-med. But I don’t know what else I want to do with my life. What should I do?

I get this question enough that I thought it worthwhile to share my response (put into bullet point format for readability). I’m hoping the new college students among you will find something relevant here…

My Response

  • Don’t go pre-med.
  • Instead: table the question of your future until the start of your sophomore year.
  • During your freshman year, take core courses and use your leftover electives to sample more exotic subjects. Try out a few activities to find out which seem interesting and, more importantly, which offer the most compelling opportunities to someone willing to pay it a lot of attention.
  • Then, at the start of your sophomore year, make some choices: Choose one major (not two, not three). Choose one or two extracurricular areas to focus on (not three, not four). Then attack these small number of things with a large amount of time and attention. Become excellent at them.
  • At this point, put aside any doubts about whether you made the right choices. Always move forward. Never look back and wonder.
  • As you know, I don’t believe in pre-existing passions. In my experience, there is no right or wrong major or activity waiting out there for you to discover. There are, however, right or wrong reasons for pursuing something.
  • Motivational psychology tells us that what matters in a pursuit is the loci of control. If you’re going after something because you sampled it and you found it interesting, that’s a good enough reason for your mind to get on board and provide the motivation and engagement you need for a good, successful student career.  If you’re going after something only because “most of the people” around you thought it sounded safe, that is, from a psychological point of view, a disastrous reason. You’re in for unhappiness at best and deep procrastination at worst.

To summarize: First take some time to see what’s out there, second make your own choices (but don’t sweat them), and then third go big without reservations.

(Photo by CanWeBowlPlease)

19 thoughts on “Don’t Go Pre-Med: My Advice to a Yale Student Worried About Her Future”

  1. I am doing accounting for the wrong reasons. It is safe, it is a guaranteed job, and I am a sophomore. I’ve already done two things wrong. I picked a major that I know I will hate, and I feel like I have no locus of control. (By the way, the singular is locus as opposed to loci). On the other hand, I go to state university, and I can’t afford to go to an art school, and my school doesn’t have a program for graphic design, the field that I am truly interested in. I spend time that I should be studying enjoying myself making designs and interfaces. I’m trying to freelance, and I have gotten a job in design, but I don’t know how far these endeavors will take me. What should I do? There isn’t a major that I am interested in that is available to me, and I certainly do not want to do the wrong pursuit, but I don’t know where to move from here.

  2. Solid advice. I always found it ironic how the most “stable” careers are the ones everyone goes for. Following the mold won’t make things easier, it’ll increase your competition, not to mention the fact you’ll lack motivation.

  3. “There are, however, right or wrong reasons for pursuing something.” – I totally agree. I think the “right reasons” are one of the biggest driving forces behind our quest for greatness.

  4. “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

  5. Cal, I’m interested in knowing how you decided to be a computer science major. Did you pick the major because it was something you knew interested you and just stick with it like you advise us to do, or did you have a pre-existing deep love and fascination with it?

    Also, this advice is very relevant to me right now. I’m a freshman, but I have no idea what I want to do with my life so I’m currently very confused on what kind of major I should pursue. I love psychology, for example, but that will only really lead to a career if I go to grad school, which I’m not sure I want to do. Gahhh major life decisions.

  6. Great article.
    Also, best advice: don’t go pre-med. Seems like a notable trend among professors to iterate that advice again and again.

  7. Hi Cal! Really found that advice helpful! For me, though, it seems that I’m going in the opposite direction because I’m interested in medicine, so I am doing what I can now to see what a medical profesion is like. However, I still want to try out other things in case I decide medicine isn’t the right path for me.

    By the way, what do you think of minors? I haven’t been on this blog that long, so I don’t know if you’ve written about them, but I was considering gettig a minor or two. Would minors be considered “extracurricular” (even though they technically aren’t)?

    Speaking of extracurriculars, what about clubs that are not as activity-based? For example, I’m in a pre-med club, but I’m mostly there to get information about how to prep for med school and the occasional tours of hospitals. Would those count as “extracurriculars”?

  8. I feel like I should make something clear about this post.

    I have nothing against going pre-med. I have nothing against “safe” paths. In fact, I think the current trend among career advice types to split the world between boring = bad and exotic = good jobs is dangerous.

    But I do think that whatever you choose the do, you should feel like the decision was yours and was informed.

  9. I feel like I should clarify as well.

    Medicine is a great career. I just don’t find the competition(the level it is at to date) to gain acceptance into medical school worth the amount of time and effort MOST pre-meds put in. Countless extracurriculars and late nights studying for tests with the possibility that they may seem favourable for the adcoms is just not very fulfilling to me. Although, there are the exceptions as always.

    Instead, Cal’s advice: “Do few things and do them exceptionally” (Paraphrasing of course) should be the rules to abide by.

    My apologies, Cal, if I shed some condescending light on your behalf.

  10. A few things that have served me well:

    (1) Volunteering. As a kid (13,14) my mom had me volunteer in a hospital for a summer as a Candy Striper. I hated everything about it. The value in this experience is that I never entertained illusions of a medical career, at any level. If you can, spend Saturdays in the place you think you want to work. You may love or hate it, which gives you direction even if it’s knowing what you DON’T want to do.

    (2) When in doubt, always take the path of greatest mathematical rigor. The sciences are broad and most science graduate fields, from any engineering to psychology, will take someone who was a strong math/stat major. But mechanical engineering probably will not take a psych major. So you can postpone decisions a little this way. And when I finally had the right teacher and fell in love with math (2nd year of PhD studies) I was prepared!

  11. As a graduating medical student who has advised and mentored many undergrad students, the one piece of advice I give them too is don’t go premed… unless you’re sure this is what you want to do.

    The cost of getting into medical school, and the long training afterwards, makes this a career that should be pursued only if you’re serious about it. Instead, if there’s anything, anything else, you would be more interested in, give that a shot first. The opportunity cost is much lower and you can always re-consider if it doesn’t turn out to be what you thought it would be.

  12. It’s important to consider student financing constraints in the context of choosing majors. For college students not on full-ride scholarships or born sufficiently wealthy, they need to consider that they (and/or their parents) will probably be several tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt by the time they matriculate with their degree, and in a tough economy to boot. This debt is also non-dischargeable through bankruptcy and interest rates can be quite high. So a “safe” career path might be best if you don’t have an early, clear vision of what you want to do with your life. Though a “safe” career is getting harder and harder to define over time, and there’s not a lot of room for “do-overs”. At the very least, most students need to be able to pay their bills after graduating, and then figure out their passions/interests later, once they’re financially established. A lot to consider for 18-22 year olds nowadays!

  13. It’s too late for this young woman, but if you have already been accepted to the college of your choice, you can usually defer for a year and do something good for the community with your time. The extra year (or two if you can swing it financially) will give you maturity and distance from your high school self, and you will start your degree from a more experienced mindset.

    We go straight from demanding high school programs into demanding college environments, and who among us really knows what path to choose at age 18 or 20? Delaying that start gives you more time to become the person you really are. Then you can make that big decision.

  14. Your advice was spot on. While I think its preferable to pinpoint your goals and career path early through informed, sound judgement. If you haven’t that’s fine too. Try whats available, but don’t procrastinate on making a decision, if there is one to be made.

  15. Usually I don’t read article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, very nice post.

  16. Cal,

    I did this when I first entered college (pre-pharmacy) and I ended hating my freshman and sophomore year. Eventually, transferred to a different university and started with a clean slate. I wish I had taken some time during my freshman year to think about other paths. Those couple years were very emotional and tumultuous for me and I almost ended up dropping out because of burn out.


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