Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Finding Your Motivation

Luke Burns

I’ve always been jealous of the person hit by that lightning bolt moment, the one who can pinpoint the exact millisecond they realized they had no choice but to take the cold, deep plunge into medicine.

Maybe it was the 37th thoracic compression performed on an unconscious stranger, the one that brought them sputtering back from the brink. Maybe it was the poignant smile beaming from an impoverished child, one of untold hundreds rescued during that summer spent in a far-flung developing nation. Whatever it was, you know it’ll sound incredible in the opening paragraph of their AMCAS personal statement.

The truth is, these sudden realizations and bolts from the blue, are pretty rare. We tend to worry that our reasons for attending medical school are too diffuse, too jagged and hard to define, to succinctly put into words. We yearn for a clean-cut memory, an idealized anecdote. Of course we all want to help people—you get that one for free. But pinpointing the actual moment when the thought first struck you, when you first imagined a stethoscope around your neck and letters after your name, is a little trickier. What we tend to forget, however, is that this is totally okay.

Like most pre-meds I know (and pre-vets and pre-engineers and pre-yoga-instructors), deciding on this challenging career path has been less of a light bulb moment and more the slow, progressive illumination from a dimmer switch. As a child I remember running to the aid of every injured classmate on the blacktop, ready to offer helpful 3rd grader medical advice on skinned knees and provide my bemused patients stern escort to the nurse’s office. When asked what I wanted to be when I was older, I flirted with the answer of “a doctor” as much as I did with “an astronaut” and “a bear”.

But of course, other ideas presented themselves, obstacles (i.e., organic chemistry) got in the way. The dream sat silently beneath the surface, and it wasn’t until after my first year of university, as I bobbed gloomily along a swimming pool wondering why I felt so unenthusiastic about my future, that I suddenly realized what was missing from my life. No crisis or opportunity yielded the decision. I simply knew that nothing I could do would ever be as satisfying or significant or practical as learning how to heal others. It would take further clinical and volunteer experiences for me to pinpoint my exact motivations for medicine, but the Swimming Pool Revelation was my turning point, if not exactly a life-altering experience worthy of inclusion in my personal statement.

I completed my degree, and while all my friends spent their summers interning for banks and law firms, I volunteered at homeless shelters and suicide hotlines. I shadowed physicians and volunteered on hospital wards, slowly exposing myself to medicine and accumulating the snowball of enthusiasm that would barrel me toward my future. I held a gall bladder, still warm from its excision. I comforted children facing booster shots and others facing death. I washed sputum from my hands and wiped butts and got bossed around by nurses. I learned how kidneys work and what noradrenaline does, and I learned how plants reproduce and what the Doppler Effect is. I learned and I revised and I studied and I laughed and I got mad and upset and excited, but every day I grew hungrier for my chance to finally, actually, eventually start practicing medicine.

Pre-meds will hear this over and over again, but learning why you want to go to medical school is the most important part of getting in. This shouldn’t be an easy question to answer. It should be analyzed and discussed, critiqued and mulled over. Talk to your friends about their motivations, but don’t compare their answers with yours (and certainly don’t steal them). Expose yourself as frequently as you can to the death and boredom and secretions that accompany the excitement and prestige and heroism of medicine. Keep a journal of your experiences, of the things you see and feel while volunteering. Practice expressing your motivations at cocktail parties and to inquisitive relatives. Not only will your answers come more readily when you need them during interviews, but you will begin to better understand what that quiet voice compelling you towards medicine is actually saying.

At the moment I inhabit a strange limbo between life as a pre-med and my first year of medical school. I am excited to finally (finally!) begin, but I can’t help shake the feeling that the date of my death sentence is fast approaching. Much of the next few years will be spent with my head in a textbook. Trying to keep up with the academic content of medical school is, as the old saying goes, like trying to sip from a fire hose. I’ve spent the last few months hurriedly ticking things off my bucket list: teaching myself how to build furniture, traveling to Central America, learning German. When matriculation rolls round my hobbies, dreams and interests will probably go the same way as my diet and personal hygiene.

