COMPUTER SCIENCE VS. MEDICAL SCHOOL

Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board-certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
email rjnov@yahoo.com
phone 650-465-5997
Computer code
medical school

You’re a high school or college student with proficiency in science and math, and you’re wondering about your eventual career path. Two of the most ambitious career choices would be to go to medical school, or to go into some form of computer science/software/hardware engineering.

Which road is the correct road for you? 

It depends.

I’ve been a medical doctor for 40 years, practiced three different specialties, and worked on a top medical school faculty for 30 years. I understand the pathway of a medical career very well. I live and work in Silicon Valley. I have many friends and many patients who work in the tech/computer world, so I understand the life of a high tech career.

I have three sons, all of whom are skilled in science and math. I’ve discussed the pros and cons of being a physician with them since they were in elementary school, and they’ve observed my lifestyle. The career choices of my sons so far: one businessman, one computer scientist, and one 9th grader who is yet undecided (but leaning toward computer science).

Why are none of them pursuing medicine? They’ve listened to me and have made their own choices. What follows is the advice I give to young students skilled in science and mathematics who are trying to decide between medical school and a computer science career:

MEDICAL SCHOOL:

Positives:

  1. There is a high demand for MDs. You will have a job. As the Baby Boomer generation ages, they’re all requiring an increased level of health care intervention.
  2. You will be well paid. The average salary varies by specialty from $230,000/year for pediatrics to $480,000/year for orthopedic surgery.
  3. You’ll help people get healthy. That feels good. 
  4. Respect. Most people respect physicians.
  5. You can work into your 70s if you want to. There is minimal age discrimination.
  6. You’ll be a lifelong student. An emersion into medical knowledge makes you both an interested and interesting person your whole life. 

Negatives:

  1. Deferred gratification: it takes a long time to become an MD. You’ll be 30 years old at a minimum when you finish training. At that age you’ll have a negative net worth, and you’ll be financially years behind your friends who went to work immediately out of college
  2. You’ll work ong hours, including sleeping overnight in hospitals during your training. 80-hour work weeks are common.
  3. You’ll acquire significant debt that will take you many years to repay. An October 2019 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges stated that 73% of medical students graduate with a mean debt of $201,490 and 18% with a mean debt exceeding $300,000.
  4. Medicine isn’t what it was in the 1960s-2000s, when MDs hung out their own shingle, thrived in private practice, and had significant autonomy. At the present time many young MDs are settling for a salary as an employee of a large organization. 
  5. Burnout is a constant risk. Electronic medical records require a significant portion of your work time, you may be required to see patients in 10-minute production-pressure clinic visits, and you’ll be on call during nights and weekends. Answering phone calls or being summoned into the hospital at 3 a.m. gets old.

COMPUTER SCIENCE/SOFTWARE/HARDWARE ENGINEER

Positives:

  1. You’ll be employable right out of college at age 22, with a good salary. The average income for a computer scientist is listed as $84,796, with a range from $69,000 – $114,000.
  2. High demand exists. You’ll get a job.
  3. You’ll have less educational debt, because you only went to four years of school after high school.
  4. Many students find computer science challenging and interesting.
  5. Computer science is changing the world we live in.
  6. It’s possible to work from home.

Negatives:

  1. Your salary will likely max out at less than an MD would earn. 
  2. It can be a lonely work life—just you and your computer. Computer science is rarely described as a social job.
  3. It’s possible your job will age-out in later years as you compete with younger, cheaper graduates with the same degree.
  4. You’ll probably have little autonomy. Most computer scientists work as a cog in some giant company. Think Google, Facebook, Apple, or Amazon.
  5. Competition exists. It’s difficult to be accepted into computer science programs at quality colleges—but it’s not as competitive as medical school acceptance. 

Listing the pros and cons of each career as I’ve done above will not make your decision for you. I recommend you make the decision between computer science and medical school with your gut, based on the following thought process:

Computer science and medical school are two appealing careers for students with strong science and mathematics backgrounds, BUT THE TWO JOBS ARE SO DIFFERENT. Medical doctors take care of people. We listen to patients, we hold their hands, we comfort them, and we attempt to heal them. Computer scientists work with code, chips, software, or hardware. The emotional milieu of these two careers could not be more different. 

Search your heart and you’ll know whether you’d rather spend decades working with people, or whether you’d rather spend decades working in a tech job. Search your heart and you’ll know whether you’d rather spend decades in an operating room/clinic setting, or whether you’d rather spend decades staring at a computer.

Then follow your heart based on those two images, and you’ll wind up where you need to be.

If you’re a real go-getter, you can complete undergraduate training in computer science and then go to medical school. Reference my column on How to Make a Billion Dollars in Healthcare to learn why a combined degree might be the educational pathway of choice for super-ambitious science and math students.

Good luck!

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