Rachel* is a 25 year old pre-med student at Southern Methodist University who wanted a drastic career change and decided to go back to school after a brief stint as an actress. After completing her bachelor’s degree, she plans on going to medical school to fulfill her dream of becoming a reconstructive plastic surgeon.
However, this wasn’t always Rachel’s career trajectory. And it has been a long and sometimes daunting journey for her to go back to school and get to this point.
Living in Southern California in fairly close proximity to Hollywood, some would say it was only natural for Rachel to think about a career as an actress. Which she did. She became enthralled with the performing arts during her junior year in high school and wanted to pursue an acting career. After graduating from high school, she studied drama at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. However, after a few years of working in entertainment, and after a series of both personal and professional events, she realized that her passion lay elsewhere: helping people through medicine.
At age of 21, Rachel decided to go back to school to get her bachelor’s degree in order to go on to medical school to get her M.D. in medicine. Initially, this was a daunting task as it meant at least seven more years of school. She also had to take preliminary courses at community college in order to transfer to a four year university, which often took longer than expected due to waiting lists for full classes.
The biggest challenge, however, came from self-doubt. Changing one’s focus from acting to medicine is a drastic career change, and there were times when Rachel wasn’t sure if she could do it, or worried that her family and friends would not take her change of plans and decision to go back to school seriously. However, she knew deep down that this is what she wanted to do, and she persevered until she was accepted in the biology department at SMU and her goals started to look more and more realistic.
In the United States, students usually go to four year universities right out of high school, or at least they rarely change their career goals so dramatically. For people who do decide to go back to school after a few years after graduating high school, or those who are looking to make a career change, the prospect can often feel intimidating and challenging. There is the self-esteem factor: you sees your peers further along in their studies or careers, which can make you feel unaccomplished by contrast. Also, when you do decide to go back to school after several years of being out in “the real world,” most of your fellow students will be a couple years younger than you are, which can make socializing difficult. In addition, most returning and/or older students are counted as transfer students by four year universities, and the transfer process can be confusing and have extra requirements, depending on the school a student is transferring to.
For a young adult who already has lived and worked, all these factors can discourage one from going back to school and making that career change. However, Rachel has shown that if you have a goal, sometimes you have to confront your fears and doubts and get out of your comfort zone in order to create the kind of life you dream of having, rather than stay with the kind of life you’re just okay with having. If you have a dream, go for it, no matter how difficult it can seem now. If you take the first step today, in a few years’ time, you will be stepping up to accept your diploma!
MMGO: What made you want to change careers and become a doctor? Was is gradual or was there a turning point?
RACHEL: I actually always had an interest in medicine from a very early age. When I was in elementary school I was certain that I wanted to be a doctor and I wanted to heal people. However, once I reached my adolescence I was intrigued by the idea of the performing arts, something that I was strongly discouraged from pursuing as a career by my family. I was always enthralled by plays, musicals, dance and singing as a child, but it was not until my junior year of high school I thought it was something that I could study in college and, perhaps, pursue as a career. I became intimidated at the idea of taking my pre-med courses and to my 18-year-old mind the thought of spending so many years as a student and resident was so daunting that I just couldn’t see it being an achievable goal. I made the choice to study at AADA, and obtain my degree in theater, but shortly after my graduation I realized that I was not satisfied with what I was doing with my life. I wasn’t self-actualized and because of this I was jumping from job to job in the real estate industry trying to find my niche. At that point in my life I did not see it how going back to school for such a dramatic career change was possible. So I would say it was a gradual process that led me to the medical field, but it was this series of circumstances and situations that ultimately made me take the leap of faith to change career paths and go back to school at 21.
RACHEL: The hardest part of changing careers and going back to school was not seeming like a joke to my family and friends. People were very skeptical about this change and thought I was being grandiose in my pursuits, but deep down in my heart I knew that this was what I needed to do… what I was called to do. The second hardest part of this career change was not being prideful. It is very hard to realize that you made a mistake, or a choice that you regret, and in my case it was not going to a four year university right off the bat, but I knew that looking at my choice as a mistake was doing me more of a disservice than a benefit. I look at my choice of going to a performing arts school as a learning experience. I know that if I would have immediately pursued medicine right after high school, I would have always wondered about my choice. I would have always wondered what would have happened if I would have tried acting. I am – and was – more mature to take on this incredible challenge, and I know now without any doubt that I was born to be a doctor and not an actress.
On a good day I have no doubt in my mind that I will make it into medical school and become a doctor. On a bad day, for example, a day where I have an extremely difficult chemistry test or have to study for hours on upon hours to prepare for a biology exam, I question if I can really do it. On days like these I have to sit down and take a deep breathe and pray! Going back to school was not easy, but I have found that my personal relationship with God has helped me center myself and really work through the hard times as they come.
MMGO: What was the most difficult part about going back to school and pursuing your goal of a career in medicine? How did you get through it?
RACHEL: The hardest part about my new career change goal has been the competitiveness and difficulty level of the classes. I have honestly never studied so hard in my entire life! I spend all of my time studying and I try to only surround myself with like-minded people who are in the same situation as I am, so that I have others to understand my pressures and demands. The other difficult thing I have had to do is to humble myself because I am not able to work and I have to fully rely on my family to financially support me. It is very hard to not be able to financially support myself, and although I am very grateful for my supportive family, it can be hard at times to realize that this is only temporary and that in the long run I will be able to support myself and be financially successful.
MMGO: When you decided you wanted to go back to school to study be a doctor, did you come up with a game plan? Can you explain the process that you took?
RACHEL: I knew this was a very big career change, and I had to learn everything that there was to learn about what it takes to get into medical school. I chose to start taking classes immediately at a community college to get some pre-requisites out of the way so I could transfer to a four year university. I decided to take as many of the classes that I could at the community college level because I would have more transferable units to take with me and would not have to spend as much time at the four year college. When the time came to transfer I realized that I wanted to go to a private school because I discovered that they actually have a lot more financial aid funding available to their students, due to all of the donors and benefactors they have. I initially wanted to stay in southern California because it is my hometown and I was comfortable there, but I was going through some personal changes in my life. I thought that an out-of-state school might allow me to fully focus all of my attention on my education, without the distraction of my personal life. There wasn’t really any special process that I had to learn about what I needed to do to apply. I just went to the website of each university and followed their instructions.
MMGO: What would you say were the biggest setbacks in going back to school and how did you get past them?
RACHEL: The major set backs that I had were when I could not get into the classes that I needed at the community college level. It was very difficult to get into the science courses that I needed in the community college system in California because of the budget cuts that were made. I had to really be on my A-game when it came to registering immediately as my registration time arrived, and I also had to be very cutthroat about trying to add classes after the semester started.