The first time David thought about becoming a doctor, he was 13 years old, in the eighth grade. He recalls that everyone thought it was a great idea. As a bright, naturally curious and diligent student with an outgoing personality, it seemed to his parents, teachers and friends a natural and entirely appropriate decision. All were supportive. In fact, they were enthusiastic. What loomed ahead, all came to realize, was the task negotiating the highly competitive medical school application process. For the next several years, this became a major focus of attention for David, his parents and teachers. The process was researched in some detail. Most decisions, from what courses to take, what recreational and volunteer activities to pursue, even vacation destinations, became framed, or at least influenced, by how it would impact David’s medical school aspirations. David committed himself to his goal. Adept in sciences and an avid learner, he achieved remarkable academic success through high school and his undergraduate degree program, all while accumulating an impressive portfolio of volunteer and other experiences designed to reflect his interest and commitment to public service and medicine in particular. He engaged the application process with vigour and strong support (including financial) from his parents. He was successful, getting accepted to medical school. He, his parents, his friends, were jubilant, and shared in his success. All, it seemed, was good and proper. All was as it should be.
David continued his academic success in his first year where the curriculum is largely about knowledge acquisition, a process with which he had become very comfortable. But the clinical aspects of medicine were troubling to him. He found that engaging patients and their illness distinctly uncomfortable, causing him to be nervous and anxious before, during and after each encounter. He found it difficult to deal with emotionally charged issues and, accustomed to engaging problems one at a time at his own pace, he found dealing with multiple simultaneous and urgent problems very difficult and stressful. This caused him to feel guilty and somewhat ashamed. As an aspiring doctor, shouldn’t all this come naturally to him? For the first time ever, he began to question his career choice. He greatly feared disappointing his parents and those who’ve supported him. To his peers, seemingly enjoying their medical school experience, questioning the benefit of being a medical student was incomprehensible. Not sure where to turn, he came to a faculty member to seek help.
What happened here, or perhaps more appropriately, what didn’t happen? Did David make a bad decision? Is he ill suited for a career in medicine, or simply adjusting to practical realities and challenges that are new to him?
In considering David’s dilemma, it’s helpful to consider the process that leads young people to make informed and, hopefully, durable career commitments. Fortunately, there’s an extensive and very interesting literature on this subject and considerable active investigation. Unfortunately, it’s largely in the realm of developmental psychology, an area in which most physicians are far from expert. “Career Theorists” abound, with various approaches and perspectives on the subject. I provide a list of representative articles below for those interested. There’s certainly much for us to learn that will help guide and support medical students struggling with career choice.
Career decision, it seems, is a developmental milestone that can only be achieved after an individual acquires and reconciles two key components; 1) knowledge of self, and, 2) knowledge of the world around them.
The first component, development of self-awareness, promotes independent thought and self-confidence. With those attributes comes the ability to make good decisions. Put another way, one can only make good decisions if they’re based on a full and honest understanding of one’s own attributes, interests and motivations. The term that’s been used for this process of personal development is “Individuation”, and has been attributed to the esteemed psychologist Carl Gustav Jung who describes it as follows:
“In general, it is the process by which individual beings are formed and differentiated (from other human beings); in particular, it is the development of the psychological individual as being distinct from the general, collective psychology”.
It is a progressive personal process that has no fixed schedule. It requires engagement of increasingly independent roles and challenges. It can be thought of as beginning the first time a child steps alone into a school bus for their first day of school and progresses through increasingly complex and increasingly independent life challenges. The challenge for parents, who must progressively relinquish control and security, is to allow these events to occur naturally, continuing to balance their desire to influence and guide while not inhibiting needed growth experiences.
Contemporary developmental theorists, notably David Kegan and Marcia Baxter Magolda, provide what might be considered a pragmatic perspective. They describe “Self-Authorship” as the ability to take charge of one’s own decisions, shifting from a developmental stage where we uncritically accept external authority to one where we consider information from multiple sources but ultimately make our own decision, achieving that they term “internal authority”. They argue (I think convincingly) that this is essential not only to personal well being, but to effective and responsible citizenship.
