It was midway through the semester, and as medical students, we were well aware of the allure of a free meal. This event’s offerings were a step up from the usual lecture series fare of subs or pizza, and as the sun retreated beyond the skyline, we filled our plates then filed into the classrooms of our choice. We barely had time to find an open desk on which to place our dinner before the PowerPoint slides started whizzing by on the projector up front.
It was the night of the student research fair, when physicians from various specialties present the opportunities available in their respective departments. I had chosen to attend the session put on by the Department of Medicine, interested to learn more about anything that might intersect with my interests in cardiology, nephrology, and women’s health.
Midway through the presentation, the cardiologist running the session asked, “How many of you think you want to go into internal medicine?” Unsurprisingly, a good deal of our hands shot up.
“How many of you want to practice a subspecialty of internal medicine?” My hand remained up, as did about 2/3 of those that were raised for the original question. I was pretty confident in my response – I’m typically someone who enjoys delving deep into the details of whatever I’m doing and being very proficient in a few areas of interest.
“Wrong answer” said the cardiologist, and I sheepishly lowered my hand. “You guys should be like totipotent stem cells. Be open to becoming anything. There’s no way you can know what you want to go into right now.”
This shook me. Like many of us in medicine, I’m a planner. I take pride in having long-term goals and being able to accomplish them incrementally. I had known that I wanted to become a physician since I was very young, and though the process of med school admission was arduous and drawn out, I always knew that medicine was the right field for me. But now, after starting med school, I was confronted with a question I had honestly never faced before – what did I want to do with my life?
The differences in scope of practice between all of the different specialties are so immense. Though, as I start my second year, I currently see myself as an internal medicine person, what if I get to MS3 and fall in love with surgery? What if I meet a mentor who convinces me that I would thrive as an otolaryngologist? God forbid, what if I love neurosurgery?
The beautiful, wonderful, and terrifying part of being a young medical student is that I don’t even know what I don’t know. My true professional calling may be something I have not even been exposed to yet.
I went into that research fair intending to find a project that would set me on a trajectory. A trajectory to excel in my medicine clerkship, obtain an outstanding residency placement, and solidify which fellowship I was best suited to pursue. I wanted a comfortable four-year plan. Something to minimize my true nemesis – uncertainty.
The expectation of planning my life that far in advance was entirely shattered that night. Though I am still very confident in my interests on a broad scale, I now realize there are almost too many ways in which I can pursue them.
I have a lot of questions now, but not many answers. By creating opportunities for myself and speaking with mentors whose opinions I value, I can only hope that I will end up where I need to be. It’s unsettling to not know what the future has in store, but for the first time in my life, I’m content with being undifferentiated.
About Jessica Prescott
Jessica Prescott is a second year medical student at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. Prior to beginning medical school, she graduated magna cum laude from Duke University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry. While at Duke, she performed nephrology research and coached a Girls on the Run team in Durham. She grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona and enjoys being back on the sunny West Coast. When not studying or learning in the hospital, she can be found running loops around the Rose Bowl stadium and discovering which beaches in LA have the least expensive parking. At the moment she hopes to pursue a subspecialty of internal medicine, but is open to being surprised by where her medical school journey takes her.