But it’s hard not to be excited. It’s been 18 years since I served as self-elected first-responder in my elementary school playground; 9 since I flunked chemistry and decided I wasn’t smart enough for medicine; 5 since I emerged from a swimming pool with a completely rewritten future. For those of you working on your personal statements and secondaries this summer, I urge you not worry if your decision to pursue medicine came more as a slow, rumbling tropical storm than a lighting bolt from the blue. Dig deep, explore your motivations, and tell the truth. Find your Swimming Pool Revelation. You might be surprised by what you learn.

About Luke Burns

LukeBorn in Hong Kong to a British mother and German father, Luke spent most of his childhood following his family around the world. Luke studied Politics & Sociology at University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, graduating in 2008.

He returned to the United States in 2011 and enrolled in the Mills College Pre-medical Post-baccalaureate Program in Oakland, California. Luke loves to work with kids, and has been an active volunteer at both the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the George Mark Children’s House, the first pediatric palliative care center in the US. He is also co-founder of Camp Kitchen & Harvest, a non-profit organization that teaches children in urban communities how to plant, grow and cook their own food.

Today, Luke is an M.D. candidate at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. He hopes to continue working with children and to one day serve them and their families as a pediatrician.

10 thoughts on “Finding Your Motivation

  1. As someone who is a future applicant and has been struggling to find that “defining” moment, this post was amazingly helpful. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts – this post is by far one of my favorites from this blog. Best of luck with your first year!

  2. so you graduated from college and didn’t know what you wanted to be still? I’m in that situation now….I realized I wanted to be a doctor towards the end of my senior year. I feel like I’ve wasted my time and people put the guilt trip on me “you’re going to be a professional student” and “you’re a loose cannon…if this is really what you wanted to do, you’d have known earlier”. With that, I find it hard to talk to people about my dream without being judged. I’ve been silently getting a “head start” on studying for the MCAT, and would like to enroll in post bacc next fall (I JUST graduated and thought it’d be nice to take a year off to volunteer, work and reflect). Any advice?

    1. Stephanie,
      There are many people just like you who decide to pursue medicine a career changer or after a gap year (or two) after finishing college.Take a look at some of the Aspiring Doc’s fact sheets( such as what to do during a gap year (, what it’s like to do a post bacc program ( as well as our post bacc database of programs: If this is something you want to do, don’t let anyone deter you. Get voluneer experience, shaddowing experience and talk to a pre-health advisor to craft a plan specifically for you.

    2. Hi Stephanie,

      I think what premedoutreach wrote below is excellent. A few more tips from me.

      First of all, your idea to take a year out is fantastic. I know a lot of people who rushed into this decision, and taking time to reflect and test yourself really is fantastic. But be critical! Don’t ignore any red flags you might feel. If you can stomach all the external guilt tripping and still genuinely want to pursue this, you’re ready for med school and whatever anybody else says is irrelevant. Will the doubters be there to back you up when you are 10 years into a career you regret? If you truly want to do this (and make sure you are being honest with yourself here) it shouldn’t matter what others say.

      My advice is to gather as much information as you can (what pre-reqs you’ll need, where you can take your post-bacc program, if you want to do a formal/informal post-bacc, how you will afford it, etc.) and create a schedule of your application. Note when you are going to begin your post-bacc, how long it will take, when you will take your MCAT and when you will likely begin med school. It helped me to create a document on my computer that not only included all the necessary information about medical school, the MCAT and my schedule, but also various inspiring quotes and supportive messages from friends I could turn to when I needed motivation.

      Be realistic with your goals, Stephanie, but don’t let others dictate them! Best of luck.

    3. have you taken any prerqus>? i am a non traditional student and will graduate in a year. I am planning to take off a year as well before starting a post bacc. It gives you important life experience and also makes your application stronger and shows you if you really want to do medicine. 🙂

  3. Thank You so much for this incredible message. I have struggled with this same problem; I have and still ask myself many times why I want to be a doctor. I wish my answer could come so directly like some of my friends but it just doesn’t. Every reasons I came up with seemed either too cheesy or I felt some of those reasons don’t count. The only thing I hold on to is that i always want to help whose who are sick, unhappy or in pain. When ever I see a sick child I try to imagine what he/she would look like when better and try to figure out what could be done to lessen the difference between their present state and how they will be when they get better.
    I will keep thinking about this. What I know for sure is that the only thing that I would rather spend my lifetime doing is helping people feel better.
    Thanks for making it clear that your reason to be a doctor doesn’t have to come from an “ah ah moment” and that having a gradual reasoning is okay.

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