A large number of high school students show willingness to go into the medical field. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Opinion

Opinion: Pre-med and biology hype among high school students

Many high school students have career goals in the medical field despite it not being their true passion.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/yeowon0727/" target="_self">Yeowon Kim</a>

Yeowon Kim

August 23, 2022
It is very likely to have heard high school students say that they dream of going into the biomedical field or becoming a doctor.

On platforms like College Confidential and Reddit, it is not so hard to see discussions related to how competitive going into the biomedical field is. In fact, even a simple Google search pertaining to medicine and high school leads to a plethora of recommended searches such as “what classes should I take to become a doctor,” “average GPA for medical school” and “I don’t know why I want to be a doctor.”

Sooyeon Lee, who is a student counselor in Los Angeles, provided her insight into this rampant interest in medicine among students based on her 25 years of college consulting.

“When students come to me and I ask them what they want to do, 8/10 it’s biology and medicine,” Lee said.

Biology is consistently one of the most popular degree choices in college. In 2019-2020, biological and biomedical sciences was the second most popular major nationwide with 169,876 degrees awarded, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Furthermore, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in health professions and related programs increased by 94% between 2009-2010 and 2018-2019, from 129,600 to 251,400 degrees.

“Students with exceptional GPAs, high test scores and rigorous activities all automatically plan to conduct medical research and work in hospitals during the summer,” Lee said. “It’s as if medicine is always the go-to choice for these high-achieving students.”

In order to build a strong resume that showcases potentials and capabilities in the field of medicine, numerous high school students engage in prestigious science research competitions, rigorous hospital internships, and selective pre-med summer programs.

Sooyeon Lee elaborated on her experience finding medical activities for her students who aspire to pursue medicine.

“Many of my students are so immersed in collecting awards and recognitions that they lose sight of their bigger goal. It’s as if becoming a doctor is not really their genuine dream, but the confirmation and final reward for working hard and studying hard.”

Substantiating what Lee said, experts proposed potential reasons that may account for why students pursue medicine despite it not being their true passion.

First, the most common, classic case researchers see is parental pressure. Frequently, students exceptionally talented in STEM — but without a definite plan for the future — are pushed by their parents to go into the biomedical field. Too uncertain of their true passion to resist this promising and financially rewarding path, many students give in to the pressure to become doctors.

Another possible explanation is that a career in healthcare offers the opportunity to earn a higher salary than what’s offered in some other industries. The median annual wage for healthcare practitioners was $66,440 in 2018, significantly higher than the median annual wage for all other occupations, which was $38,640.

A comparatively new proposal is that leadership and dedication of healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic brought increase in students who hope to study medicine, similar to how the 9/11 incident brought a surge in the number of applicants to the U.S. military. Because physicians are being hailed as heroes, students feel inspired to attain similar status in the society, being applauded and appreciated by many.

But parental influence, admiration of doctors during the pandemic, and the traditional belief that “doctors make a lot of money” are not sufficient to explain the recent increase in the preference for medicine among high school students.

In essence, biology hype among high school students comes with a narrow understanding of what “science” entails and inability to distinguish between “job” and a “vocation.”

Science is a broad subject that consists of numerous sub-topics. Even biology itself is a field of science that includes a diverse range of topics such as paleontology, zoology and astrobiology. However, limited perspectives among teenage students make medical science, such as neuroscience and pharmacology, appear as only attractive options.

For example, a group of wildlife biologists from Cornell Lab of Ornithology developed a computer technology that listens and identifies bird sounds to determine which species are changing due to human-induced habitat loss or climate change.

Subsequently, a team of researchers in Japan developed an enzyme that breaks down plastic in a matter of days — far faster than the hundreds of years that plastic usually takes to decompose. Researchers in astrobiology are cooperating to launch space mining — an industry that aims to save humanity from extreme resource depletion in the future earth.

Conducting surgery and treating patients are of course vital and heroic practices that improve the lives of many. But there are other novel ways to use biology and science to promote the wellness of the world, as evident from various advances made in recent years.

Subsequently, the heavy favoritism toward the medical field is attributable to the students’ failure to acknowledge that becoming a doctor is a “calling.”

Job” is a task or piece of work that is done for living. “Vocation” is the occupation that allows people to become the most ideal version of themselves. A job can give status, money, and security, but it cannot give the motivated mindset to persist through the dynamics of life. In the “hyper-competitive world” of medicine where even those with the skills and the mindset battle to get in, there is even less room for those with the skills but moderate mindset.

Becoming a doctor is a really long and grueling journey that requires numerous sacrifices. Desiring to become a doctor just for the name value and pride is a motivation force that is too weak to fuel one through the countless hardships along the path. Strong mentality that makes these sacrifices bearable comes from the unconditional dedication to the tasks which one is called to do.

It is not true that “doctor” is the most lucrative and admirable profession. On the cover, doctors look like heroes: learning important lessons through hardships and finally emerging more mature and successful. However, late night calls, never-ending paper works, impatient guardians, and packed appointment schedules are not challenges that are easily manageable without sincere and wholehearted commitment.

Thus, it is not reasonable for students talented and passionate for science to automatically think of “surgeon,” “dentist,” and “anesthesiologist” as the most rewarding and worthy career choice. These “pre-med obsessed” students should venture out and explore other fields of science where many extraordinary STEM brains are needed.

If medicine definitely feels like a calling, they should thoroughly consider that psychological pains beyond the door to the clinic makes “doctor” a job with the highest rate of suicide of any profession.

“There are countless career opportunities in the world and all these students must have their own perfect match,” Lee said. “I don’t want any shallow or superficial fancy for doctors to blind them from becoming what is truly fit for them.”