Sometimes med school students don’t fully know what they’re getting into until they’re partway into it. You can plan, prepare, take all the pre-reqs as an undergraduate student, and study for the MCAT. You can even go a year or two before the feeling of wanting to drop out of medical school bubbles to the surface.
So what do you do at that point? Here are some key considerations that will factor into your decision to either drop out or stay enrolled.
Why do people drop out of medical school?
Every person is unique and has their own set of circumstances that can lead to the question of whether to drop out of medical school. Most people facing this decision have a few reasons in common, however.
Reason 1: High pressure and stress
Being a med school student is a 24/7 mentality, and it can be draining. The classes are rigorous, and studying takes over life.
Even if you were at the top of your class during undergrad, med school can be daunting. Now the curriculum is faster paced and even more demanding. It seems like there’s even less time to keep your sanity unless you’re intentional about self-care.
There’s a difference between experiencing stress you can push through and having adverse mental health challenges that should take priority above medical school.
Reason 2: Falling out of love with medicine
Many things can draw a person to the field of medicine, but that interest can wane.
Perhaps they love science, want to help people, want to earn a good living, enjoy challenging themselves, or perhaps they feel some family pressure to become a doctor.
At some point, especially during the most stressful times, it’s common to question that motivation and ask if it’s worth it. Most of the time, the answer is yes, so you can push through the doubt. Other times, the answer is no, and you might feel compelled to make a change.
Reason 3: Watching student debt rise each year.
The cost of medical school can require some students to take out $250,000 to $350,000 in student loans. Student Loan Planner’s consultants frequently here medical students and med school graduates ask, “What did I get myself into?”
The silver lining in this is that the repayment terms of federal student loans are extremely flexible, and physicians have some of the best options compared to graduate students in other fields.
Should you stay in medical school?
When times are stressful, it can be helpful to remove yourself from the situation so you can look at it objectively. That’s a little harder in med school, but it’s an important exercise.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
Am I doing this for me or for someone else?
There are a lot of expectations and perceived prestige that come with medical school. Perhaps there’s implicit or explicit pressure from family to be “successful,” either financially or professionally.
Those external expectations can coexist with your own motivation for going to medical school, but just make sure you’re doing this for you. Don’t let the fear of letting people down be the main driver to stay in because it likely won’t be enough to sustain you long term.
I’ve already made it this far. Is that a reason to stay?
This is called the sunk-cost fallacy. It’s when you use what you’ve already spent — and can’t recover — as a rationalization to continue doing something. A more helpful and practical analysis is to look at whether moving forward is worth the cost and effort, not looking at what’s already behind you.
Can you see yourself pushing all the way through your training when you become an attending physician? If that’s the goal you still want to work toward, then stick with it.
Am I taking care of myself?
When you don’t take good care of yourself, your mental and physical capacity to weather stressful situations is diminished.
In any stressful situation, it’s extremely helpful to double-down on taking care of yourself. It will help you truly diagnose what you can handle.
If you can do better, just pick one easy thing at a time that you know you can commit to. It might be as simple as getting more sleep. The purpose isn’t to add pressure to your life trying to keep up a fitness or diet regimen, for example. It’s to take steps that are easily achievable and can enhance your well-being. Doing so can give you clarity of mind to make smart decisions.
Do I have a supportive peer group that I can talk to?
It’s tough to be social during medical school, but it’s also important to make time to be around or talk to supportive people who understand what you’re going through.
Talk through your thought process about the pros and cons of dropping out with a trustworthy person in your life, someone who will be honest with you. It could be a parent, sibling, family member, mentor, best friend, one of your fellow students or a counselor.
What else would I do if I didn’t become a doctor?
A great question to ask is what career would you pursue if you stopped working toward becoming a doctor. This question helps you get out of the stressful moment you’re in. There could be other healthcare, science/ or research opportunities to pursue. Or maybe you’re interested in something totally different like law or business.
Dropping out of medical school is a big decision, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t something else worthwhile out there for you.
Sometimes this exercise could help you envision how you’d unwind your identity from the idea of becoming a doctor. There are other positive things that define you and make you who you are without a medical degree.
List all the good stuff about you and what you want out of life. See where they overlap outside of being a doctor. This will help you figure out your next move if you drop out. It might also help you decide to recommit to medical school.
How to manage student loans if you’re dropping out of med school
Student loans don’t have to be a major factor in your decision to drop out of med school or stay in. Although this idea might sound counterintuitive as you assess the high cost of attendance you will incur before you can earn a high physician salary, there are affordable ways to pay back med school student loan debt.
Federal student loans work much differently than any other kind of debt. They have extremely flexible repayment plans that can be used no matter what your profession ends up being. You can pick a repayment option that is based upon how much you make (income-driven repayment) rather than how much you owe (standard, extended and graduated repayment plans).
If you’re like most med students we’ve worked with, you’ve been investing so much time into your studies that paying back your debt hasn’t crossed your mind yet. But you should absolutely figure out the best repayment strategy for your student loans, especially if you’re planning to drop out.
One thing you can decide with certainty now, though, is to hold off on refinancing federal student loans. Even if you can get a fixed interest rate that is super low right now, it may end up costing you more money in the long run. You’d most likely end up with high monthly payments and a lot less loan payment flexibility if you refinance.
Plus, you could lose out on the advantages of income-driven repayment if you decide to go back to a different graduate school.
Don’t feel trapped if you want to drop out of medical school
Your mental health is extremely important, and there are plenty of other fulfilling careers out there if you decide that being a doctor isn’t for you after all.
The sooner you make the decision to stick with it or drop out, the better off you’ll feel.
You’ll want to use the questions above to weigh the pros and cons and help you figure it out.
You can be sure, however, that your student debt does not need to factor into your decision. Whether you’re choosing to drop out or are failing out of medical school, you can move on to other fulfilling career choices while still managing your loan repayment.
If medical school is creating debilitating stress or anxiety or if you’re having feelings of despair, seek professional help immediately.
Get a customized student loan plan for your med school debt
It can be tough to look at the high student loan balances you owe if you drop out of medical school, but Student Loan Planner’s experts can show you affordable ways to pay it back and get you on a clear plan.
Even if you’re out of work for a time while you try to figure things out, taking out even more debt to go to another graduate program or are taking another path, there is a repayment strategy that will work around your next career decision.
We’ve done more than 4,000 individual student loan consultations advising on over $1,000,000,000 in total student debt. We can help you figure out the best way to pay back your student debt in an hour, no matter what you decide to do going forward. Plus, we include six months of email support after the initial consultation to make sure your follow-up questions are answered.
I work with borrowers with more than $200,000 in student loan debt, including med school debt, so feel free to reach out if you have any questions at [email protected].
All of our consultants are skilled and experienced in handling these kinds of situations, however, and they can help you, so see how our consult process works and book a convenient time for you.