How does this happen? In simple terms (that even a non-psychologist would understand), self-authorship develops by engaging the world. This brings us to the second key component required for effective career decision making – learning. Baxter Magnola and others remind us that not all worldly experiences provide valuable learning experiences that will promote effective personal development. She describes three key foundations of effective learning. Cognitive maturity involves intellectual rigour, judgment and problem solving ability (what the medical world might term critical thinking). Integrated Identity refers to understanding of one’s own history, autonomy, connections and “place in the world”. Finally, the Interpersonal component involves the development of mature relationships, respect for self and others, expressed through effective collaboration. The point is made that the latter can only be achieved by engaging diversity during the critical developmental years.
These three foundations are essential to the development of independent and effective decision making. They also provide a very effective blueprint for the design of effective educational systems. From kindergarten to university, our teaching and learning should promote cognitive maturity, individual autonomy and engagement of mature, diverse and collaborative relationships with peers and the broader world.
The case of David (fictitious name) is provided because it is representative of many students caught up in the modern world of pragmatic, goal-oriented and often competitive career engagement, and raises a number of rather unsettling questions:
- Does the process that students must undertake to achieve success delay or inhibit the growth experiences necessary to achieve individual maturation?
- By vigorously supporting a child’s early ambitions, are parents and others inhibiting that child’s development and self-realization?
- Are our educational systems moving in the wrong direction, catering to targeted career development and placement rather than the development of personal attributes necessary to life success and effective citizenship?
In short, we must recognize that all these factors may result in students who come to full self-realization late in the game, after they’ve already engaged careers in which they (and those close to them) have invested considerable energy and resources. Change, or adaptation to new challenges, becomes very difficult, and they may feel trapped. But the failure to fully consider their true interests or the struggle to sublimate their interests in favour of what they feel is expected of them may have disastrous long-term consequences, and may, at least in part, underlie the recently publicized concerns regarding the physical and psychological health of medical students.
As medical educators and mentors of these vulnerable young people, at various and individual points along their developmental journey, it’s critical that we’re fully aware of their environment, pressures and needs. These considerations should both inform our admission processes and provide perspective to those counseling troubled students.
Admission processes should seek to identify students who’ve achieved the developmental characteristics that allow for a fully informed career decision.
When students like David struggle, we should suspect that their personal circumstances or the process they’ve undertaken to get accepted may have prevented them from achieving some critical developmental milestones. Identifying that deficiency, helping them complete their development, and exploring what aspects of medical practice might best suit their true strengths may well be the keys to both their success as a physician and personal wellness.
David is modeled on a former student. To allay your fears, he’s doing fine, now content and making effective contributions in a medical specialty where acute patient contact is minimal. That resolution only came about after a considerable period of reflection and engagement of very uncomfortable issues in his life.
As Dr. Rotenstein’s study points out, there are other Davids out there who need and deserve our understanding and support.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education
Baxter Magolda MB. Evolution of a Constructivist Conceptualization of Epistemological Reflection. Educational Psychologist 2004; 39: 31
Baxter Magolda MB. Three Elements of Self-Authorship. J of College Student Development 2008; 49: 269.
Earl JK, Bright JEH. Undergraduate Level, Age, Volume and Patternof Work as Predictors of Career Decision Status. Aust Journal of Psychology 2003; 55: 83.
Hodge DC, Baxter Magolda MB, Haynes CA. Engaged Learning: Enabling Self-Authorship and Effective Practice. Liberal Education 2009; 95(4).
Kegan R. In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life. Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA. 1994.
Super DE, Developmental Concept. https://www.careers.govt.nz/assets/pages/docs/career-theory-model-super.pdf
Many thanks to Sarah Wickett, Health Informatics Librarian, Bracken Library, for her valuable assistance in the compilation of information for this article.