If you’re in the midst of a career in business, education, or another field, but are contemplating making the switch to medicine, you may be wondering where to start. Like any premed, you’ll be taking rigorous science courses, gaining clinical experience and gearing up for the MCAT. But as someone already established in another field, you’ll also be confronting additional challenges relating to everything from going back to school to finding a new peer group. Below are some thoughts and tips to help you make your dream of a career as a physician into a reality.

Making sure medicine is the right move

Whether you’re just a couple of years or much further into your current profession, the most important initial task is to confirm that becoming a physician is truly what you want to do. Giving up your job or making other major life changes too quickly is a pitfall to avoid. So start slowly, explore your budding interest in medicine thoroughly, and then ramp up the pace if you decide that medicine is the best career for you.

Trying out science coursework

If you’re coming from a non-science field, you’ll likely have very few of the prerequisite math and science courses completed. Although science requirements may vary from school to school, they are typically as follows:

  • Two semesters of general biology with laboratory
  • Two semesters of general chemistry with laboratory
  • Two semester of organic chemistry with laboratory
  • Two semesters of physics with laboratory
  • One or two semesters of college mathematics
  • One semester of biochemistry

Science coursework takes a different skillset than social sciences and humanities, so even if you were a star in those classes, getting used to science classes may take some time. Therefore, consider starting with one or two science classes to see how you adjust, instead of jumping in immediately with a full load.

Note that medical schools prefer that prerequisites be taken at a four-year college or university rather than a community college. Also, avoid online coursework as some medical schools do not accept online classes to fulfill prerequisites.

Keep in mind that if you do eventually decide to enter a career-changer post-baccalaureate premedical program, some programs have limits on how many sciences courses you can have completed and still be eligible for admission. If you’re considering doing a structured program, investigate their requirements and don’t go over the limit, which can be as low as one or two classes.

Gaining clinical experience

An important aspect of preparation for medical school is gaining experience in clinical environments. Seek out both physician shadowing experiences, which allow you to see medicine from the perspective of a physician, as well as hands-on experiences interacting with patients by volunteering in a hospital or clinic. Some hospitals offer volunteer programs geared specifically to premedical students. These are ideal for aspiring physicians as they allow participants to rotate through multiple departments in the hospital and often include physician shadowing opportunities. Community clinics catering to underserved patients are another excellent place to seek out clinical exposure.

Finding a peer group

Traditional premedical students have a built-in group of peers to study with, exchange tips about applying, and for support. As a career changer, you may have to work a little harder to find such a group, especially if you’re not part of a structured post-baccalaureate program. Although many of your fellow premedical students may be younger than you, try to look past the differences in age and experiences and focus on the common goal you share of becoming a physician. You can also find support through organizations and forums for nontraditional premeds such as the National Society for Nontraditional Premedical & Medical Students, Inc. http://www.oldpremeds.org/

Stepping up the pace – or not

Once you’ve confirmed that you’re going to make the switch, you’ll face the decision to continue your current career while taking a couple of courses at a time and volunteering a few hours a week, or to dedicate yourself to these endeavors full time. The route you take will depend on how many courses you need to take, the flexibility of your work, and financial and personal considerations. For example, one teacher and aspiring physician switched to a part-time position to free up time to take more science classes, while a former lawyer left his job to return to school and work as an emergency room scribe. Carefully investigate the various options to see which works best for you as there is no “right” approach for everyone.

Final thoughts

Transitioning from another career to medicine can be both exciting and daunting. Good planning, careful thought, and a methodical approach are essential to overcoming the challenges, but the reward is a career that can be deeply satisfying. As you wade into the premedical world, remember that although you may face some obstacles as a nontraditional applicant, you’ll also be bringing maturity, experience, and professionalism that will help you succeed as a future physician.

Carleen Eaton, MD is the founder of prehealthadvising.com, which provides personalized advising to applicants to medical school and other health professions programs. Dr. Eaton is a graduate of the UCLA School of Medicine and the author of Getting into Medical School for Dummies, part of the popular Dummies series.