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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LEARN MORE ABOUT RICK NOVAK’S FICTION WRITING AT RICK NOVAK.COM BY CLICKING ON THE PICTURE BELOW:

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THE JOY OF BEING A DOCTOR

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

My greatest joy of being a doctor comes immediately after the conclusion of a pediatric anesthetic.

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I stay with the child until the anesthetic depth has dissipated, the breathing tube is removed, and the child is awake and safe with the recovery room nurse in the Post Anesthesia Care Unit. At that point I walk out to the waiting room to find the parents so I bring them back to see their child. I invariably have a bounce to my step, and I’m a bit choked up with anticipation. I’ve done this enough times to know what to expect. The mother and father are waiting with wide eyes and worried looks on their faces. I give them a reassuring smile and my first words are, “Everything went perfectly. Your son (or daughter) is safe. Follow me.” The three of us return to the bedside in the recovery room, where the mother and child reunion occurs (cue up the Paul Simon soundtrack). The parents fawn over their child, the child reaches out his or her arms, the relief is palpable, and I’m proud to have contributed to the positive outcome.

Why go to medical school? Bright, hard-working college students have choices to make. Many ambitious young people wonder if they should apply to medical school. It’s difficult to get into med school, the journey is long (four years of medical school followed by three to seven years of residency), and the tuition can be high.

Why go to medical school? The daughter of one of my friends is an undergraduate business school student, and her last summer internship was with Proctor and Gamble working in the sales and marketing force selling Clorox. Selling bleach is a career choice radically different from going to medical school.

Do you want to sell bleach, or do you want to help people? The answer to “Why do you want to go to medical school?” is almost that simple. So many jobs in America are related to selling some product, some service, or some commodity. Becoming a physician is about helping people, and it’s also about making your own life have a greater purpose.

“Why do you want to be a doctor?” is the first question asked at most medical school interviews. Answers vary. Why do young men and women choose to become doctors nowadays? One guiding factor might be economics. The average salary for a physician in the United States is in excess of $250,000. To a 22-year-old, that high salary is alluring. Non-medical students who pursue careers in teaching, engineering, or business will start at lower annual salaries, but the future income of a physician is balanced against the deferred gratification of the years involved in their education. The student must pay for four years of medical school tuition and living expenses, and then work for meager wages for 3-7 years afterwards as a resident. The medical student delays the onset of their “real world” employment until age 30-32.

Non-medical students who go to work straight out of college at age 22 may already have families, mortgages, multiple cars, and perhaps a vacation home, while the 32-year-old physician has an 80-hour-a-week job, $250,000 of student loans, and the obligation to take care of sick patients at 3 a.m. It’s not an easy life, it’s not all fun, and most doctors wonder at one time or another whether they made the right choice. Making a lot of money is not the right answer to the question of why you want to go to medical school.

So why do we go to medical school? Young men and women who have a physician parent are in the best position to reply from the heart—they’re aware that their parent works long hours, reads incessantly to stay well informed, and gets out of bed in the middle of the night to handle emergencies. A doctor’s son or daughter has heard all the good and bad stories that describe a physician’s lifestyle. But most college students don’t have a doctor for a parent, and most college students have a little idea what the lifestyle of a physician would feel like. My father was a welder. I had no family experience to guide my career choice. For students like me, without a physician parent, it’s important to work medical volunteer jobs and/or research jobs to test the waters before applying to medical school, to decide whether the life of a doctor would appeal to them.

Why go to medical school? Each new patient I meet treats me with respect—a respect I don’t get if I’m outside of the hospital walking down the street or shopping at a grocery store. Years ago I shared this impression with my wife, and she said, “Of course your patients treat you with respect. You’re about to take their lives into your hands. They’re nervous, they’re scared, and the last thing they want to do is to get you in a bad mood!” This may be true, but the respect your patients give you is bona fide, and it’s a feeling few other jobs can offer.

Why go to medical school? I don’t think you’ll ever get equivalent joy out of selling bleach (or some other commodity) that you’ll gain helping other human beings with their health problems. Medicine is a profession. A career in medicine is an opportunity to entwine your work life with other people’s lives in a meaningful and remarkable way. You might make more money as a CEO or a venture capitalist, but few other jobs bring the potential to change lives for the better to the degree that being a physician does.

When you go to your medical school interview and the professor asks you “Why do you want to be a doctor,” the answer from your heart must be five words long:

“I want to help people.”

Your reward for becoming a doctor will arrive years later, when you feel what I feel when I reunite parents with their child after surgery. You’ll feel the joy and satisfaction of a purposeful life.

 

P.S. In 2012 the journal Anesthesiology published my poem “The Metronome,” which describes a scene from my life as a pediatric anesthesiologist:

 

The Metronome

 

To Jacob’s mother I say,

“The risk of anything serious going wrong…”

She shakes her head, a metronome ticking without sound.

“with Jacob’s heart, lungs, or brain…”

Her lips pucker, proving me wrong.

“isn’t zero, but it’s very, very close to zero…”

Her eyes dart past me, to a future of ice cream and laughter.

“but I’ll be right there with him every second.”

The metronome stops, replaced by a single nod of assent.

She hands her only son to me.

 

An hour later, she stands alone,

Pacing like a Palace guard.

Her pupils wild. Lower lip dancing.

The surgery is over.

Her eyebrows ascend in a hopeful plea.

I touch her hand. Five icicles.

I say, “Everything went perfectly. You can see Jacob now.”

The storm lifts. She is ten years younger.

Her joy contagious as a smile.

The metronome beat true.

 

The most popular posts for laypeople on The Anesthesia Consultant include:

How Long Will It Take To Wake Up From General Anesthesia?

Why Did Take Me So Long To Wake From General Anesthesia?

Will I Have a Breathing Tube During Anesthesia?

What Are the Common Anesthesia Medications?

How Safe is Anesthesia in the 21st Century?

Will I Be Nauseated After General Anesthesia?

What Are the Anesthesia Risks For Children?

 

The most popular posts for anesthesia professionals on The Anesthesia Consultant  include:

10 Trends for the Future of Anesthesia

Should You Cancel Anesthesia for a Potassium Level of 3.6?

12 Important Things to Know as You Near the End of Your Anesthesia Training

Should You Cancel Surgery For a Blood Pressure = 178/108?

Advice For Passing the Anesthesia Oral Board Exams

What Personal Characteristics are Necessary to Become a Successful Anesthesiologist?

 

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Published in September 2017:  The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.

KIRKUS REVIEW

In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.

Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota.

The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode.

In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.”

Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.

Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.

 

 

Click on the image below to reach the Amazon link to The Doctor and Mr. Dylan:

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LEARN MORE ABOUT RICK NOVAK’S FICTION WRITING AT RICK NOVAK.COM BY CLICKING ON THE PICTURE BELOW:

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For questions, contact:  rjnov@yahoo.com