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Whether the issue was lack of family support, money or some other reason, some people decide to become physicians after they’ve already started another career. Medical students in their 30s and 40s – or even 50s – are not entirely unheard of. Some start out in a related discipline such as nursing and others move into medicine from fields such as the theater, food service or business. Non-traditional applicants have both advantages and disadvantages, as well as some challenges that younger people might not face.
The Educational Process
No matter when you start, it takes years to become a physician – approximately seven to 11 years of school. A student who already has a degree, particularly in a similar occupation such as that of physician assistant, may be able to shorten the time because she has already completed some of the basics she would otherwise take as college preparatory work. Four years of medical school and a three- to five-year residency will still be necessary, however. Physicians are also required to be licensed in all states and many opt to become board-certified.
Non-traditional applicants might be attractive candidates for medical schools. Only five percent of students entering medical school are age 30 or older. These older applicants bring real-life experience to their studies; they may have transferable skills such as the ability to build rapport with other people or a good work ethic. Many are pursuing a medical career because they really want to be doctors. They are willing to make sacrifices in pursuit of their passion.
Older students might also have some issues that can make their educational course a bumpy ride. Students with more life experience can be more set in their ways. They might be more difficult to teach than a young and inexperienced student who knows little of life outside the educational system. Some schools could be reluctant to give spaces in a competitive program to students who might practice for a much shorter time than the average physician. When an older student has a family, she might have competing demands on her time. Residency is especially rigorous, with long shifts and sleep deprivation that could be more difficult for an older student.
Non-traditional applicants should consider three important factors – timing, academic preparation and commitment. An older student must be prepared to answer the “Why now?” questions from admissions committees, especially if she has already accumulated other obligations. Academic preparation can be a major factor in admission to the school of your choice. Even if your degree is in a science, additional coursework or refresher courses might be necessary to meet a school's prerequisites. The physical and academic demands on an older student can be very challenging, and the interviewing committee will want to be assured that you are committed to the endeavor of becoming a doctor, no matter what your age.
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.